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How will Brexit affect British sport?

January 31, 2020

From Wimbledon to Wembley, British sport could be profoundly affected by Brexit. The slogan for the 2012 Olympics was to 'inspire a generation', but will the realities of their EU departure threaten that pledge?

Lewis Hamilton
Image: Reuters/M. Childs

January 31 has come to mean frantic trading, players moving to new countries to improve their career prospects, and a crescendo of news and speculation as the transfer window shuts for the UK's most successful sporting product, the Premier League.

It'll be overshadowed this year by something which shares some of its bombastic qualities but rejects some of its fundamental principles — this could be the last January window where players of EU nationality can move freely to the Premier League from abroad, as Brexit looms.

While the commemorative tea towel is on sale and the third iteration of the celebratory 50 pence piece is soon to be in circulation, the UK's Conservative government appears to have no specific plan in place for its nation's sports.

"There is little or no clarity. As far as I am aware, no specific instructions have been issued to the sport industry," Simon Chadwick, a Professor of Sports Enterprise at the University of Salford, Manchester told DW.

Significant sector, little clarity

The latest sport-specific information publicly available on the website of the government department responsible, Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), appears to be preparing for the prospect of a no deal Brexit, and was published on October 2, 2019. DW contacted the department to request the latest guidance and request comment but is yet to receive a response. Sport England, which allocates government money to sporting associations and projects, said they were unable to provide comment.

The Sports and Recreation Alliance, which represents well over 300 sporting organizations in the UK at various levels, estimates that the sport sector contributes £37bn (€44 bn, $48bn) to the country's economy every year and says more than a million people work in sport-related jobs. The government's estimates are slightly lower, with a 2018 document suggesting there are 581,000 employed in the sector, of whom 21,000 (3.6 percent) are EU nationals. 

The barriers to entry are likely to discourage many EU sports professionals from working in the UK, according to Dr Borja Garcia, a Senior Lecturer in Sport Management and Policy at Loughborough University in the UK and an expert in EU sports policy — but he believes the government will continue to spend at the top end.

Soft power and the grassroots

"I think it’s quite possible that it won’t affect the amount of money that the government will put in to elite sport, for example the Olympics," he told DW. "As we saw with London 2012 and with Rio 2016, medals are useful for soft power and this is a moment where they are going to need that. The government seemingly wants to portray (the country) as a new superpower and this success would play in to that narrative."

Serena Williams and Andy Murray
Serena Williams and Andy Murray at Wimbledon, one of the UK's sporting highlightsImage: Reuters/H. McKay

But Garcia says that investment doesn't look likely at amateur and youth level, where the sale of school playing fields and cuts to local facilities have meant sports participation has not increased in the way that was advertised ahead of the 2012 Olympics. While the country's elite football clubs are likely to be at least partially insulated by their wealth, that isn't the case all the way down the pyramid, where the restrictions on the movement of people and equipment will hit the least wealthy clubs and organizations hardest. 

Horse racing, to give one example, seems particularly vulnerable to the imminent changes. The sport reportedly has an existing shortfall of about 1000 workers and, according to the Sports and Recreation Alliance, takes about 10 per cent of its workforce from the EU. Chadwick adds that: "Formula 1 would seem to be highly vulnerable given the location of many teams and their reliance on cross-EU border just-in-time supply chains."

Kolpak chaos

The outlook is equally murky in several of the UK's other leading sports. Figures within cricket and rugby have expressed concerns about their ability to attract and retain top tier talent amid uncertainty around the so-called 'Kolpak Rule'.

Named after Maros Kolpak, a Slovakian handball player, this states that citizens of countries that are part of European Union Association Agreements (free trade treaties between the EU and 78 African, Caribbean and Pacific countries), enjoy the same rights as EU citizens. Various countries have signed up to this, most notably (from a sporting perspective) South Africa, with the top divisions of both cricket and rugby featuring numerous South African players.

It seems certain that any athlete wanting to ply their trade in the UK under those terms in future would be prevented from doing so. Existing players have only had their status guaranteed until the end of the season.


South Africa's Faf De Klerk plays rugy in England under the Kolpak Rule
South Africa's Faf De Klerk plays rugy in England under the Kolpak RuleImage: picture-alliance/AP Images/Yomiuri Shimbun/T. Suzuki

"For us to sign a 19-year-old hot prospect from Peru is almost impossible so we are driven towards the EU market," Crystal Palace chairman Steve Parish said in 2018. "If we had access to global talent it would reduce our costs of acquisition of talent and improve the quality of talent we can get." 

Host nation?

The UK has established itself as a prime location for some of the sporting world's biggest events. In 2020 alone it will host, or has already hosted, the semifinals and finals of football's European Championships, the Netball World Cup, Wimbledon, the World Snooker Championships, the British Grand Prix and golf's Open Championship. Chadwick thinks some of those events could be under threat.

"Unless the government adopts an event-driven strategy in which it provides incentives for events to locate in Britain, then I think the country will get lost in the mire of an ultra-competitive event hosting environment," he said. 

However, Garcia suggested that a potential trade deal with the US could lead to further sporting investment from across the Atlantic but warned again that this could well be used as a tool for national promotion at the expense of the "neglected" grassroots.

Though January 31 will be a significant sporting date for more reasons than one, the UK will soon enter a transition period which will last for at least a year. Those involved in sports relish a certain amount of uncertainty out on the field, track or course but by next year's deadline day, they will hope to know more about what comes next.