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What would Brexit mean for UK sports?

On June 23rd the nation will vote whether or not to leave the European Union. If Britain does vote to leave many aspects of everyday life will change including those in the sporting world. Here, I take a look at what we might be able to expect from a sports perspective in the future, should we no longer be part of the EU as a country.

Firstly, it should be noted that predicting exactly what will happen in the event of Britain leaving the EU is a difficult task; there are few certainties, what we can do though is work off of what some leading figures in sport have said on the referendum to try and paint a clearer picture.

It is the factor that coming to work in the EU if you are not British would be harder, if Britain leaves the EU, that has caused the most talking points.

Karren Brady, vice-chairman of West Ham is against leaving the EU. She makes the point that doing so would mean that the UK would no longer benefit from the free movement arrangement currently in place that allows people from the continent to live and work in this country without having to go through the processes those living outside Europe face. This would mean top coaches and players amongst others would find it harder to enter the country.

There are obvious drawbacks and advantages to this. A figure recently cited in The Guardian suggests that once the EU movement agreement had been cancelled two-thirds of the European players in this country would no longer meet the visa criteria to allow them to stay.

This creates obvious problems: Are clubs really going to let some of their star players leave because of this? You might say they have no choice, but the widely held view is that if this does come to pass new visa rules will be devised to avoid such problems, not only with sport but with all occupations.

Daniel Geey of sports and media law firm Sheridans told The Independent discussing football:

“I don’t think the same standards would be applied to players from the EU as they currently are to non-EU players. Thus it would still be easier for European players to join clubs in this country than those from elsewhere.”

So Geey thinks a new, different legislation may apply to Europeans; but this may cause other issues as The Guardian claim that, “it (a new legislation) would also raise questions as to whether it would be discriminatory to establish one set of rules for Europeans and another for footballers from the rest of the world.” The point about discrimination is poignant as we need to ensure we don’t seem to favour allowing Europeans into our country over others. It has also been mooted that Premier League clubs would attempt to gain special dispensation with their staff but as The Guardian rightly says: “In this scenario (of a new legislation happening) it could become difficult to justify one rule for football clubs and a different rule for other industries.”

In my opinion, should any new law come into place it would have to be applied to all occupations, not just football and sport, that goes without saying. Equally as we have seen, it cannot discriminate against non-Europeans. We would either have to make visas for Europeans as stringent as ones for non-Europeans or relax the process for everyone. Food for thought for the law makers.

Brady then discussed the knock on effect of leaving the EU for future transfers in a letter she wrote to the Premier League clubs. “Losing this unhindered access to European talent would put British clubs at a disadvantage compared to continental sides.” Certainly there is the feeling that the Premier League could fall behind the leagues on the continent as it won’t be able to attract the biggest stars because it would be harder to get here.

Surely all club sports would find this an issue. All elite team sports in this era comprise of multinational squads from Premiership Rugby to County Cricket and beyond let alone the amount of sports coaches in this country that hail from abroad.

Karren Brady says that Brexit would ‘damage English football’. Photo by:

What’s the upside of potential new visa laws then? Well Brian Monteith of the campaign offers a different way of looking at it. Speaking to the BBC he said:

“The freedom of movement for people in the EU comes at the price of heavy restrictions on visas for potential signings from Africa, the Caribbean, South America and Asia. Once we leave the EU, the UK will be free to treat footballers from all countries equally, which will broaden the pool of talent for our teams, not reduce it.”

This is to say that leaving the EU would not narrow down where clubs can sign players from but would actually create a leveller playing field for those outside the EU to those in it. Clubs would actually have more players to pick from because they would have to consider all the nationalities where before they might have just looked at the easier option of signing Europeans.

Again a new visa legislation that is less restricting but equal to all non-native workers seems to be a credible option to solve this problem in particular.

Another advantage of leaving the EU it has been argued is that British sports stars would have more access to top level game-time particularly in team sports. One of the main criticisms of The Premier League is that it does not feature enough stars from the country it is based in. If there are fewer foreign players plying their trade in this country at the top level, then surely the British players that are at the top clubs will benefit more from getting extra minutes than they do otherwise.

But again, this has a flipside. If British players are no longer exposed as much as they are to the likes of the Spanish and the Germans at the moment, surely our players would not be able to compete on the international stage? The experience top young British players like Dele Alli, Ross Barkley and John Stones gain from playing the David Silva’s and Santi Cazorla’s of the Premier League is arguably irreplaceable and simply could not be replicated in a more British orientated league which would in turn become a lower standard.

As is the way with most things in life, like it or not, money is a huge factor to consider. A maelstrom of events has been portrayed that could lead to a Premier League far inferior to the one still benefitting from EU membership. Fewer top European players join the Premier League clubs means that the league loses sponsorship and broadcast money as the best players no longer play in this country to generate interest (whether many of them do anyway is another debate to be had.) This vacuum in income would mean the league could not invest as much as it does now in community football and so we could see grassroots level coaching suffer. It is this model that can be applied to any elite level club sport and below in this country.

There is a recurring theme throughout this piece and the discussion as a whole. Nothing is truly certain in the case of Britain leaving the EU. Workers may face more stringent laws but they may face new more accommodating ones. British sport may be at an advantage of having more top level British players or it may suffer from not competing regularly with foreign ones, we cannot know all of this for sure. The only thing certain is that the referendum will be a momentous occasion in this country and let’s just hope it’s momentous for British sport in all the right ways.

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