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Brexit and implications for UK Merger Control – Part 3/3: Managing and prioritising the CMA’s mergers workload

The Competition Bulletin is pleased to welcome the third in a three-part series of blogs on Brexit and merger control by Ben Forbes and Mat Hughes of AlixPartners.  Ben and Mat are (with others) co-authors of the new Sweet & Maxwell book, “UK Merger Control: Law and Practice”.

Part one focused on the issues associated with the voluntary nature of UK merger control (and can be found here), and part two considered options for change that in our view should not be adopted (and can be found here).

Introduction

Prioritising the CMA’s work load is clearly important due to Brexit.  This is because the European Commission will cease to have exclusive jurisdiction over large UK mergers that currently fall for consideration under the EU Merger Regulation. In March 2017, the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) indicated that this could lead to increase in its mergers caseload by 40-50% since 1 April 2014, potentially amounting to an additional 30-50 phase 1 cases and six phase 2 cases per year.

This final blog in our series considers how the CMA could prioritise and manage its mergers workload, with particular focus on the CMA’s consultation of 23 January proposing amendments to its guidance on the application of the exception to its duty to refer a merger in markets of insufficient importance (i.e. the de minimis exception).[1]

The CMA is proposing increasing the upper threshold for markets considered to be sufficiently important to justify a merger reference from £10 million to £15 million, and would raise the lower threshold for markets not considered to be sufficiently important from below £3 million to below £5 million.  Where the size of the market falls between these two thresholds, the CMA would continue to evaluate, on a case-by-case basis, the potential harm caused by the merger against the cost of an investigation.

The importance of the de minimis exception in UK merger control

The de minimis exception is designed to save the CMA[2], and therefore the public purse, money by not referring insignificant mergers to phase 2. These costs are material as the National Audit Office’s 2016 report on the UK Competition Regime estimated that the average cost of a phase 2 investigation to the CMA is £275,000.[3] Moreover, this figure does not include any costs to the merging parties (or third parties), and for a large complex phase 2 investigation, these costs are high and often substantially more than the CMA’s costs.

The de minimis exception has become an important part of UK merger control.  It is particularly important since it only applies where, in principle, clear-cut undertakings in lieu of reference could not be offered, and the parties would thus otherwise face the costs and risks of a phase 2 investigation. In particular, over the last seven years, 28 mergers have been cleared on de minimis grounds, and absent this exception the number of merger references would have increased by 46 per cent (28/61). (Over this period, a further 40 mergers were cleared conditionally at phase 1 on the basis of undertakings in lieu of reference).

As many cases affect markets worth under £10 million per annum, any assessment of merger control risks needs to consider even overlaps in relation to even small parts of the merging parties’ businesses.

The Office of Fair Trading’s (OFT) guidance on exceptions to its duty to make merger references, which has been adopted by the CMA, also indicates that, for now, it draws a distinction between markets with an annual value of below £3 million and those with values of between £3m and £10m.[4] In particular, their guidance notes that it would “expect to refer a merger where the value of the market(s) concerned was less than £3 million only exceptionally, and where the direct impact of the merger in terms of customer harm was particularly significant”. For mergers between £3m and £10m, the OFT/CMA will weigh up the size of the market and the likely harm to customers, as well as considering the wider implications of the decision.

Our analysis of 400+ UK merger decisions since 1 April 2010 also included many cases where the OFT/CMA considered applying the de minimis exception. As set out in the chart below, there were 45 cases between 1 April 2010 and 31 March 2017 where the OFT/CMA considered applying the de minimis exception and how the decision reached varies according to the size of the relevant markets affected.[5]

AP1

Consistent with the OFT’s guidance, there were very few cases where the relevant market was valued at under £3 million per annum where the CMA/OFT nevertheless decided to refer the merger for a phase 2 investigation. An analysis of all the various cases is set out in the next chart, and the two exceptions relate to mergers between local bus operators, where the OFT and CMA respectively decided that these mergers warranted phase 2 investigation.  This reflected a recommendation from the Competition Commission for a cautious approach following its market investigation into local bus services.

