President Klaus and Newcastle United
Posted by John Beech on November 3, 2009
Not perhaps a natural pairing – the President of the Czech Republic and a major English football club – but those who read the front pages of the papers as avidly as the back pages may just see where I am going with this. If not, please stick with me.
As I write, the only impediment to the implementation of the EU’s Treaty of Lisbon is the signature of the Czech President, the Czech Republic being the last of the 27 nations of the EU to ratify the Treaty. Early this morning it was announced that the Czech constitutional court ruled that signing the Treaty did not violate Czech law (1), so we can expect the Treaty and all its implications to be hitting us fairly shortly.
There are major implications for sport within the Treaty. In 2007 the European Commission published The White Paper on Sport (2). Section 4.1 (3) introduce the concept of the ‘specificity of sport’ – the characteristics of sport which, as business, make it different from conventional business. Some specific areas are identified – Free movement and nationality (4), transfers (5), Players agents [a research project has already been commissioned by the EC] (6), Protection of minors (7), Corruption, money laundering and other forms of financial crime (8), Licensing systems for clubs (9), and Media (10). Coming up shortly then in EU countries near you will be the implementation of, amongst many others, the following proposals:
- The Commission will promote dialogue with sport organisations in order to address the implementation and strengthening of self-regulatory licensing systems.
- Starting with football, the Commission intends to organise a conference with UEFA, EPFL, Fifpro, national associations and national leagues on licensing systems and best practices in this field.
- The Commission intends to organise the structured dialogue in the following manner:
- EU Sport Forum: an annual gathering of all sport stakeholders;
- Thematic discussions with limited numbers of participants.
- The Commission encourages and welcomes all efforts leading to the establishment of European Social Dialogue Committees in the sport sector. It will continue to give support to both employers and employees and it will pursue its open dialogue with all sport organisations on this issue.
Eurosceptics will see this as yet more waffle then interference; europhiles will recognise that there are major implications for the governance and even ownership of sports clubs, hopefully a number of them being positive.
Which brings us back to Newcastle United, and the fact that a question is to be raised in the House (11) by Tyne Bridge MP DavidClelland. He has tabled a Commons motion calling for Newcastle United owner Mike Ashley to reconsider selling the naming rights to St James’ Park.
If football were an ordinary business, it would be absurd for such an issue to be raised in the House of Commons. Why shouldn’t the owner of a business run in it any legal way he chooses? But this issue is at the heart of the ‘specificty’ of sport.
On the one hand we have the fans, committed to club, opposing the sale of what they see as their sporting heritage. On the other, we have Mike Ashley, the owner committed to company, one which he bought for £134m in 2007 and which he now apparently can’t sell for £80m. The extent to which Mike Ashley has or has not himself to blame for his predicament is a side issue. The real issue is whether single benefactor ownership is the appropriate model for sports businesses.
How the specificity debate unfolds, and the extent to which ownership will come into the debate on governance, only time will tell. But let’s be clear, debate there will be, and it will be at a European level whether we individually like it or not. We are about to be living in exciting times, as if the problem of Debt Mountain wasn’t causing enough excitement and debate already.