What is Third Party Investment?
In brief Third Party Investment (TPI) in the football industry, it is where a football club does not own, or is not entitled to, 100% of the future transfer value of a player that is registered to play for that team. There are numerous models for third party player agreements but the basic premise is that companies, businesses and/or individuals provide football clubs or players with money in return for owning a percentage of a player’s future transfer value. This transfer value is also commonly referred to as a player’s economic rights. There are instances where entities will act as speculators by purchasing a percentage share in a player directly from a club in return for a lump sum that the club can then use as it wishes.
Why did the Premier League ban the practice?
The Premier League, Football League, Football Association, the Polish and French leagues have all brought in TPI bans. The original ban in the Premier League came as a result of the Tevez affair where a third party owner had the contractual right to force West Ham to sell the player if a suitable bid was received. This was against the ‘material influence’ regulations that were in place at the time. Previously, there was no express clause prohibiting TPI; only the act of influencing a club’s policies or performance was forbidden. Tevez’s third party contract contained a clause giving exclusive power to the third party owners, MSI and Just Sports, to facilitate the transfer of the player. West Ham did not have a veto over this right and such a stipulation breached the above Premier League rule as it meant that outside parties had material influence over the decision making of West Ham.
A common misconception throughout and after the Tevez case was that any third party player owner would have been in breach of the Premier League rules. This was not the case. It was the clause giving the owners of Tevez influence over West Ham which incurred the Premier League’s wrath (plus the non-disclosure of the agreement itself). It was for this reason that West Ham was judged to have breached the old Premier League rule Rule U18 and fined £5.5 million by the Premier League.
Subsequently, the Premier League significantly strengthened its regulations to prohibit any type of TPI. Other leagues followed as a result. The Premier League decided that from the beginning of the 2008/9 season an absolute ban on TPI was required. A spokesman stated:
“The clubs decided that third-party ownership was something they did not want to see. It raises too many issues over the integrity of competition, the development of young players and the potential impact on the football pyramid. It was felt the Premier League was in a position to take a stand on this. No one wants to see what has happened to club football in South America repeated over here”.
There are also Football League and Football Association rules prohibiting TPI but the below analysis takes the Premier League rules by way of example. Current Premier League Rules U39-40 (which at the time were rules L34-35) govern the actual prohibition and buy-out mechanism.
Premier League Rule U39 is the exemption rule which covers scenarios where clubs are allowed to receive money or incur a liability, for example, for the player registration or transfer of a player registration. Such instances include payments or receipts of transfer fees, loan fees and sell-on fees, payments for image rights contracts, payments for agency/intermediary work and payment of training compensation and solidarity contributions as set out in the FIFA regulations.
Premier League rule U40 is the mechanism to enable a third party owned player to transfer to a Premier League club. This can occur so long as the Premier League club purchases the third party’s economic interest in the player. It states:
“In respect of a player whom it applies to register as a Contract Player, a Club is permitted to make a payment to buy out the interest of a person or entity who, not being a Club or club, nevertheless has an agreement either with the club with which the player is registered, or with the player, granting it the right to receive money from a new Club or club for which that player becomes registered. Any such payment which is not dependent on the happening of a contingent event may be made either in one lump sum or in instalments provided that all such instalments are paid on or before the expiry date of the initial contract between the Club and the player. Any such payment which is payable upon the happening of a contingent event shall be payable within 7 days of the happening of that event”.
This ensures that any future transfer sums, should the player be subsequently sold, would be kept by the selling Premier League club and eliminates any third party element to any future sale transaction. Interestingly, the Premier League club who ‘buys-out’ the third party interest may still be paying the third party investor through installments during the period that the player is playing for his new Premier League club. Whilst the player is owned by the club and no third party interest is possible, there is still the eventuality that a club could default on the installment plan and then the third party investor could sue based on the buy-out obligations in the contract. It would be unlikely yet is unclear from the regulations whether the investment stake could be transferred back to third party investor if default occurred or what other alternative recourse that an investor may have.
