Sport looks to a higher authority

Now that it is bigger than the car industry in Europe, regulation is more than just a game

WITH more money now being made out of sport in Europe than the car industry, and the financial and ownership rules of the game ever-shifting, it may now be time for a European super umpire to oversee the referees.

Until the European Court of Justice ruled three years ago that the transfer system run by European football's ruling body, Uefa, was illegal in the so-called Bosman ruling, the European Commission stayed out of sport. But the bitter row that followed - as Brussels defended the court's decision between the EU Competition Commissioner, Karel Van Miert, and Uefa - put Brussels firmly on the sporting map.

Today, according to Mr Van Miert's spokesman, Stefan Rating, 75 per cent of the calls that come into his office from journalists are to do with football. The question is, what power does Mr Van Miert have in the ever- developing relationships between broadcasters, clubs and players?

In the case of the bid by the media mogul, Rupert Murdoch, to buy Manchester United, it has none. The club's turnover of around pounds 85m a year falls far short of the 250 million Ecu turnover threshold that triggers an anti- trust investigation, even though Manchester United's "market" in terms of fans stretches from Old Trafford to Tasmania and it is one of the world's richest teams.

Yet when it comes to setting the rules in motor racing, for example - as the current row between the sport's governing body, the Federation Internationale de L'Automobile, and the Commission shows - Mr Van Miert clearly believes he is empowered to blow the whistle.

The FIA is suing the Commission for breach of confidentiality after an official made public the contents of a letter the FIA had sent to Brussels as part of the ongoing dispute over the organisation of Formula One. EU insiders say the court action could be what lawyers call "a paper trail" - should the Commission find against the FIA, the latter would have ammunition to claim bias by Brussels on legal appeal.

Bernie Ecclestone, meanwhile, owner of Formula One racing, is close to a settlement with Brussels over the separate issue that gives Mr Ecclestone's outfit exclusive broadcasting rights for Grand Prix racing. Without EU approval, he will have to cancel the planned flotation of his company.

Another case pending in Brussels concerns the German Soccer Federation, which has applied to Brussels for an exemption to EU rules so that it can continue selling television rights on behalf of top-division clubs from 2000 onwards.

The whole issue of broadcasting rights for football is a can of worms. Brussels is only legally able to intervene if it knows clubs own the rights to their matches yet allocate the task of selling them to one central agency, such as the Football Association or Uefa.

Then, there was the recent debacle over France's allocation of tickets to the World Cup. The Commission is threatening to fine the French up to pounds 25m for breaches of European commercial law. "The fiasco over the ticketing arrangements for the World Cup recently yet again stressed the need for a new pan-European authority to take some control of the situation," said Paul Renney, a commercial lawyer with City law firm, Theodore Goddard.

The FIA has also accused the Commission of having little understanding of the structures of its sport. "Motor racing is not the same as the Boeing and McDonnell Douglas merger," said one industry insider, referring to last year's intervention over the merger of the two US aircraft manufacturers.

Until recently, Uefa also regarded Mr Van Miert as an interfering busybody who had no place in the game of football. Then came the birth of the breakaway European Super League run by Media Partners, the Italian-based marketing group which threatens Uefa's authority and control over the most money- spinning games. Gerhard Aigner, Uefa's general secretary, once a bitter opponent of Mr Van Miert, has now asked the Belgian Commissioner to act as a referee in the dispute.

It is unclear whether Mr Aigner will be joining a team of heads of European sports governing bodies due to visit the European Commission in Brussels on Monday. Their ranks include Max Mosley of the FIA, Primo Nebiolo of the International Amateur Athletics Federation and Juan Antonio Samaranch, president of the International Olympic Committee. But they will not be knocking on Mr Van Miert's door.

The group is going to see the EU Culture Commissioner, Marcelino Oreja, to lobby for sport to be exempted from EU competition rules. All that puts Uefa's Mr Aigner in a difficult position. When the groups first got together to resist what they saw as Mr Van Miert's encroachments on their territory, Mr Aigner was in the forefront. Now he needs the Commissioner's help. "We are in close consultation with Van Miert," said an Aigner aide. "The Bosman case is the past and we are working for the future."

While motor racing and football, the two most lucrative sports, have so far dominated Brussels' attentions in terms of ensuring a level playing field in the European sports arena, it is only a matter of time before other sports come to its attention as well. For example, English rugby clubs are considering asking for Brussels' help in their battle to obtain control over finances.

From Mr Van Miert's point of view, the prospect of policing the business of sport is an enticing one, not least because it will ensure the media spotlight hovers permanently over his office in the Breydel building in Brussels.

But the European Commission's competition directorate, DGIV, is already over-stretched as more and more companies in more traditional industries merge. It also has a job to bust cartels and prevent governments from illegally subsidising their industries.

It now seems imperative that European governments establish a pan-European sporting body to take care of all the competition issues involved in sport, not just to protect business interests but also the traditions and values of sport.

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