Major League Soccer and FIFA’s Third Party Ownership Ban. What You Need to Know.

FIFA announced on December 22, 2014 that as of May 1, 2015, Third Party Ownership would be banned from professional soccer competitions.[1] Unfortunately, for US soccer fans, by virtue of Major League Soccer’s single entity structure, the league itself may be a third party owner. The new global ban now has the potential to completely up-end the US’s top-level soccer league.

Third Party Ownership

Third Party Ownership is, in its simplest form, an agreement between a club, and an investment company to cover the initial cost of a transfer fee, in exchange for a percentage of a future transfer fee that the club may receive when the player is sold to a new club. This practice has become extremely prevalent in Argentina, Brazil, and Portugal, among others, because it allows clubs to add players to their roster that they could not otherwise afford.

Opponents of the practice argue that Third Party Ownership inflates player transfer market values. This in turn decreases the ability of clubs to field competitive squads while staying within their financial means.

Additionally, third party ownership agreements have the potential to take roster and transfer decisions away from clubs, which threatens the integrity of the sport.

Because of this, various leagues, including the English Premier League and the French Ligue 1 have banned Third Party Ownership outright. As well, FIFA instituted article 18bis of its Regulations on Status and Transfer of Players, which banned third parties from influencing roster and transfer decisions.[2]

MLS Single Entity Organization.

Major League Soccer is a “single entity.” This means that all of the teams are technically subsidiaries of the league, and team “owners” are merely stockholders of MLS, who also act as managers of the business affairs of the individual franchises. Put simply, the clubs are local branches of a larger MLS business.

The purpose of the single entity structure is to avoid potential anti-trust lawsuits that other U.S. sports leagues were subject to in the past. Due to case law established in Copperweld Corp. v. Independence Tube Corp., an organization and its wholly owned subsidiary cannot violate Section 1 of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act because they are not separate economic entities and thus cannot enter into a conspiracy (or agreement) to restrain trade.

Sports leagues in the United States have had a special struggle with anti-trust law. Under Radovich v. National Football League, the U.S. Supreme Court held all sports leagues except Major League Baseball were subject to the Sherman Act. However, Mackey v. National Football League allowed leagues to avoid some Sherman Act scrutiny by bargain with players’ unions regarding roster and employment policy via the Sherman Act labor exemption. However, Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum Comm’n v. NFL determined that requiring a vote from other league clubs to approve a move by another club to a new city violated the Sherman act. As well, American Needle, Inc. v. National Football League determined that when leagues grant exclusive licensing deals with manufacturers to use logos and other intellectual property of the constituent clubs they violate the Sherman Act.

If a sports league were a single entity, under Copperweld, it could avoid those legal issues. From that, it is clear that Major League Soccer opted for a single-entity structure to give them more freedom in their ability to organize and regulate their league, and their commercial enterprises.

Single Entity and Player Ownership

Because of the MLS’s single entity structure and roster rules, the MLS is the bargaining unit for international transfers. The MLS negotiates the purchase and sale of players moving in and out of the league. The MLS is also the organization that cuts and cashes the checks when players move in and out of the league on a transfer fees. Therefore, the league owns the economic interest in the player instead of any individual club or franchise.

FIFA’s 18ter

On December 22 2014, FIFA posted its proposed ban on third party ownership. The new regulation, 18ter, which came into effect On January 1, 2015 and comes into force on on May 1, 2015, states:

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.[3]

Under 18ter, a “third party” is “any party other than the two clubs transferring a player from one to another, or any previous club, with which the player has been registered.”[4]

Application of 18ter to Major League Soccer

Two issues arise when applying 18ter to Major League Soccer: 1) is the league a third party owner, and 2) has it “entered into an agreement” with its franchises?

Per the definition of a “third party” under 18ter, Major League Soccer is neither 1) one of the two clubs transferring a player from one to another,” nor 2) “a previous club which the player has been registered.” It could be said that since the clubs are subsidiaries of the league, the league is technically all of the clubs. However, since the regulation specifically mentions clubs, and Major League Soccer is more than just a “club,” it most likely fits in the category of “any other party,” and therefore a third party owner.

