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Buy-out clauses in professional football player contracts: questions of legality and integrity

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Abstract

The sporting industry is one of the most lucrative in the world. With growing social and media interest in sport, the values and salaries of professional players continue to increase exponentially, and fierce competition within individual sports makes the process of negotiating player contracts critically important. The inclusion in contemporary times of what are known as ‘buyout clauses’ in professional sporting contracts raises questions of both legality and integrity, both of which this article will explore in the context of Association Football (Soccer). Such clauses permit a player or another club to pay a stipulated sum in the contract and effectively terminate the agreement, irrespective of its stipulated duration. From a legal perspective, buyout clauses can potentially be classified as liquidated damages clauses or penalties – which may render them unenforceable – further muddying the regulatory framework in which such clauses operate in a sporting context. More broadly, buyout clauses challenge the very integrity of sport and the rationale underpinning sporting player contracts in the way they foster player disloyalty, promote competition monopoly, undermine the purpose of longer-term player contracts and over-commercialise sport. This article will argue that buyout clauses not only sit uncomfortably with the law of contract and the rules of football but challenge the very integrity of the sport itself.

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Notes

  1. PricewaterhouseCoopers (2011), p. 11.

  2. The game is referred to in this article as ‘football’.

  3. VerSteeg notes that, in many respects, contract law dominates much of sports law. He cites the examples of ‘individual player contracts, collective bargaining agreements forged by management and player unions, endorsement contracts, and agency contracts, just to name a few’: VerSteeg (2007), p. 175.

  4. This definition is adapted from Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA), Commentary on the Regulations for the Status and Transfer of Players, p. 47.

  5. This body is considered in greater depth later in this article.

  6. Article 66(2) of the FIFA Statutes (2015) provides: ‘The provisions of the CAS Code of Sports-related Arbitration shall apply to the proceedings. CAS shall primarily apply the various regulations of FIFA and, additionally, Swiss law’.

  7. See Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA), Regulations for the Status and Transfer of Players (2014), art 1.

  8. See CAS 2005/A/983 & 984 Club Atlético Peñarol c. Carlos Heber Bueno Suarez, Cristian Gabriel Rodriguez Barrotti & Paris Saint-Germain, Award of 12 July 2006. See also Wild (2011), 118–22 for a more rigorous discussion of the complex mechanics of how such overlaps occur and are resolved.

  9. See CAS 2007/A/1298 Wigan Athletic FC v Heart of Midlothian & CAS; 2007/A/1299 Heart of Midlothian v Webster & Wigan Athletic FC & CAS; 2007/A/1300 Webster v Heart of Midlothian, award of 30 January 2008 at [4]-[25].

  10. Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA), Commentary on the Regulations for the Status and Transfer of Players, p 47.

  11. For a concise discussion of this history see Cook et al. (2012), ch 2.

  12. This tumultuous era is ‘usually regarded as the classical age of English contract law’: Seddon et al. (2012), p. 1269.

  13. (1986) 162 CLR 170, 193 (Mason and Wilson JJ).

  14. The courts may, in their discretion, grant relief against forfeiture in appropriate circumstances: Boucaut Bay Co Ltd v Commonwealth (1927) 40 CLR 98, 106-7 (Isaacs ACJ).

  15. Dunlop Pneumatic Tyre Co Ltd v New Garage & Motor Co Ltd [1915] AC 79, 87 (Lord Dunedin).

  16. Ibid 86 (Lord Dunedin); O’Dea v Allstates Leasing System (WA) Pty Ltd (1983) 152 CLR 359, 367-8 (Gibbs CJ), 399-400 (Deane J); AMEV-UDC Finance Ltd v Austin (1986) 162 CLR 170, 184-5, 190 (Mason and Wilson JJ).

  17. Lordsvale Finance Plc v Bank of Zambia [1996] QB 752, 762 (Colman J).

  18. Dunlop Pneumatic Tyre Co Ltd v New Garage & Motor Co Ltd [1915] AC 79, 86-7 (Lord Dunedin); see Ringrow Pty Ltd v BP Australia Pty Ltd (2005), 662-3 (per curiam). See also Andrews v Australia and New Zealand Banking Group Ltd (2012), 218 (per curiam). In the context of professional football player contracts, art 17 of the FIFA Regulations for the Status and Transfer of Players (2014) requires the time remaining on the player’s existing contract; the remuneration and other benefits due to the player under the existing contract and/or the new contract; and any fees and expenses paid or incurred by a player’s former club over the term of the contract to be taken into account when determining an appropriate sum of compensation for termination without just cause. This implies that the assessment is in fact made not just at the time the contract is made (as at common law) but at the time of breach. There is some authority which appears to support this view: see, eg, CAS 2007/A/1359 FC Pyunik Yerevan v. E., AFC Rapid Bucaresti & FIFA, award of 26 May 2008 at [36–38].

