What does Brexit mean for British sport?

If asked to name something affected by Brexit, most people would come up with something along the lines of trade, migration or the Northern Irish Border: not sport. However, having gone virtually unmentioned in Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal and having been, essentially, left to fend for itself by the government, it’s an area facing serious challenges. The last couple of decades have undeniably been a golden era for British sport. The 2008 Beijing Olympics saw Team GB finish in the top 5 on the medal table for the first time since 1924. They then went on to finish on the podium in both 2012 and 2016. In football, the English Premier league, created in 1992, quickly rose to stand as the most ‘popular’ and valuable football league in the world. In cycling, British athletes have experienced unprecedented success, winning six out of seven Tour De Frances between 2012 and 2018.

I could go on listing the achievements of British athletes such as Jessica Ennis-Hill, Andy Murray, Anthony Joshua and Mark Cavendish, but what’s more important is the growth of grass roots level sport that has accompanied this period of elite level success. In 2015 it was reported that 15.3 million people in the UK participated in a sport at least once every week, that was a 1.4 million increase from 2005. This growth has given millions more people the chance to be part of a community, to belong, and to better themselves both physically and mentally. It has contributed billions to the UK’s economy and has given countless individuals from less privileged backgrounds the opportunity to progress. The social and economic benefits of sport for the UK are immense. 

Such success has undoubtedly been driven by the massive increase in funding for sport that began in 1997 with John Major’s move to use the National Lottery to fund UK Sport’s ‘World Class Performance Programme’. However, it cannot be ignored that 100% of this golden era came following the Maastricht treaty, which in 1993 created the EU single market in which the UK was included. The four freedoms underpinning the single market have been a catalyst, creating an environment in which elite level sport could flourish. The free movement of people, goods, services and capital allowed young athletes to access opportunities to develop in Europe; it allowed British teams to attract European talents, bolstering their squads and raising the profile of the leagues in which they compete; it allowed for teams to easily transport equipment and individuals to Europe to compete in key competitions; it allowed for British sport to benefit from both EU and private European investment; it allowed for British teams and athletes to easily access the expertise of European coaches and other professionals, and importantly, it made British towns and cities prime venues for international sporting competitions. So far, Johnson’s government has failed to create a framework for British sport to continue to benefit from a close relationship with Europe. Not only is this ironic as, considering the role that sporting success plays in national identity, it exposes the shallow hypocrisy of the recent push by Conservative politicians to promote a form of British nationalism, but it’s also deeply concerning. Without the necessary framework, elite level British sport is already suffering, and with that, the growth of grass roots level sports and the societal benefits that it has brought are at risk.

Road cycling is one sport that has been hit particularly hard. In recent years the UK domestic race scene has struggled. A dysfunctional economy within the sport has seen several elite level teams fold, and many high level races have faced cancellation. With a lack of opportunities to race at an elite level in the UK, many young cyclists have looked to Europe to gain the necessary experience and develop their ability. But where they were once free to spend a season living in, and travelling around Europe to race, they now face being limited to spending no more than 90 out of every 180 days in Europe, making an 8 month road season impossible. This can of course be worked around with a long-stay visa or a residency permit. These are however logistically flawed solutions as they tend to only apply to one EU state and so every time a rider travels to compete in other EU states, they’re subject to the 90-out-of-180-days rule. So even with the best solutions that currently exist, young rides face limitations to their ability to access essential opportunities to develop in Europe. This level of logistical uncertainty surrounding British athletes will see their opportunities in Europe decrease further as they become less attractive to European teams. More importantly, these solutions are incredibly bureaucratic, are time consuming and involve several costs. And in some cases, riders have even been unable to obtain a visa at all. And so, a barrier has been raised to those less privileged athletes who may not have access to the resources and support required to work around the logistical nightmare that Brexit has created. So not only does the current post-Brexit situation threaten the long term success of elite level British sport by restricting the access of young athletes to, often vital, opportunities to develop in Europe, but it also seriously undermines the work that has been done to reduce elitism and create equal opportunity within sport. These problems are also faced by winter sports athletes for whom it’s pretty impossible to train and compete in the UK.