Where the relevant market size is greater than £3 million per annum, a merger reference is more likely. This is set out in detail in the following chart, which covers all 45 merger decisions that considered the de minimis exception from 1 April 2010 through to 31 March 2017.  This chart also covers the phase 2 outcomes of those cases where the OFT/CMA decided not to apply the de minimis exception and referred the merger.

AP2

Note: The OFT/CMA decisions often only included a range for the relevant market size. Therefore, the bars represent the expected market size (i.e. the middle of the range) where applicable. The top of the range is represented by the black triangular dotes.

This review highlights the rather sharp distinction in outcomes between mergers that affect markets with an annual aggregate value of around £3 million per annum and those valued between £3 million and £10 million.

Looking more closely at the 17 cases that were referred at Phase 1 despite the small sizes of the markets affected, seven of these mergers were abandoned. This is entirely unsurprising given the high costs to the parties of phase 2 investigations, which will often exceed merger synergies in small markets.  For non-abandoned mergers, three cases were cleared unconditionally, six were cleared with remedies, and only one prohibited. Accordingly, it seems reasonable to speculate that some of the seven abandoned mergers would have been cleared either unconditionally or with remedies.

The CMA’s proposed changes in market size thresholds

At first sight, the proposed changes in the thresholds at which the de minimis exception will apply suggests that it may be applied substantially more often.

However, some words of caution are warranted.  First, as a matter of policy, the CMA will not apply the de minimis exception if, in principle at least, clear cut undertakings in lieu of reference could be offered.

Second, considering the CMA’s proposed £5 million threshold for mergers where the de minimis exception will generally apply, since 1 April 2010 only another two referred mergers would fall into this category.

Third, turning to those mergers with turnover between £5 million and the proposed £15 million threshold, the de minimis exception may be considered in many more cases. However, historically the OFT/CMA has referred many of the mergers below the £10 million upper bound, and it remains to be seen whether this will be the case in relation to the higher £15 million threshold.

Conclusions

As discussed in part one and part two of this blog series, productively improving the UK merger control regime is not simple. The CMA has had to address the changes associated with becoming a single authority covering phase 1 and phase 2 decisions, and having a full prenotification regime and statutory phase 1 deadlines.

In our view, the CMA’s proposed changes to the de minimis thresholds is sensible. However, it remains to be seen whether this will substantially reduce the CMA’s workload, and the burden of UK merger control on small mergers.

[1]   https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/585147/small-mergers-consultation.pdf

[2]   As of the 1 April 2014, the OFT transferred its merger related functions to the newly created CMA. CMA has been used throughout this document, but if any examples occur before this date, read as OFT.

[3] See paragraph 2.2: http://www.regulation.org.uk/library/2016_NAO_The-UK-Competition-regime.pdf

[4] OFT, “Mergers, Exceptions to the duty to refer and undertakings in lieu of reference guidance”, December 2010.

[5]    Note that this excludes certain mergers where the OFT/CMA briefly considered applying the de minimis but where the parties could offer clear-cut undertaking in lieu of reference to address the competition concerns identified. In these cases, the OFT/CMA did not consider the size of the relevant market (see for, example, Reed Elsevier / Jordon Publishing (2015)).

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Brexit and implications for UK Merger Control – Part 2/3: Implications for the CMA’s workload and what not to do

The Competition Bulletin is pleased to welcome the second in a three-part series of blogs on Brexit and merger control by Ben Forbes and Mat Hughes of AlixPartners.  Ben and Mat are (with others) co-authors of the new Sweet & Maxwell book, “UK Merger Control: Law and Practice”.

Part one focused on the voluntary nature of UK merger control and can be found here.

Introduction – the CMA’s mergers workload will increase

At present, UK mergers that meet certain turnover thresholds fall exclusively under the jurisdiction of EU Merger Regulation[1]. However, Brexit is likely to end this “one-stop” merger control regime for UK companies, leading to more mergers being caught by UK merger control.