Whether Major League Soccer enters into an agreement with its franchise subsidiaries when establishing its single entity structure is unclear. From a reading of Copperweld, it seems as though US case law states it is impossible for a parent company to enter into an agreement with its wholly owned subsidiaries. However, a FIFA DRC panel, or a CAS tribunal, not bound by US law, would determine whether an agreement existed. It could be found that the league roster rules, the CBA, and the general arrangement of the league is a de facto agreement between the clubs and their parent league to cede control of players movement into, out of, and within the league. This analysis would lead to a finding that the MLS league structure violates new article 18ter.

Additional Considerations

There is a possibility that Major League Soccer may change its league structure without the push of 18ter. There have been a few recent conflicts between clubs and the league over roster policies. Most notably, Chicago Fire’s lost its bid for US international Jermaine Jones due, at least in part, to MLS Allocation player rules.[5] As well, LA Galaxy Manager Bruce Arena took issue with MLS’s negotiation strategy on a bid for Sasha Kljestan.[6] As the MLS continues to grow, additional similar conflicts may cause Major League Soccer’s reconsideration of its roster and transfer policy, if not completely reconsider its single entity status.

Practicalities

Problems with the single entity ownership issue may begin upon the July 2015 MLS transfer window. As all international transfers must be registered via TMS and all rights holders to the players being transferred must be included, the MLS should be listed on the TMS international transfer. The system may not allow the transfer of registration to go through if the rights holder is not listed as the registering club.

If a TMS issue does not arise, a challenge to Major League Soccer’s Third party Ownership must come from a dispute involving a player or club, and Major League Soccer. [7]

Sanctions

Article 18ter is vague on the result of a finding of a third party owner stating only that “the FIFA Disciplinary Committee may impose disciplinary measures on clubs or players that do not observe the obligations set out in the article.” This is interesting, because it does not allow any punishment for leagues that allow the practice to continue. However, since the sanctioning language is broad, it could force MLS franchises to own the players rights themselves, and not defer them to MLS, should a case before the FIFA DRC or CAS go forward. As well, the wide discretion may allow Major League Soccer a pass as the DRC or CAS could find that no sanction is necessary as league ownership is not a practice that the regulation intended to abolish.

Conclusion

 

FIFA’s new article 18ter may put the MLS single entity structure in jeopardy. Unless either Major League Soccer changes how it organizes its control over player movement in and out of the league, or finds relief somewhere by FIFA or CAS, it may be forced to significantly alter its business model in the near future.

Additionally, if clubs are given more independence and begin to actually compete for players in the transfer market, single entity protection may unravel, causing additional legal headaches for the top-flight North American league.[8]

[1] See FIFA’s press release on the matter: http://www.fifa.com/mm/document/affederation/administration/02/49/57/42/tpocircular1464_en_neutral.pdf

[2] 18bis states “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.” See FIFA Regulations on the Status and Transfer of Players, Art. 18bis(1).

[3] FIFA RTSP Article 18ter(1)

[4] Berry, Richard R.I.P. TPO: A Guide to FIFA’s Ban On Third Party Ownership, Law In Sport, http://www.lawinsport.com/articles/item/r-i-p-tpo-a-guide-to-fifa-s-ban-on-third-party-ownership#references

[5] Murray, Shane, After missing out on Jermaine Jones, Chicago Fire’s Frank Yallop not giving up on adding “top player,” http://www.mlssoccer.com/news/article/2014/08/28/after-missing-out-jermaine-jones-chicago-fires-frank-yallop-not-giving-addin

[6] Young, Jared, The MLS CBA: Unpacking Don Garber’s recent comments on single-entity, The Brotherly Game, http://www.brotherlygame.com/2014/9/24/6836267/the-mls-cba-unpacking-don-garbers-recent-comments-on-single-entity

[7] Note, however, that a challenge like that would only make it before FIFA and CAS if there was an international dimension, and that the FIFA DRC/CAS found that the MLS Grievance Procedure does not comply with FIFA’s dispute resolution standards.

[8] Additionally, under Fraser v. Major League Soccer the US First Circuit Federal Appeals Court felt that Major League Soccer may not be totally a single entity under Copperweld, however it also held that the fact MLS competes with other leagues in the US as well as abroad for labor, it was not an illegal monopolization of the labor market.

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One thought on “Major League Soccer and FIFA’s Third Party Ownership Ban. What You Need to Know.

  1. Pingback: Sports Law Links – The Sports Esquires

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