Nonetheless, any player registered to play in the Premier League cannot be third party owned by a TPI company. It means that the buying Premier League club has to satisfy the football authorities that all other economic interests have been extinguished. This occurred over the summer when TPI players Markovic and Mangala were transferred to Liverpool and Manchester City respectively. Premier League clubs undertake to the football authorities that it is the only entity that owns the player’s economic rights and only then can the transfer can be completed. It is likely that Falcao had a TPI contract whilst he was at Porto but as the French league also prohibits TPI, when Monaco bought him, there may well have been a requirement in place to extinguish any third party rights. As such, when he was then loaned to Manchester United this summer, his TPI rights would certainly have been extinguished to ensure there were no major complications with his Premier League registration.
Why is it such a problem?
As the Premier League spokesman explained above, their major concerns related to integrity, youth player development and money flowing out of the game. An internal FIFA report recently concluded that TPI trapped clubs in a “vicious cycle of debt and dependence” and “posed risks to players and to the integrity of the game”.
The main concerns about TPI include:
1. Conflicts of interests can potentially occur between investors, club owners, agents and coaches. For example, what if the owner of Club A also owns an economic stake in Player B playing against his club? What if an agent of a manager who buys TPI players is also an advisor of a TPI fund? Regardless of any actual conflict, there is certainly a perceived conflict which may damage the image of the game, public confidence in integrity of competitions and even lead to potential match-fixing or insider trading concerns. Questions continue to be asked over the transparency of the TPI funds and what role they have, if any, in influencing clubs.
2.. Clubs become reliant on such funding which in turn leads to dependence on external owners to continue to assist in such financing arrangements. As such, TPI encourages short-term profit making with economic owners looking to the club to sell its players to realise their ‘asset’ ahead of purely on-field sporting concerns. The consequence is that the rapid turnover of TPI players at certain clubs means fans become less loyal to the players who know they will be transferred when the right offer is received. Clubs are seen as a short term ‘speculation tools’ with the result that money leaves the football family.
Why is the practice necessary?
To counter the arguments set out above, the following points demonstrate are why TPI is so vital for many clubs around the world.
1. A growing number of clubs cannot compete with the larger commercial and broadcasting deals of the bigger European leagues. Clubs in so-called smaller European leagues, for example, need to leverage their assets and find innovative ways to find competitive advantage for playing against teams in the Champions League.
2. Purchasing players is an inherently risky business. Clubs with less money to spend would therefore usually be more risk-averse when having to invest heavily in transfers. One way of limiting such risk, is to share the financial burden. Therefore contracts are entered into between economic owners and clubs to either help the club with the purchase price for a talented individual or free up capital and ‘monetise’ a current players value whilst he still remains at the club. In either event, the club benefits from external finance that cushions the club’s position if the player is not a world beater. Both the club and the fund then benefit if the player is a success through a large transfer fee received that is shared according to the contract.
3. There are various ways to alleviate conflict of interest, integrity and transparency issues. Instead of banning TPI, many believe regulation through a transparent approach to TPI by disclosing a register of interests would alleviate a number of concerns as well as making TPI contracts available to FIFA/UEFA to ensure ‘material influence’ issues are correctly dealt with in the TPI contracts.
With FIFA regulating to ban players who are third party owned, many are questioning whether regulation of the practice rather than an outright ban would be preferable. In addition, some believe that it is not a ban but total transparency of the arrangements that is required. This could even be expanded to include a list of the owners of such transfer rights. Such transparency could allow the football family to scrutinise any potential conflicts of interest between, for example, those who own the economic rights of a player and those who also own a stake in a football club. With FIFA’s regulation governing the TPI prohibition, UEFA and FIFPro have backed such a position too.
What is the current state of play?
The current FIFA Rule Article 18bis of FIFA’s Rules on the Status and Transfer of Players states that:
“No club shall enter into a contract which enables any other party to that contract or any third party to acquire the ability to influence in employment and transfer related matters its independence, its policies or the performance of its teams.”
This was not a specific ban on TPI but a ban on a third party owner from influencing a club’s employment or transfer related matters.
Throughout 2014, UEFA and FIFA made a number of public statements concerning their aim to outlaw TPI. In September FIFA’s President Sepp Blatter explained that:
“We took a firm decision that [TPI] should be banned but it cannot be banned immediately there will be a transitional period”.