To put this in context, the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) published 72 decisions concerning qualifying mergers in 2014/15, and 60 such decisions in 2015/16.  Even 20 or 30 more UK merger decisions would therefore represent a very substantial increase in the CMA’s workload, and large-scale European mergers may impact multiple UK markets.  The CMA’s workload will further increase as Brexit will also mean that the UK authorities acquire sole responsibility for enforcing all competition law in the UK.

This part of our blog series focuses specifically on two particularly poor, but often-discussed, options for reducing the CMA’s mergers workload (i.e. what not to do):

  • Removing the ‘share of supply’ test; and
  • Integrating the CMA’s Phase 1 and Phase 2 review teams.

The reason for this starting point is that the UK merger control regime has been subject to extensive fine-tuning in recent years, and it is important to ensure that future changes do not compromise the efficacy of the regime.

The third part of this blog series will focus on much more sensible options for adjusting UK merger control.

Should the CMA look at fewer mergers, and is the ‘share of supply’ test an appropriate jurisdictional threshold?

As set out in the first part of this blog, the CMA focuses more of its investigations on anti-competitive mergers than under the EU Merger Regulation. Nevertheless, another distinctive feature of UK merger control is that mergers may qualify for investigation where the merger creates (or enhances) a market share of 25% or more in the UK, or a “substantial part” of the UK (the so-called “share of supply” test). They may also qualify where the UK turnover of the target firm exceeds £70 million (the “turnover test”).

The share of supply test can be applied very narrowly at both:

  • The product level – This is because the share of supply test is based on the “description” of goods and services. These descriptions can be very narrow and do not need to correspond to economic markets; and
  • The geographic level Small parts of the UK (such as Slough), which the CMA considers to be a “substantial” part of the UK.

The share of supply test often creates uncertainty for the parties. Often they do not know the products and geographic area over which the CMA will apply the test. They may also not know their competitors’ sales, making market shares difficult to calculate.  It is therefore legitimate to question whether the share of supply is an appropriate jurisdictional threshold.

However, we believe there are two good reasons for retaining the share of supply test.  First, the share of supply test captures effectively mergers that may be problematic. From 1 April 2010 to 30 September 2016, 56% (53 cases) of the 95 Phase 1 merger cases that were either cleared subject to undertakings in lieu of reference or referred only qualified for investigation under the share of supply test.  Abandoning the share of supply test would therefore grant a “free pass” to these mergers – unless the turnover test is reduced.

The jurisdictional basis of Phase 1 merger cases either cleared subject to undertakings in lieu of reference or referred

ap

Source: AlixPartners analysis

Second, the share of supply test is a highly effective and focussed way of enabling the CMA to investigate mergers that may lead to a SLC.  In particular, UK merger control focuses on mergers that create or enhance high market shares, or that reduce the number of competitors from four to three (or fewer). Between 1 April 2010 and 31 March 2016, 94% of Phase 1 mergers where undertakings in lieu were accepted or the merger was referred, involved horizontal mergers between competitors where:

  • The merger created or enhanced high market shares of 40 per cent or more;
  • The merger reduced the number of competitors from four to three (or fewer), or where the merged undertaking’s market share exceeded 35% (calculated on various different bases).[2]

Should the CMA be fully integrated such that there is no distinction between the review teams at Phase 1 and Phase 2?

Creating the CMA as a single, integrated competition authority was intended to yield various synergies. In particular, the CMA has responsibility for both Phase 1 merger review (previously carried out by the Office of Fair Trading) and Phase 2 merger review (previously carried out by the Competition Commission).  However, a clear distinction between Phase 1 and Phase 2 has been retained.  In contrast to most other competition authorities, at Phase 2, a new case team is appointed, with largely separate staff to Phase 1 and the decision makers at Phase 1 are not involved at Phase 2.  The purpose of this structure was to retain the independence of the decision makers at Phase 2, with the CMA Panel making the final decisions at Phase 2.

