After the snooker case, has the High Court given the green light to breakaway leagues?

For the politicians who run sports governing bodies, the classic way of maintaining control is to widen the membership as far as possible and make sure that each member has one vote. Having achieved a “democratic” structure, the next step is to centralise the organisation of tournaments and their commercial exploitation, developing, if possible, a cosy relationship with the state broadcaster.

If needs be, attacks from powerful members/clubs can always be fought off on the basis that “rebels” want to grab the largest “share of the cake”, whereas the governing body, in its benevolence, needs to keep commercial control in order to re-distribute the proceeds to help the “grass roots”.

Historically, this modus operandi has stopped the most powerful members/clubs from gaining control of the governing body or breaking away.

However, the classic model of sports “governance” is under serious legal threat as a result of the case brought by Stephen Hendry against the snooker governing body. The High Court’s finding, that the loyalty agreement binding players to participate in events run by the governing body (unless otherwise agreed) was anti-competitive, could open the door to promoters seeking to cream off the best of the talent for their tournaments or super leagues.

The claimants in the snooker case will now go off and participate in extra tournaments restricted to the best players; as a result, the governing body will simply become an amateur regulatory body, like the R&A in golf. In other sports, however, governing bodies have a greater chance of remaining in control. Unlike snooker, international representation is very important for a lot of sports. As governing bodies run this side of the sport and require release of players etc, a breakaway league has to be international in scope and has to contract all the talent if it is to get off the ground.

Attracting the talent of course is an option that is open to the governing body itself. If it accomplishes this, then it is in a potentially strong position. However, this strength will come at a price: in effect the governing bodies will have to offer their powerful members/clubs attractive leagues and competitions – more attractive than those on offer by independent promoters. This means that, despite the wishes of the majority of the membership, the governing bodies will become customers of the most powerful purchasers of tournament organisation services – namely the most powerful members/clubs. These members/clubs will be less interested in re-distribution of revenues to the grass roots than the governing body.

If the finding in the snooker case is replicated elsewhere in Europe, the classic model of sports governance will be under serious threat. As the judgment is based on UK legislation which follows EC competition law, the governing bodies’ increasingly frantic attempts to get an exemption from EC competition law are understandable. No-one willingly sacrifices twenty years of selfless committee work just to argue about the size of the pitch!

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