  19. AMEV-UDC Finance Ltd v Austin (1986), 193 (Mason and Wilson); Esanda Finance Corp Ltd v Plessnig (1989), 139, 141-2 (Wilson and Toohey). See also Yarra Capital Group Pty Ltd v Sklash Pty Ltd (2006) VSCA 109 (18 May 2006).

  20. State of Tasmania v Leighton Contractors Pty Ltd (2005) TASSC 133 (21 December 2005) [22] (per curiam); see also Multiplex Constructions Pty Ltd v Abgarus Pty Ltd (1992), 510 (Cole J). See also De Francesch Builders Pty Ltd v Riley & Anor (2000) WASC 301 (8 December 2000).

  21. Multiplex Constructions Pty Ltd v Abgarus Pty Ltd (1992), 527 (Cole J).

  22. CAS 2007/A/1359 FC Pyunik Yerevan v. E., AFC Rapid Bucaresti & FIFA, award of 26 May 2008 (‘Yerevan’) at [23]:

    Art. 17 para. 1 of the FIFA Regulations asks therefore the adjudicating body to first verify whether there is any provision in the agreement at stake that does address the consequences of a unilateral breach of the agreement by either of the party. Such provisions are for instance so-called buy-out clauses, i.e. clauses that determine in advance the amount to be paid by a party in order to terminate prematurely the employment relationship. Clauses of such kind are, from a legal point of view, liquidated damages provisions.

    Cf the views of Omar Ongaro, who appears to draw a curious distinction between buy-out clauses and liquidated damages clauses on the basis that the former confers a ‘right’ to terminate a contract prematurely (without risk of sporting sanctions being imposed), whereas the latter does not: see also Ongaro (2011), p. 44–45. This view appears to directly contradict judicial authority on point, which makes clear that Article 17 of the Regulations does not condone nor countenance a player’s termination without just cause but rather makes provision for the calculation of damages in the event that they do (discussed further below).

  23. See the third note to Article 17 in Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA), Commentary on the Regulations for the Status and Transfer of Players, p. 47: ‘With this buyout clause, the parties agree to give the player the opportunity to cancel the contract at any moment and without a valid reason’ (emphasis added).

  24. Case C-415-93, 1995 E.C.R. I-4921 (‘Bosman’).

  25. Gardiner and Welch (2007), p. 2.

  26. Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA), Regulations for the Status and Transfer of Players (2014), art 17, para 1.

  27. A ‘professional’ player is defined in art 2, para 2 as being a player ‘who has a written contract with a club and is paid more for his [or her] footballing activity than the expenses he [or she] effectively incurs’.

  28. Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA), Regulations for the Status and Transfer of Players (2014), art 17, para 2. This is also stated in the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA), Commentary on the Regulations for the Status and Transfer of Players at p 46.

  29. Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA), Regulations for the Status and Transfer of Players (2014), art 17, par 1; Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA), Commentary on the Regulations for the Status and Transfer of Players, p 46.

  30. Ordinarily, under the Regulations, sanctions would apply to the player who unilaterally terminated their contract without just cause, quantified by reference to criteria including those listed in Article 17(1). The ‘protected period’ is defined as: ‘a period of three entire seasons or 3 years, whichever comes first, following the entry into force of a contract, where such contract is concluded prior to the 28th birthday of the professional, or two entire seasons or 2 years, whichever comes first, following the entry into force of a contract, where such contract is concluded after the 28th birthday of the professional’.

  31. Thus in CAS 2007/A/1298 Wigan Athletic FC v Heart of Midlothian & CAS; 2007/A/1299 Heart of Midlothian v Webster & Wigan Athletic FC & CAS; 2007/A/1300 Webster v Heart of Midlothian, award of 30 January 2008 (‘Webster’), the Court of Arbitration for Sport stated at para [52]:

    [A]rticle 17 is not a provision that allows a club or a Player unilaterally to terminate an employment contract without cause. On the contrary … any such termination is clearly deemed a breach of contract.

  32. It should be noted, however, that the Commentary is not a binding source of law but rather an important set of guidelines relevant to matters specifically concerning the sport of football: CAS 2012/A/2908 (2013) at [171].