The particular concern is that an integrated Phase 1 and 2 process would suffer from “confirmation bias”, namely a case team finding a competition problem at Phase 1 may be predisposed to follow suit at Phase 2.

The CMAs’ costs, and possibly those of the parties, could be reduced to some degree by dispensing with the separation of the Phase 2 and Phase 1.  However, as the government indicated when it created the CMA, the independence and impartiality of the Phase 2 regime is a particular strength of UK merger control.  Whilst the government consulted in May 2016 on the precise structure, identity and number of CMA panel members, there are strong arguments for retaining the independence and impartiality of the CMA panel.

Conclusions

Notwithstanding the inevitable increase in the CMA’s workload we would not recommend either:

  • Abandoning the share of supply test. This test is a strength of the UK regime as it focuses UK merger control on mergers that experience suggests are most likely to lead to competition concerns; or
  • Changing materially the independent and impartial nature of the CMA in relation to its investigation of Phase 1 and Phase 2 mergers.

Part three of this blog series considers, in our view, much more sensible adjustments to UK merger control to reduce the CMA’s workload without compromising its effectiveness.

[1]    There are provisions for mergers to be referred down to individual member states and up to the Commission from member states.

[2]    See further s.6-009 of “UK Merger Control: Law and Practice”, Parr, Finbow and Hughes, Third Edition, Sweet & Maxwell, November 2016.

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Brexit and implications for UK Merger Control – Part 1/3: Should UK merger control filings be mandatory?

The Competition Bulletin is pleased to welcome the first in a three-part series of blogs on Brexit and merger control by Ben Forbes and Mat Hughes of AlixPartners.  Ben and Mat are (with others) co-authors of the new Sweet & Maxwell book, “UK Merger Control: Law and Practice”. They can be contacted on bforbes@alixpartners.com and mhughes@alixpartners.com.

Introduction

Brexit will have wide-ranging impacts on the UK economy and society, including on merger control in the UK.

The focus of this blog is the voluntary nature of UK merger control.  Our subsequent blogs will consider the UK Competition and Markets Authority’s (CMA) workload post-Brexit, and the appropriate mitigating steps to manage the likely increase in workload.

Why are merger filings voluntary in the UK when they are mandatory from Albania to Uruguay?

In contrast to most other countries’ merger control regimes, including the EU Merger Regulation, UK merger control is “voluntary”. This means there is no requirement for mergers to be notified to the CMA prior to completion or at all. Whilst this is not a new issue, it is appropriate to revisit this point as post-Brexit the CMA will have sole responsibility to assess mergers that affect UK markets, which raises the question of whether the UK system should be made mandatory, as it is in most countries.

One important issue is whether UK merger control would be more efficient or effective if UK merger filings were mandatory prior to completion.

Mandatory regimes are not efficient – finding needles in haystacks

Considering first efficiency, it is highly unlikely that anyone wishing to reduce the CMA’s workload would propose mandatory filings. This is because mandatory regimes require the parties to file – and the competition authority to investigate – regardless of whether the merger raises any real competition issues that warrant investigation.[1]

However, just how inefficient would a mandatory regime be? Over the last five years, only 7.0% of the mergers notified to the European Commission were either cleared subject to commitments at Phase 1 or subject to Phase 2 review.[2]

By contrast, over a similar period,[3] 30.4% of the CMA’s Phase 1 decisions relating to qualifying UK mergers were either: (a) clearances subject to undertakings in lieu of reference; (b) clearances on de minimis grounds (which is not a basis for clearing mergers under the EU Merger Regulation – covered in part three of this series); (c) or subject to Phase 2 review. Moreover, over this period, 40.5% of qualifying UK mergers were subject to a case review meeting (such meetings are called by the CMA in relation to all mergers that may warrant detailed Phase 2 investigation).

