The much awaited and repeatedly delayed European Commission white paper on sport was published today and delivered almost nothing that UEFA and some would-be sports regulators were asking for. Back in September last year a Commission sponsored report called for an antitrust exemption for soccer and the granting of special status to UEFA, the European governing body. But the white paper reaffirms that, although the “specificity” of sports must be recognised, compatibility “with EU competition law can only be made on a case-by-case basis”. Hence there will be no “general guidelines on the application of competition law to the sport sector”. This leaves the big clubs free to challenge proposed restraints on player mobility and income redistribution in the courts. The Commission made clear it is sympathetic to arguments based on “solidarity” and competitive balance when sporting rules are applied, but this is a long way short of an antitrust exemption.
In fact, the document says very little about these issues and is mainly devoted to issues such as promoting the health benefits of sports and the role of sport in society. However, it gives no clues about how to deal with state subsidies to sports, which currently operate in most member states through national lotteries that are also state monopolies- this is a problem since there is increasing pressure to permit competition in the gambling sector.
The big winners from the white paper appear to be economists, since section 3 of the report promises sponsor research on measuring the economic contribution of sport to the EU, which is states could be as large as 3.7% of EU GDP. One stated aim is “to develop a European statistical method for measuring the economic impact of sport as a basis for national statistical accounts for sport”. So we can all start sharpening our pencils.