  33. This saga is discussed in greater detail later in this article.

  34. AMEV-UDC Finance Ltd v Austin (1986), pp. 193-4 (Mason and Wilson JJ); Alfred McAlpine Capital Projects Ltd v Tilebox Ltd (2005) EWHC 281 (TCC) (25 February 2005) [37], [48] (Jackson J). Indeed, in CAS 2008/A/1519 and 2008/A/1520 (2008) (‘Matuzalem’), the Court of Arbitration for Sport noted that ‘the bar for admitting the existence of a penalty/buy out-clause in the meaning of art. 17 of the FIFA Regulations [is] fairly high’ (at [74]).

  35. AMEV-UDC Finance Ltd v Austin (1986), 201-2 (Mason and Wilson JJ).

  36. Esanda Finance Corp Ltd v Plessnig (1989), 147-8 (Brennan J).

  37. David Kent, ‘Messi Valued at Eye-Watering £330 m (That’s Three Times More than His Rival Ronaldo!)’, Daily Mail (online), 4 January 2014, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sport/football/article-2533695/Messi-valued-eye-watering-400m-thats-three-times-rival-Ronaldo.html; Jamie Sanderson, ‘Chelsea “WILL Pay £200 m Transfer Fee to Sign Barcelona’s Lionel Messi’, Metro (online), 7 January 2015, http://metro.co.uk/2015/01/07/chelsea-will-pay-200m-transfer-fee-to-sign-barcelonas-lionel-messi-5013501/.

  38. ESPN (2014). http://www.espn.co.uk/football/sport/story/355395.html.

  39. Waterside Workers’ Federation of Australia v Stewart (1919), 128 (Knox CJ, Barton and Gavon Duffy JJ), 132 (Isaacs and Rich JJ); AMEV-UDC Finance Ltd v Austin (1986), 190 (Mason and Wilson JJ); Ringrow Pty Ltd v BP Australia Pty Ltd (2005), 669 (per curiam); Andrews v Australia and New Zealand Banking Group Ltd (2012), 218 (per curiam). Indeed, a clause will not be regarded as a penalty merely because it would operate to recover a sum of money exceeding the actual loss incurred by the innocent party i.e. generate a windfall: Bartercard Ltd v Myallhurst Pty Ltd (2000).

  40. Santiago Bernabéu Stadium is the home ground of Real Madrid FC.

  41. Gardiner et al. (2012), p. 425.

  42. Webster at [63].

  43. Naturally the estimated amount of damages will depend upon the particular player and circumstances in question: Yerevan at [27].

  44. Webster at [87]-[88].

  45. Matuzalem at [86].

  46. Matuzalem at [92]. The remuneration remaining due was then subtracted from the revised sum.

  47. De Sanctis at [53–60].

  48. The Court of Arbitration for Sport in Arbitration has previously stated that this omission is justified on a number of economic, regulatory and moral bases, and that a club’s right to claim a player’s transfer or market value can only subsist through an express contractual provision to this effect and not through a compensatory claim under Article 17 of the Regulations: Webster at [76–81]. But cf the comments of the Court in Yerevan at [40, 41], where it was stated that ‘the asset comprised by a player is obviously an aspect which cannot be fully ignored when considering the compensation to be awarded for a breach of contract by a player’ under Article 17 of the Regulations. This was said to require consideration of ‘the specific nature of damages that a breach by a player of his employment contract with a club may cause’, including their value as a player and as a marketing brand. See also TAS 2005/A/902 (2005.

  49. [1905] AC 6, 11. See also Webster v Bosanquet (1912), 398 (Lord Mersey); Dunlop Pneumatic Tyre Co Ltd v New Garage & Motor Co Ltd (1915), 87–8.

  50. Lamson Store Service Co Ltd v Russell Wilkins & Sons Ltd (1906), 682–3 (Griffith CJ); Waterside Workers’ Federation of Australia v Stewart (1919), 128 (Knox CJ, Barton and Gavon Duffy JJ), 132 (Isaacs and Rich JJ); Yarra Capital Group Pty Ltd v Sklash Pty Ltd (2006) [16] (Chernov JA).

  51. Andy Terziu, Buy-Out Clauses in Football Player’s Contracts: A Means for Greater Player Freedom? (19 February 2014) Law and Football: Law and Regulatory Issues in the Football Industry, https://lawinfootball.wordpress.com. Moreover, the Court of Arbitration for Sport has stated that buy-out clauses ‘must clearly reflect the true intention of the parties’: CAS 2013/A/3091 (2013), at [259].

  52. There is an additional irony here in that many player agents are often paid a commission based on a percentage of the transfer fees for the players they represent. Of course this is a fiduciary role and the agent must act in the player’s best interests, however it nonetheless emphasises the conflict of interest which arises where a buy-out clause is being negotiated.