These figures indicate that the UK merger control regime, with its voluntary filing rule, is far more focussed on investigating mergers that may be anti-competitive, rather than finding needles in haystacks.

Mandatory regimes may fail to capture all anti-competitive mergers – keeping it (jurisdiction) simple may be stupid

Another difficulty with mandatory regimes is that, because notification is mandatory, in order to make the system business-friendly the jurisdictional criteria tend to be relatively simple. Accordingly, mandatory regimes typically apply to certain types of merger transactions and depend on the turnover of the parties.[4]  However, there are trade-offs between the simplicity of these criteria (and legal certainty), failing to capture anti-competitive mergers, and inefficiently investigating and delaying mergers that are not problematic.

For example, the European Commission has consulted on extending the EU Merger Regulation to the acquisition of minority stakes in rivals or firms active in related markets, even where the firm has not acquired “control”.[5]  Similarly, the European Commission has consulted on whether the EU’s turnover thresholds should be expanded by adding more thresholds.  In 2016, the Commission observed that turnover based jurisdictional thresholds may be particularly problematic “in certain sectors, such as the digital and pharmaceutical industries, where the acquired company, while having generated little turnover as yet, may play a competitive role, hold commercially valuable data, or have a considerable market potential for other reasons.”[6]  In both instances, the concern is that anti-competitive mergers may be escaping scrutiny under EU merger control.

Whatever the precise scale and seriousness of any enforcement gaps in EU merger control, any such gaps are smaller in relation to UK merger control. In large part this reflects the more subjective nature of the jurisdictional tests applied. For example, UK merger control applies where firms acquire “material influence” over another firm, which is less than “control” under the EU Merger Regulation.  Similarly, UK merger control is not limited to a turnover based threshold. This is because a merger may also qualify if market shares of 25% or more are created or enhanced in the supply or acquisition of particular goods or services, whether in the UK as a whole or a substantial part of the UK. Accordingly, the CMA can investigate the acquisition of small competitors with low turnovers where the so called “share of supply” test is satisfied.

The downsides of voluntary filings are low

There are two potential downsides of voluntary filings. First, the CMA may fail to investigate some anti-competitive mergers that were not voluntarily notified. While this is possible, this is likely to be rare. In particular, from 1 April 2015 to 8 March 2016, the CMA’s Merger Intelligence Committee (MIC) reviewed more than 550 transactions to assess whether they warranted investigation. Ultimately, the CMA only investigated a small minority of these mergers, but approximately 20% of the CMA’s decisions over this period resulted from MIC investigations into non-notified mergers.[7]

In short, the parties to anti-competitive mergers, even in small markets, should not assume that by not notifying they can “fly under the radar” and avoid investigation.  It is particularly unlikely that large UK mergers that currently fall for consideration under the EU Merger Regulation will escape scrutiny from the CMA.

A second potential downside is that, after merger integration, it may be difficult for the CMA to re-create two independent firms. However, this issue is largely addressed by the CMA’s power to impose “hold separate orders” in relation to completed mergers that prevent merger integration pending the CMA’s final decision.  The CMA routinely exercises this power, but it may revoke the order earlier if it becomes clear that there are no issues.

Conclusions

The voluntary nature of UK merger control is unusual compared to most merger control regimes. Brexit naturally raises questions as to whether this should persist as the UK CMA is likely to acquire sole responsibility to investigate mergers affecting the UK.  However, in our view, there is not a good case for the UK to impose a mandatory regime on either efficiency or efficacy grounds.  This is particularly the case in light of the likely increase in the CMA’s mergers workload post-Brexit, which is the focus of our next two blogs.

[1]    In 2011, the UK government considered and rejected both mandatory pre-notification for mergers, and a hybrid system that would require mandatory filings above the current UK turnover threshold of £70 million.

[2]    These figures do not consider the impact of merger cases that were referred to and from member states.

[3]    The UK statistics cover the period from 1 April 2012 to 31 December 2016.

