Premier League Owners Fear Loss of Players in Post-Brexit U.K.

  • Imported talent is crucial to soccer’s richest competition
  • League’s $10 billion in TV rights dwarf sums paid to rivals

A day after Britain triggered Article 50, the two-year countdown to its divorce from the European Union, political leaders were urged to protect one of its most popular exports: Premier League soccer and its ranks of imported players.

Club owners and executives, in London for a regular meeting, raised concerns Thursday over Brexit’s potential fallout for the cosmopolitan soccer competition, the world’s richest and most widely followed.

Clubs armed with record TV income, from giants like Manchester United and Chelsea to middle-ranking Stoke City and West Ham, have been able shop worldwide for talent. Rosters are full of European Union passport holders who are currently free to live and work in the U.K. What happens after the breakup becomes formal isn’t clear.

“The bottom line is the Premier League is the greatest league the world has ever known,” said David Gold, West Ham’s chairman and co-owner. “Why would you stifle that? Why would you want that to change? It’s a great advert. The Premier League goes around the world and it’s ever expanding.”

Gold suggested the U.K. government adopt special measures so the teams can continue to field the best athletes. In recent years, the government has taken the league’s leaders on overseas trade missions. Foreign and domestic TV rights worth 8 billion pounds ($9.98 billion) dwarf the amount achieved by rival competitions.

Prime Minister Theresa May’s negotiations with EU leaders will affect the lives of millions of Europeans living in the U.K., with the banking, health-care and hospitality sectors also facing a nervous wait for clarity. 

‘I’m Pessimistic’

“I’m pessimistic about leaving,” said Stoke City Chairman Peter Coates. “Nothing’s changed my mind. Hopefully, football will find a way of looking after itself when it finally happens -- whenever that will be. That could be years down the line.”

Coates said he expects the government to grant visa exemptions to Premier League players, affording them special treatment because of their high levels of skill.

“But we have to wait and see,” he said. “We don’t know. And I can tell you the prime minister doesn’t know, the guy leading it, David Davis, doesn’t know.”

The league has had preliminary discussions with the government on the possible effects of Brexit. A spokesman for the Department of Culture, Media and Sport couldn’t immediately comment.

Clubs are already feeling the affects of Britain’s decision to end its decades-long alliance with its European neighbors. The pound has plunged against the euro and the U.S. dollar, making foreign recruits more expensive. Some of those costs are mitigated by the fact foreign TV income is received in dollars.

“What this is creating is uncertainty and we shall all look back in five years’ time and think, ‘What the hell have we done this for? We’re worse off,’” Coates said. “And in 10 years’ time we’ll still be saying the same thing.”

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