Brexit And Sport: It’s Complicated

How Brexit might impact UK sports is still an unknown


After months of fierce political conflict, stark division among the electorate, and exaggerations on both sides of the argument, Britain has voted in favor of leaving the European Union. Contrary to expectations, 51.9% of the country voted for Leave, and the nation is currently reeling from the resultant economic instability following a instant plummet in the pound and a stripping of the FTSE 100 following years of recession recovery.

Once article 50 is invoked, Britain will have two-years in which to renegotiate the terms of a treaty in place of EU membership. For all the Leave campaign’s bombast, though, it seems any new deal will negatively affect almost every British industry. Among the industries potentially affected - and there are few that aren’t - is sports. The international nature of the workforce brings to the fore questions of free movement, work permits and transfer fees. Every individual sport will be affected differently, but soccer is likely to feel reverberations all over the world given the sheer volume of foreign talent working in the Premier League and the English Football League.

Speculation surrounding the potential effects of Brexit on soccer rages on; some argue it’ll heavily affect the flow of players in and out of Europe’s top leagues, whilst others expect the impact to be minimal. The outcome for soccer essentially hangs on whether or not the UK continue to subscribe to the EU’s freedom of movement principle which, given the rhetoric leading up to and following the referendum, seems unlikely. What this means, then, is much tighter laws regarding which players clubs can and cannot sign; if the current laws regarding non-EU players had been applied to EU players - and it stands to reason that they will be following withdrawal - there are some notable examples of players who would’ve been denied work permits.

Essentially, players from outside the EU have to have played in a certain percentage of their country’s international matches for the 12 months previous to signing. Under these rules, Leicester City and West Ham United would’ve been unable to sign the likes of N’Golo Kante and Dimitri Payet respectively, both of whom were hugely influential in the Premier League last season despite previously limited international careers. The former helped guide the Foxes to their initially unfathomable title triumph, and perhaps Brexit’s biggest prospective impact on soccer is the loss of future surprise packages like Kante. Clubs will also be restricted in signing European players under the age of 18; Cesc Fabregas’ incredibly successful move to Arsenal in 2003, for example, would potentially not have gone ahead under the likely laws.

Established internationals will have no problem receiving permits; it’s not superstars the UK will miss out on, it’s potential. Indeed, other European leagues have stricter rules than the UK regarding non-EU players in their squads - in Spain, just three are allowed. This means the likes of Gareth Bale at Real Madrid would be filling a fourth non-EU slot - admittedly, though, there are very few British players plying their trade outside of the country, so this is unlikely to affect European football too greatly.

For potential foreign investors, British sports clubs have never been a more appealing prospect. The sharp drop in value of the pound makes British soccer clubs far cheaper an investment, for example. Similarly, existing foreign owners will see the ‘value of their assets shrink until the pound recovers its pre-vote value,’ according to Forbes, and the buying of players in any currency other than the pound will also come at a greater cost to owners.

Rugby will be less affected; given the overwhelming majority of British players in the sport’s top divisions, the freedom of movement issue will be largely void. The likes of boxing, cycling and racing are likely to see layers of bureaucracy thrust upon them that were previously negated. For example, depending on how the Home Office legislate rules regarding boxing, the many European fighters that box in the UK - on professional cards but often in small hall fight venues - will need to be allocated visas.

As Britain makes stuttering preparations for its withdrawal from the European Union, uncertainty is overwhelming. Uncertainty in the markets, uncertainty politically, even social uncertainty as the country reports a spike in racially motivated criminal incidents. Sports is just another industry facing worrisome uncertainty; the Premier League is unlikely to be too tightly shackled by the loss of freedom of movement laws. But, when we consider that Cristiano Ronaldo probably would have been denied his move to Manchester United in 2003 under the probable system, the future of the British leagues just seems filled with a little less potential. 

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