[4]    This is obviously a simplification, and some countries’ jurisdictional thresholds are highly complex. A good review of merger control in 50 countries is set out in “The International Comparative Legal Guide to: Merger Control 2017”.

[5] See further the Competition Law Forum’s discussion of these issues, available at http://www.biicl.org/documents/346_the_clf_response_to_the_european_commissions_consultation_towards_more_effective_eu_merger_control.pdf?showdocument=1

[6]    European Commission, “Consultation on Evaluation of procedural and jurisdictional aspects of EU merger control”.

[7]    https://events.lawsociety.org.uk/uploads/files/0a14983f-fb2f-4297-9884-aa9382c52b90.pdf

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FIFPro challenge the football transfer system

FIFPRO2

By Nick De Marco & Dr Alex Mills

As the curtains are drawn on the panic-buying of the January transfer window for another year, it is once again difficult not to reflect critically on the football transfer system. In the Premier League alone, more than £1bn has been spent on football transfers during the 2015-16 season – a staggering figure, and a new record. This is not just a European phenomenon – teams in the Chinese Super League have also spent unprecedented money in the current transfer window, reflecting the incredible rise in football business in the country, even outspending the Premier League during this period. Much of the increase in transfer spending can be attributed to the increasing popularity and commercial success of football around the world, particularly the new broadcasting rights deal in the case of the Premier League, but some have argued argued that the extraordinary inflation in transfer fees is a sign that the system is broken.

One organisation which is firmly in this camp is FIFPro, the union for professional footballers, which represents more than 65,000 players from around the world. In September 2015, FIFPro lodged a formal complaint with the Directorate General for Competition of the European Commission, against FIFA and its member associations, challenging the global transfer market system for football. Here we discuss the background to this challenge and the issues raised by it, before considering its likely outcomes and implications.

The story of the modern transfer system begins with the famous Bosman ruling (C-415/93) of the European Court of Justice in 1995. Bosman, a player registered with Liège in Belgium, wanted a transfer to Dunkerque in France. Although Bosman was out of contract, the rules at the time permitted Liege to refuse the transfer unless Dunkerque met their transfer fee demand. The ECJ held that this constituted a prohibited restriction on the free movement of workers in the European Union. One key consequence of this decision is that a player can now transfer for free at the end of their contract, often known as a ‘Bosman transfer’. This feature of the modern transfer rules is an important factor in the way values in the transfer market are calculated today. Players may also use the threat of running down their contract and thus reducing their transfer value as a means of leveraging their club for a new contract and salary increase.

Following the Bosman ruling, there was talk of abolition of the transfer system. The European Commission’s then Competition Commissioner, Mario Monti, said “International transfer systems based on arbitrarily calculated fees that bear no relation to training costs should be prohibited, regardless of the nationality of the player and whether the transfer takes place during or at the end of the contractual period.” But a political compromise was then fashioned following an informal agreement between the European Commission, FIFA and UEFA, and the modern football transfer system established in 2001. The rules are set out in the FIFA Regulations on the Status and Transfer of Players (RSTP). As presently established, the rules provide that contracts may only be a maximum of 5 years in length, or 3 years for players aged 18 or under (Art. 18(2)). They may only be terminated for just cause or by mutual agreement (Arts. 13 and 14) – hence, the transfer of a player under contract may not take place without the agreement of the player and both clubs. A player out of contract may transfer clubs without any transfer fee being payable, but an agreement to sign for another club may only be entered into in the last six months of a contract or after its expiry (Art. 18(3)). However, perhaps most critically, a player who terminates an existing contract without just cause is liable to pay compensation (Art. 17(1)), jointly with any new club for whom the player has signed (Art. 17(2)), and will also be subject to sporting sanctions (including a ban on playing for any team) if the wrongful termination occurs in the first two or three years of the contract, depending on the age of the player (Art. 17(3)). FIFA guidelines suggest that a failure to pay a player would only be just cause for that player to terminate the contract if payment was not made for a period of more than three months. If an ‘established professional’ plays in fewer than ten percent of the official matches for their club during the course of a season, there is also the possibility for that player to terminate their contract for ‘sporting just cause’ (Art.15).

