Premier League Fights to Retain Playing Talent After Brexit

  • League says it wants an open system for football immigrants
  • Pound slide cost clubs $138 million, anti-Brexit group says

England’s soccer clubs already face higher costs for star players because of the pound’s plunge since the U.K. voted to leave the European Union. The bigger financial threat to the Premier League from Brexit, though, lies in tighter immigration rules sought by Theresa May’s government.

The league has the most lucrative broadcast deal of any European competition, thanks to the global audience for the matches of Manchester United, Chelsea and other marquee clubs. It also boasts the highest percentage of foreign players, at around 65 percent, of all the European leagues.

Riyad Mahrez

Photographer: Michael Regan/Getty Images

England’s standing in the soccer world would be diminished if EU stars gravitated to other countries after Brexit, potentially cutting the value of future TV rights after the current 8-billion-pound ($10.5 billion) deal expires. Players from the bloc are allowed in to the U.K. under EU freedom of movement rules, while athletes from elsewhere must meet criteria that only permit the highest level of foreign players, judged on criteria including age and how many times they have played for their national team.

The league is lobbying May’s government to allow an open system, where any club could sign 17 players of its choosing for its first team squad, which could have 25 players overall and thus would have at least eight homegrown players.

“Brexit is certainly a concern,’’ said Peter Coates, chairman of Premier League club Stoke City, which has a host of overseas players including the Austrian international Kevin Wimmer, who was bought during the recent transfer window. “As with everything with Brexit, nobody knows anything. I have had no personal feedback from the government though the Premier League is keen to get its message across.’’

Post-Brexit World

The league says that, under current rules that apply to athletes from outside the EU, two French players who were crucial to Leicester City winning the championship in 2016, Riyad Mahrez and N’Golo Kante, wouldn’t have gained admittance to the U.K. in a post-Brexit world.

The government wants to develop an immigration system that’s in the best interest of the whole of the U.K., and plans to make initial proposals for a new policy later in the autumn, a spokesman said. “We recognize the importance of sport to the nation and within that the contribution that international talent makes,” the government said in a statement. “We are in discussions with key representatives from the sport sector, including the Premier League, regarding the challenges and opportunities that our EU exit brings.’’

In the recent transfer window, English clubs spent a record 1.4 billion pounds, much of it on players from European clubs, such as Alvaro Morata from Real Madrid to Chelsea for 58 million pounds and the 23-million-pound purchase of Paris Saint-Germain’s Serge Aurier by Tottenham Hotspur.

The latest round of transfers cost clubs 105 million pounds more than they would have paid before the June 2016 Brexit referendum because of the devaluation of the pound against the euro, according to Open Britain, a group that supported remaining in the EU and now is advocating for continued close ties with the bloc.

TV Deal

Still, the league’s 20 clubs are enjoying unprecedented broadcast revenues in the three-year deal that just went into effect. The latest television contracts give the teams at least 50 percent more broadcast income than under the last agreement, leaving them well able to absorb the appreciating euro.

Mainly because of the TV cash, England remains attractive for European stars, who are still likely to be paid higher wages that they would have attracted elsewhere even with sterling’s depreciation. But a massive uncertainty is the future of the employment market after Brexit, with tighter controls on footballers likely.

For players from outside the EU, controls are already strict. During the recent transfer window, Andrew Osborne of the law firm Lewis Silkin was instructed by clients to assess the immigration chances of 15 players from outside the bloc who wanted be part of the influx. He advised in all cases against going through the process, concluding there was little chance of persuading the authorities the players should be allowed in, Osborne said.

Following Brexit, those rules will become applicable to EU citizens too, meaning a likely reduction in European entrants to the U.K. leagues, unless the issue is addressed in Brexit negotiations.

Drafting Contracts

“Simply applying current non-European rules to English football would significantly reduce the quality of players in the Premier League, and therefore reduce the appeal to fans here and around the world,” the league said in its response to the government’s so-called green paper on industrial strategy this year.

Meanwhile, Trevor Watkins, a sports lawyer from Pinsent Masons, says the uncertainty over Brexit is beginning to affect business decisions.

“We are seeing at Pinsent Masons the growing need to address Brexit situations in the contracts we draft,” he said. “If I’m thinking of spending large sums of money I want to see how any freedom of movement changes will impact my business and do what I can to protect my position from any adverse impact of Brexit. When the music stops you don’t want to be the one without the chair.”

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