IT WAS A CURIOUS trick of destiny that the British electorate should vote to quit the European Union at the half-way point of football’s European Championship, which is, among other things, a festival of Europeanness.
Of course, what is at stake for the people of the United Kingdom and of Europe is far bigger than sport and, in time, this coincidence will not even be a footnote. But as I write on the Friday of the referendum result, two days after the last group stage games, it seems like a good time to look at some of the implications of a smaller EU and a bigger Euros.
On the announcement of the UK referendum result, the Premier League’s executive chairman Richard Scudamore, who had thrown the weight of the league behind the Remain campaign, spoke of the uncertainty for the prospects of the league’s 20 clubs created by the withdrawal of the EU. Much will depend on the exit terms the UK negotiates, so it may be up to two years before many things become clear.
Other first reactions, however, were that Brexit would be bad news for British sports leagues, including the Premier League, with West Ham vice chairman Karren Brady reportedly saying it would have “devastating consequences” for the top English league.
To begin with, a collapse in the pound against the Euro – should the initial market reaction become consolidated – would substantially push up the costs for English clubs when buying players from EU member states.
The key longer-term question will be what limitations will be imposed on the free movement of workers between the UK and the EU. Many of the 100 non-British EU national footballers currently in the Premier League would not meet the stringent qualification conditions for work permits that currently apply to non-EU foreign nationals.
Under such rules, Manchester United players Morgan Schneiderlin and Anthony Martial, and N’Golo Kanté, the midfield lynchpin of champions Leicester City, would not be eligible for work permits, as they have not played in more than 45 per cent of France international matches since June 2014. However, immigration law experts seem to be certain that anyone who came in under existing rules would not be required to leave.
Those European leagues that were worried about the Premier League becoming ‘the NBA of football’ and hoovering up all the world’s best playing talent might be enjoying a quiet chuckle this morning. But there is a downside for their clubs too, if one of the most lucrative markets to sell their players into suddenly shrinks.
In the last transfer window, Bundesliga clubs earned nearly €220m by selling players to Premier League clubs. It’s always a moot point as to whether it makes more sense for clubs to cash in on a hot market or build their own squads. Germany’s Kicker football magazine was among those arguing that it made sense to take the money and run. This might all become a little clearer next summer, ahead of the Bundesliga’s big new media-rights deals, up 85 per cent domestically to €1.16bn per season, with big increases in international rights fees expected too.
Bigger not always better
I think it is fair to say that Uefa and its former president Michel Platini were widely criticised for the 2008 decision to expand the Euros from 16 to 24 teams. It was seen by many commentators to be about politics and money, not football. Some predicted that it would turn qualification into a tension-free procession and that the 24-team tournament would be full of dull games.
Uefa argued at the time that of the 32 top-ranked teams in the world, 20 were from Europe, so expanded did not mean diluted. The governing body will be able to point to the fact that the new qualification process was a commercial success, on the back of the creation of the Week of Football. It earned over €1bn for the current four-year European qualification cycle for the Euros and the World Cup, compared the €680m the federations brought in in the previous four year cycle. It brought in another $1.1bn for the tournament proper, up 30 per cent on 2012. That is all money that goes back into football.
Judging the quality of a football tournament is inevitably subjective and the lowest average goals per game since 1992 has already been cited as evidence that the new format produces more caution and less attacking play. However, I would suspect that fans from Iceland, Northern Ireland, Albania and Wales will not be clamouring for a return to the smaller format. And ask anyone from the Netherlands whether the qualification process was easy.
‘This is the future’
Basketball’s Euroleague has taken the exact opposite path to Uefa – reducing its flagship tournament from 24 teams to 16, and has given 11 of those semi-permanent places. In last month’s edition of SportBusiness International, I spoke to Patrick Baumann, the president of the International Basketball Federation (Fiba) about the governing body’s increasingly bitter dispute with the Euroleague. Baumann raised concerns about the potential impact on the wider basketball system of a semi-closed elite league operating in Europe.
In this issue, the Euroleague’s chief executive, Jordi Bertomeu, responds to some of those criticisms, and explains why he believes that the new, slimmed-down, privately-funded Euroleague represents the future. Ioris Francini, the president of IMG Media, the Euroleague’s rights partner, sets out the strategy for how the joint venture will overhaul its media rights and sponsorship strategies to secure a big uplift in revenues.