The amount of compensation payable if a player terminates a contract without just cause has been a controversial question. The Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) in Webster (CAS 2007/A/1298/1299/1300) rejected the argument that the player should be liable for their full market value, holding that “giving clubs a regulatory right to the market value of players and allowing lost profits to be claimed in such manner would in effect bring the system partially back to the pre-Bosman days”. The damages were instead calculated based on the “outstanding remuneration due until expiry of the term of the contract”. This decision caused something of an outcry from many clubs, as it was felt that it would enable players effectively to buy themselves out of their contracts too easily. In Matuzalem (CAS 2008/A/159), however, the CAS held that a player who had terminated his contract unilaterally without cause was liable for an amount based on his replacement value on the transfer market (more than €11m). Matuzalem was unable to pay this amount and he was consequently subject to a worldwide playing ban. The decision to prohibit him from playing was later annulled by the Swiss courts for violation of public policy (essentially because he could never make payment if he could never work), but the case nevertheless established that the cost to a player of unilaterally terminating their contract without just cause would be strongly connected to the player’s value in the transfer fee market.

So what are the competition law issues raised by this system? The FIFPro complaint is directed to Articles 101 and 102 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union, which prohibit agreements, decisions and practices limiting competition, as well as the abuse of a dominant market position. The argument is supported by a Study commissioned by FIFPro and carried out by Stefan Szymanski, a Professor of Sports Management who is otherwise perhaps best known as co-author of the book ‘Soccernomics’. FIFA is clearly in a dominant market position in relation to football, and there is no doubt that the RSTP limits competition because of the restrictions it places on freedom of contract. The FIFPro complaint highlights three features of the RSTP which operate as restrictions on the labour market – (i) the calculation of compensation if a player terminates their contract without cause (Art. 17(1)); (ii) the imposition of a playing ban for the wrongful termination of a contract by a player during the first two or three years of a contract (Art. 17(3)); (iii) the rule that a contract with a different club may only be entered into in the final six months of a contract or after it has expired (Art. 18(3)).

The relationship between sport and competition law has, however, always presented a particularly complex problem. Sporting teams have an important interest in contractual stability – knowing that players signed for a period of time will be unable to leave, even if a wealthier team offers to buy out their contract. There is also an argument that contractual stability benefits players, because the contract of an injured player cannot be terminated by their club. The objective of contractual stability is, however, at least apparently in tension with a free and competitive labour market, and thus it has long been understood that sport requires particular treatment. Article 17(1) of the RSTP indeed expressly requires that “the specificity of sport” be taken into account in calculating compensation for wrongful termination of contract – this was one of the factors leading the CAS in Matuzalem to award such substantial damages. FIFPro’s key argument is therefore that these aspects of the RSTP offer sport too much particular treatment, to the disadvantage of the professional footballers whose labour market mobility is reduced.

A second aspect of the FIFPro argument is the contention that the scale of transfer fees means that only the few wealthiest clubs are able to compete for the elite footballing talent. Although the figures involved may be large, in practice, the argument goes, these clubs are both buying and selling players at this scale, and are thereby (in conjunction with Financial Fair Play regulations) effectively pricing other clubs out of the market for the best players. The effect of this practice is both to reduce competition, leading to the dominance of the same handful of clubs each year (Leicester City’s performance this season being a notable exception) and thereby to reduce the size of the labour market for players to compete at the highest levels of the game. However, it is not only transfer fees that separate the rich clubs from the rest. The largest expenditure of most clubs is usually on players’ wages. Without some form of wage cap or collective agreement (which Prof. Szymanski appears to advocate but which could itself, no doubt, be subject to competition law challenge) it could be argued that rather than create a more level playing field the abolition of football transfer fees might cause more harm to the poorer selling clubs who are at least able to be compensated for losing players to the richer clubs that can afford higher wages and transfer fees.

