Firms fined £18.6 million over soccer kit price-fixing

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The Office of Fair Trading (OFT) today announced it had fined 10 businesses a total of £18.6 million for fixing the price of Umbro replica football kits.

High street chain JJB Sports received the biggest fine, almost £8.4 million, followed by kit manufacturer Umbro (£6.6 million).

Premiership champions Manchester United was fined more than £1.6 million and the Football Association £158,000.

The OFT said it had found anti–competitive agreements to set the price of top–selling England and Manchester United shirts. Other agreements involved replica kits for Chelsea, Celtic, and Nottingham Forest.

Most of the illegal agreements covered key periods such as the launch of new

kits and England's participation in Euro 2000, the OFT said.

Its investigation found that at the time most retailers were charging just under £40 for an adult short–sleeved England shirt and just under £30 for juniors.

Prices have come down since then, it said, with the latest England shirt available for as little as £24 in an adult size and from £18 for the junior version.

Apart from Umbro, Manchester United, JJB Sports and the FA, the other businesses fined were: Allsports (£1.35 million), Blacks (£197,000), Sports Soccer (£123,000), JD Sports (£73,000), Sports Connection (£27,000 reduced to £20,000 for its co–operation and lesser role), and Sportsretail (£4,000 reduced to nil for co–operation and lesser role).

John Vickers, chairman of the OFT, said: "The fines imposed reflect the seriousness of the price fixing in this case.

"Since we launched our investigation the prices of replica football shirts have fallen and consumers can now shop around and get a better price."

Manchester United said it was considering whether to appeal against the decision.

In a statement, the club said: "Manchester United is disappointed that the OFT has taken this action.

"Manchester United has co–operated fully with the OFT throughout its investigation and has vigorously and consistently defended its position in relation to the allegations of price fixing.

"Manchester United maintains that it has not participated in price fixing in the market for replica kits.

"Manchester United is considering its position with regard to an appeal and a further announcement will be made in due course."

JJB Sports said it was launching an immediate appeal to the Competition Appeal Tribunal and attacked the OFT fine as "politically motivated".

In a statement it said: "JJB has fully co–operated with the OFT at all times during its investigation and has continued to maintain that not only was it not guilty of any price fixing but has been the principal retailer in driving down the prices of replica kits.

"JJB is of the opinion that the OFT investigation was politically motivated and is confident that it will get a fair and unbiased hearing of its case before the Competition Appeal Tribunal."

The company also claimed the fines imposed against it and other retailers had been tripled because of assurances given to the OFT by the FA, English Premier League clubs and kit manufacturers following an investigation in 1999.

The Football Association, whose fine was reduced from £198,000 because of its co–operation, said: "The decision and the relative level of fines imposed recognises The FA's limited role in the overall agreements under investigation.

"The FA has sought to co–operate at all times with the OFT and has made it clear that it only entered into a very limited arrangement in order to increase the availability of England kit, which had previously not been available over the internet or all year round.

"The FA takes its duties to football and the footballing public very seriously. That was why it took steps to widen the availability of the England replica kit – a kit that is immensely popular with fans."