FIFA then set up a working group to address the topic of TPI. At the time, in their press release there was no explicit mention of a ban but “to analyse all possible regulatory options in relation to this complex practice and to make preliminary suggestions”. It was to the surprise of many that in late December, whilst the working group was still debating several possibilities that FIFA announced that they were to ban TPI globally. It is important to set out the exact wording of the FIFA circular to grasp the wide scope of the prohibition. Specifically, a third party is defined as “a party other than the two clubs transferring a player from one to the other, or any previous club, with which the player has been registered”.
“Article 18ter Third-party ownership of players’ economic rights
1. No club or player shall enter into an agreement with a third party whereby a third party is being entitled to participate, either in full or in part, in compensation payable in relation to the future transfer of a player from one club to another, or is being assigned any rights in relation to a future transfer or transfer compensation.
2. The interdiction as per paragraph 1 comes into force on 1 May 2015.
3. Agreements covered by paragraph 1 which predate 1 May 2015 may continue to be in place until their contractual expiration. However, their duration may not be extended.
4. The validity of any agreement covered by paragraph 1 signed between 1 January 2015 and 30 April 2015 may not have a contractual duration of more than 1 year beyond the effective date.
5. By the end of April 2015, all existing agreements covered by paragraph 1 need to be recorded within the Transfer Matching System (TMS). All clubs that have signed such agreements are required to upload them in their entirety, including possible annexes or amendments, in TMS, specifying the details of the third party concerned, the full name of the player as well as the duration of the agreement.
6. The FIFA Disciplinary Committee may impose disciplinary measures on clubs or players that do not observe the obligations set out in this article”.
Article 18ter imposes a blanket global ban for TPI specifically forbidding any entity that is not a club from being entitled to future economic rights and/or transfer compensation. Whilst it has been explicitly considered that the prohibition only comes into force in May 2015, agreements entered into from 1 January can only be one year in length. This effectively reduces the possibility of new TPI contracts being entered into. Interestingly, Sporting Lisbon for example, recently announced that they had bought back a number of economic rights contracts from third party investors. They presumably considered that their position may well have been strengthened as a result of the new regulations.
Nonetheless, existing third party contracts will continue until expiry meaning that some players may still be subject to third party investment contracts for a number of seasons to come. Such contracts will however be monitored through FIFA’s TMS system as any club will be required to disclose a valid third party contract due to the mandatory disclosure obligations set out in paragraph 5 above. Such obligations are required to be adhered to in a relatively short time period (by the end of April 2015). The result of such disclosure may be that the contracts submitted to FIFA may themselves breach Article 18bis, for example, regarding TPI material influence clauses. Clubs will be faced with the obligation to provide all continuing TPI contracts to FIFA and will be subject to disciplinary measures if they do not. There is now an added compliance factor for clubs to adhere to under the new regulations and a variety of disciplinary cases against club should not be ruled out.
Lastly, the Portuguese and Spanish leagues are reported to have made a formal complaint to the European Commission, presumably assessing that Article 18ter is contrary to the free movement and competition rules. They will no doubt be arguing that the absolute ban that FIFA has imposed, is disproportionate i.e. that there are less restrictive ways of achieving the same objective. Many have suggested that regulating TPI through transparency and disclosure obligations is a better alternative than an outright ban. It will be for the European Commission to decide whether to take the complaint forward and make a more substantive assessment or to reject the complaint. It should be noted that when the Premier League banned TPI, although there were some that argued that the prohibition breached competition law, no one actually came forward to challenge the regulation. A mere two months after FIFA announced the ban did the two Iberian associations challenge Article 18ter. That suggests, as many believe, that TPI has played an integral part in the way that clubs in those leagues use finance to ‘de-risk’ transfers and compete against clubs in associations with higher revenue generating capabilities. TPI has been an essential financing option.
Whilst the Premier League, as a reaction to the Tevez affair, made a strong policy decision to ban the practice in its league, a more fundamental shift is occurring on the global stage. Football specifically is very much in the European Commission’s view with current Intermediary and TPI complaints and a previous Financial Fair Play complaint that was rejected but is now before the Belgian national courts. The TPI complaint will not be a quick process and in the meantime, unless interim relief is sought, existing TPI contracts will soon have to be lodged with FIFA and from 1 May, no new contracts can be entered into. Whether the practice is banned for good is now in the hands of the European Commission.