It is extremely difficult to imagine that the European Commission will require the dismantling of the transfer system altogether, or the abolition of transfer fees. Indeed, the Commission may well simply refuse to entertain the complaint altogether, on the basis that it falls outside its area of interest and is better pursued within national courts. Much will depend on the distinction which the Commission recently announced defines its area of interest in sport; is the complaint simply a dispute “related to governance” or “the application of sporting rules to individuals” or is it, perhaps more likely considering the economic effect of the transfer system and the way it serves to bind a player to a club, a complaint about anticompetitive agreements and the abuse of dominant market positions which can act to prevent a player from taking part in sport?

However, should the Commission (or others as a result of FIFPro’s complaint and associated campaign) determine that the system is not functioning in a satisfactory way, there are a number of modifications which could be made to the rules which would have the effect of increasing the flexibility of the labour market and thus would be likely to reduce transfer fees, with the money most likely to go instead to player salaries. For example, the maximum length of contracts could be reduced from five years to four, giving players more opportunity to obtain or at least threaten a free transfer, or the damages payable for the termination of the contract by a player without just cause could be reduced, overriding the Matuzalem decision. One key concern which is likely to be raised is the risk that reductions in transfer fees would reduce the incentives for clubs to develop young players, although the RSTP rules do provide for training compensation (Art. 20) and a solidarity mechanism (Art. 21), each of which secures financial support for clubs which have contributed to a player’s training. If changes were to be made to the rules regarding contracts and transfers, these may need to be counterbalanced with adjustments to these provisions – such adjustments may in any case be considered as a means of addressing competitiveness. The consequences of all such changes would, of course, be difficult to predict with complete confidence, and any modifications of the FIFA RSTP would require long and complex negotiations with a range of stakeholders.

When one reads about the salaries of the highest paid footballers, some might find it difficult to be entirely sympathetic to the argument that the transfer system is harmful to the position of professional footballers. But the FIFPro challenge is less about the position of the elite and more about the average professional footballer around the world, most of whom are on salaries much closer to those of ordinary workers, and some of whom are badly treated, regularly not paid by their clubs, and yet unable to move on. If changes to the rules governing the transfer market were to reduce the amount of money spent on transfer fees, increase freedom and job security for more players, and promote greater competition between clubs, such a development would be likely to be welcomed not only by lawyers, but also by most football players and fans around the world.

Nick De Marco is a barrister at Blackstone Chambers specialising in sports law and disputes in football. He was a recent guest speaker at the FIFPro Legal Legends international conference and regularly represents the English Professional Footballers Association.  Dr Alex Mills is a member of Blackstone Chambers’ Academic Research Panel and the UCL Faculty of Laws.

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Applying interest in damages claims

The Competition Bulletin is pleased to welcome the latest in our series of blogs by Oxera Consulting on key economic concepts for competition lawyers. In this blog, Enno Eilts, a Senior Consultant, discusses issues connected with the calculation of interest in damages actions. Continue reading

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The Cost of Collusion

The Competition Bulletin is pleased to welcome a guest blog from Louise Freeman of King & Wood Mallesons LLP. Louise specialises in (among other things) complex competition litigation. In this blog, she addresses the implications of the recent CJEU decision in Case C‑557/12 Kone AG and others v ÖBB-Infrastruktur AG. Continue reading

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Filed under Abuse, Agreements, Damages

Sharing Risk in Collective Actions

With legislation to introduce collective actions currently making its way through Parliament (see our previous blog here), we are pleased to welcome a guest blog from Elaine Whiteford of King & Wood Mallesons  LLP and Oliver Gayner of Burford Capital (UK) Ltd. They highlight a litigation funding problem which will arise under the proposed new regime, and suggest an ingenious solution. Continue reading

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Filed under Abuse, Agreements, Damages, Policy, Procedure