Continued uncertainty around Brexit is impacting everyone’s lives, impacting on businesses across the UK, including those of decision-makers in football.
Football is not immune from discussions about the UK withdrawing from the European Union, particularly with regards to the Premier League, which is one of the most popular, marketable and profitable leagues in European football.
England’s premier league teams include many overseas players, with scouts travelling worldwide to look for promising players. The English Football Association (FA) has used Brexit as an opportunity to announce a new policy proposal that the maximum number of foreign players in each team’s 25-player squad will fall from the current 17 down to 12.
The game’s governing body has stated that the new policy has been designed to increase the number of English players in the Premier League, because of concern about the reduced playing time for English players in the sport. Yet the policy could affect the ability of the national team to continue its success at international tournaments.
In 1992, foreign players made up 30 per cent of Premier League players, but England’s top tier has become increasingly international, and in 2019 that figure has more than doubled to 67 per cent. Under current rules, all players from EU nations are free to play for English clubs under the EU’s freedom of movement rules. Those rules will cease to apply once Britain leaves the bloc and the Brexit transition period has ended, with clubs having to secure visas for their new players.
It has not yet been clarified if teams will be forced to sell players who do not fit the new squad size rules. For younger overseas players, some will not be considered as foreigners if they have played and been trained at a British club for at least three seasons before reaching the age of 21. Currently, negotiations between the FA and the Premier League are continuing, since nearly all teams will be affected by the suggested rule changes and the Premier League are disputing claims from the FA that the standard of English football will be improved under the new policy.
One of the main concerns within the Premier League is an ongoing concern about revenue earnings. The league, the richest league in the world, can earn around EUR5 billion in a year, but if signing foreign players becomes difficult after Brexit, this figure is forecast to drop.
Already in 2019, despite eight of the world’s 20 richest clubs being English, the transfer market in January saw smaller amounts being spent on players that might be at risk of not being able to stay in the UK for long after Brexit. This could make teams less competitive, leading to a decreased interest in the premier league and a knock-on effect on its value.
For example, if Son Heurng-min was not at Tottenham Hotspur, South Korea may be less interested in the team, which would lessen demand for television rights in the region.
While not all Premier League managers wish to remain in the EU, the concern within the football industry is that Brexit could mean that players from EU and European Economic Area countries would have to face the same visa and work permit restrictions as players from non-EU countries. To secure a visa, non-EU players have to apply for a Governing Body Endorsement from the FA, which can be secured by a club acting as a sponsor.
Eligibility for this depends on a number of factors, including the number of appearances they have at the international level and the ranking of their national team. Yet, over half of the EU players that transferred into the Premier League since its inception in 1992 would not have qualified for a work permit at the time of their transfers, including legends like Gianluca Vialli, Cesc Fabregas and N'Golo Kante.
If Brexit makes signing foreign players more difficult, there is likely to be a knock-on effect in the gambling industry too. Since the liberalisation of gambling laws in The Gambling Act 2005, the number of people placing bets on sports, particularly Premier League matches, has increased considerably and now online betting is one of Britain’s biggest industries. Shirt sponsorship by gambling companies in the Premier League is worth around GBP47.3 million, while the industry also provides sponsorship through a variety of other channels.
With the most heavily regulated gambling market in Europe, no new regulations are expected post-Brexit. In addition, the requirement that all offshore gambling brands must have a licence from the Gambling Commission means that operators based abroad that still want to operate in the UK should be able to continue doing so without major problems.
The main issue for the industry will be new tax and trade agreements post Brexit, which will increase costs and lower profits, which could potentially translate into poorer odds, bonuses and promotions for punters. The expected fall in the number of punters could have a snowball effect on the Premier League in terms of sponsorship.
The hope is that the FA will find a balanced deal with the Premier League by the time the UK is due to leave the EU, that promotes the prospects of English players and the Premier League. The challenges of work permit and potential loss of glamour could see the Premier League in real trouble.