  53. James (2010), p. 250.

  54. Bartercard Ltd v Myallhurst Pty Ltd (2000) [24] (Davies JA).

  55. See for example FIFA DRC (2004) (FIFA Dispute Resolution Chamber deemed a purported buy-out clause in the player contract to be a penalty given it stipulated an amount equivalent to more than 108 of the player’s annual salaries and amended the amount of compensation payable); Arbitration CAS 2010/A/2202 (2010) (Court of Arbitration for Sport deemed the amount payable under a liquidated damages clause to the player’s club for unilateral termination of his playing contract was excessive and in the nature of a penalty thus justifying a reduction in the compensation payable).

  56. Webster at [71, 73].

  57. For an excellent and thorough discussion of this transition see also Goldblatt (2008).

  58. Sage (2004), p. 31–32.

  59. It was revealed in the news recently that the global football transfer market in 2014 broke the previous record, surpassing $5 billion for the first time: ‘Global Player Market Breaks $5 Billion Barrier’, SBS The World Game (online), 29 January 2015, http://theworldgame.sbs.com.au/article/2015/01/29/global-player-market-breaks-5-billion-barrier. Not even two weeks later news broke that Sky and BT won the UK television rights to broadcast English Premier League games in 2016-19 for an astounding £5.1 billion (AU $10 billion): see also Fox Football (2015)(online), 11 February 2015, http://www.foxsports.com.au/football/premier-league/english-premier-league-tv-deal-sky-and-bt-outlay-10-billion-in-stunning-three-season-epl-outlay/story-e6frf4a3-1227215447239.

  60. See Poli et al. (2015); KEA and CDES (2013).

  61. KEA and CDES (2013), p. 45.

  62. Kennedy and Kennedy (2012), p. 330.

  63. James, above n 53, p. 265 (emphasis added).

  64. Gardiner and Welch (2007), p. 3.

  65. Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) (2008).

  66. Webster, [81].

  67. Healey (2009), p. 25–26.

  68. Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) (2010), p. 60.

  69. See Wehberg (1959).

  70. Sailing Ship ‘Blairmore’ Co Ltd v Macredie (1898), 607 (Lord Watson).

  71. (1967) 119 CLR 460, 504. Cf see Holmes (1897) where, in a celebrated article, the author expresses the view that a party can elect to breach if they so choose and merely incur liability in damages for doing so (at p 462).

  72. Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA), Commentary on the Regulations for the Status and Transfer of Players, p 38.

  73. See, eg, Article 1(3)(b), which requires football associations to ‘include in its regulations appropriate means to protect contractual stability, paying due respect to mandatory national law and collective bargaining agreements’ (emphasis added).

  74. Webster at [52].

  75. Matuzalem at [24].

  76. Article 18(2) of the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) (2014) states that the maximum length of a player contract is five years and that contracts of any longer length are only permitted where consistent with national laws.

  77. CAS 2009/A/1880 and CAS 2009/A/1881 (2009) FC Sion & El-Hadary v FIFA & Al-Ahly Sporting Club, at [104].

  78. Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) (2001) p. 10.

  79. Czarnota (2013), p. 7.

  80. (1971) 125 CLR 353, 377 (per curiam).

  81. Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) (2001) p. 10.

  82. Though, of course, the time at which termination occurs will affect any compensation or applicable penalties which apply in the circumstances.

  83. Professional Footballers Australia (2010).

  84. Professional Footballers Australia (2011).

  85. The distinction between transfer clauses and buy-out clauses was the subject of discussion in the famous case of CAS 2008/A/1519 and 2008/A/1520 (2008) at [70–73].

  86. Mark Catlin, ‘There is Just No Loyalty in Football Anymore, Fact or Fiction?’ Total Football Magazine (online) <http://www.totalfootballmag.com/features/columnists/there-is-just-no-loyalty-in-football-anymore-fact-or-fiction/>.

  87. Andrew Slevison, ‘Agents Back FFA Over Buy-Out Prohibition’, Tribal Football (online) < http://www.tribalfootball.com/licensed-agents-back-ffa-over-buy-out-prohibition-816481#.VOGLbqO0LCo>.

  88. Professional Footballers Australia (2010).

  89. Ibid.

  90. Van den Bogaert (2005), p. 275.

  91. Maguire (1999), p. 102; Sugden and Tomlinson (2002), p. 219.

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Giancaspro, M. Buy-out clauses in professional football player contracts: questions of legality and integrity. Int Sports Law J 16, 22–36 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s40318-016-0088-x

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