Motorsport is another area experiencing difficulties. With the loss of the free movement of goods, anyone, from the biggest team to the smallest hobby racer, transporting race equipment into Europe must obtain an ATA Carnet. This is essentially a customs document that lists and values every individual piece of equipment from race vehicles (unless they’re road legal), to every spare part and tool. This ‘simplifies’ the process of moving race equipment, but is still logistically complex, costs on average around £300 and requires a sizeable deposit. They’re also inflexible and so if there is a change in equipment or quantities then a new one must be obtained. While big teams are able to absorb these costs, Paul Denning, the manager of one of Britain’s biggest motorsport teams, has warned that this change could make it impossible for smaller teams and individuals to access racing in Europe. Furthermore, for larger teams such as Denning’s ‘Crescent Racing’ that spend extended periods of time in Europe, there’s the cost of obtaining visas to avoid the 90-out-of-180-days rule. In total, an estimated cost of working around the current post-Brexit regulations for bigger teams is £50,000-£100,000. This has led several managers to publicly state that they’re seriously considering moving large parts of their operations to Europe. So not only are the current regulations risking cutting off the opportunities of smaller teams, and so regressing the sport, but they’re also threatening economic activity based around motorsport in Britain. 

Brexit has also thrown up challenges for Football, Rugby and Cricket. Not only did freedom of movement allow for EU players to freely sign for British clubs and live in Britain but, following a ruling by the European Court of Justice (ECJ) in 1995 (the Bosman ruling) that banned domestic leagues from placing restrictions on players with EU citizenship, they were also no longer subject to quotas limiting the number of foreign players that teams could field. In 2003, with the Kolpak ruling, the ECJ extended this right to players from countries who had associated agreements with the EU. With countries such as South Africa, Fiji, Tonga and Samoa being included, this has been particularly beneficial to Rugby and Cricket. These rulings have allowed for foreign players to become an integral part of British leagues. In the 2015/16 Premier League season, nearly 1/3 of all players that appeared were from the EU. A year later, 72 kolpak players appeared for British rugby clubs.  

With Brexit bringing an end to the freedom of movement on which these rulings were based, and the government failing to negotiate an alternative framework, British clubs now face several dilemmas. Firstly, in maintaining and playing existing players who may apply for settled status and be allowed to stay but are now subject to foreign player quotas. In cricket, this has already seen high profile players unable to play. There is, however, the possibility of governing bodies relaxing these quotas. EU and Kolpak players are also no longer able to freely transfer to British teams, but are now subject to the same rules as non-EU players. These being the requirement of a Governing Body Exemption (GBE) for the relevant sport and then a visa. GBEs have fairly strict criteria that value international experience for highly ranked nations and also first team club experience. Essentially, this only allows for the signing of older, more established players. This could well force a reset in which British teams invest more into developing British talent. Which is of course a benefit. But those who claim this barrier to signing European players to be an out and out advantage of Brexit are ignoring its cost. It could be many long years until this talent comes through, all the while, European competition would still be benefiting from the talent of EU and Kolpak players. More importantly, this reset would ultimately see British leagues become more isolated, losing their international profile and losing out on the financial benefits of international renown. Such an environment surely wouldn’t be good for developing British talent?

It’s all very well the Government promising bits of extra funding for sport in the UK, but unless they act quickly to create a framework to bring back the EU-UK sporting relationship that existed pre-Brexit, there will be long term damage not only to the success of elite level sport, but also to the equality of opportunities for young people. Such damage would inevitably have a knock-on effect on grass roots level participation. That they have completely abandoned such an important area of society, that has been particularly vulnerable to the effects of the Coronavirus pandemic, tells of the incompetence of this government. 


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