What are the obligations on footballers to conduct media activities? A comparison of the rules in UK, USA, Spain and Belgium

Published 28 September 2018 | Authored by: Alistair McHenry, Gauthier Bouchat, Michael Rueda , Josep F. Vandellos Alamilla

Following this summer’s news of Newcastle United footballers going on “media strike1 as part of a dispute with the club over bonuses, this article compares and contrasts the legal obligations on footballers to conduct media activities in the UK, USA, Spain and Belgium.

United Kingdom

By Alistair McHenry, Director, Walker Morris LLP

Whilst there was only one goal separating the teams in Manchester City's 2-1 Premier League victory over Newcastle United on 1 September, the story of the game was that the gulf in class was far greater than the scoreline suggested. Nine points already separate the two teams going into the international break, and it would not be difficult to envisage the gap at the end of this season being as huge as the 56-point chasm it was last season.

Of course, the contrast in the two clubs' fortunes extends beyond the pitch and, as has been well documented, the respective ownerships are currently being portrayed as the perfect examples of "how to" and "how not to" run a football club. You can only imagine how galling this is for fans of Newcastle United, especially when you consider the clubs are more or less of equal size, fanbase and history. But perhaps a more striking comparison between the two clubs, which may have gone under the radar, came with recent media reports that Newcastle United players were refusing to fulfil their media commitments in a dispute with the Club's hierarchy over bonus payments, coinciding in the same month with the release on Amazon of an eight-part documentary series entitled All or Nothing: Manchester City2.

The comparison is so striking simply because it contrasts one set of players refusing to honour their duty as Club employees to grant obligatory access to broadcasters with another set of players who have (voluntarily?) participated in a "warts and all" style documentary, with the filmmakers enjoying unfettered access not only to players' family homes but also to the team's dressing room at half-time during high profile matches. It is a case of two extremes; on the one hand you have a team publicly refusing to honour3 contractual media obligations with the intent of gaining the upper hand in an internal dispute; and on the other a team have who have gone so far as potentially revealing to the watching world the coaching and other trade secrets of what became a record setting season of 100 points. In the case of their performances on the pitch (so far), it cannot be said that Manchester City's approach has been anything other than positive. And it will be interesting to see whether it means that through their precedent we will become accustomed to watching half-time team talks live from the dressing rooms of all Premier League teams, like we have in rugby's Super League.

In the case of Newcastle United's players refusing to provide camera footage to SKY over a dispute about contractual bonuses, whilst not quite as extreme as refusing to play, it is a well-pitched negotiating ploy aimed at striking where they know their employer is vulnerable. Players know that clubs are beholden to the Premier League, who in turn rely heavily on the income streams flowing so lavishly from the broadcasters (and from sponsors who themselves rely on broadcasting). If the players cut off the supply at source, they know it has the potential to damage both club and Premier League. That gives them a degree of bargaining power. It is therefore understandable and should come as no surprise that the Premier League would wish to seek to impose specific media obligations on its clubs and players, and indeed does so expressly through its Rules.

Employment law and the Premier League's Handbook 

It is well established that a footballer's media commitments have their roots in employment law; as part of a player's contract of employment with a club, a player is obliged to undertake certain duties for which he or she is remunerated. This is enshrined in the Premier League Handbook, which contains a pro-forma employment contract to be used for all Premier League players. The duties and obligations of players are set out in clause 3, where amongst other requirements the player agrees (at clause 3.1.6) 

to comply with and act in accordance with all lawful instructions of any authorised official of the Club and (at clause 3.2.5) not to knowingly or recklessly do … or omit to do anything which is likely to … cause damage to the Club."

The media duties imposed are set out in clause 4 entitled "Community, Public Relations and Marketing". The obligations owed are couched in unexpectedly expansive terms and, further, are owed to a seemingly limitless list of stakeholders:

"For the purposes of the promotional, community and public relations activities of the Club and / or (at the request of the Club) of any sponsors or commercial partners of the Club and/or of the League and/or of any main sponsors of the League…"

Similarly all-encompassing is the type of activity required to be attended by players, such activity defined in the loosest of terms as

"such events as may reasonably be required by the Club, including but not limited to, appearances and the granting of interviews and photographic opportunities as authorised by the Club".

Clause 4.1 goes on to stipulate that players must make themselves available for "up to six hours per week".

Clause 4.6 states that the

"Player hereby grants to the Club the right to photograph the Player both individually and as a member of a squad and to use such photographs and the Player’s Image in a Club Context in connection with the promotion of the Club and its playing activities and the promotion of the League and the manufacture sale distribution licensing advertising marketing and promotion of the Club’s club branded and football related products (including the Strip) or services (including such products or services which are endorsed by or produced under licence from the Club) and in relation to the League’s licensed products, services and sponsors in such manner as the Club may reasonably think fit…". 

The definition of Player's Image means the Player’s name, nickname, fame, image, signature, voice and film and photographic portrayal, virtual and/or electronic representation, reputation, replica and all other characteristics of the Player including his shirt number.

Therefore, by refusing to fulfil the club's contractual media requirements the players are potentially in breach of a number of clauses of their playing contracts, as well as potentially breaching their internal code of conduct/club rules which no doubt will reiterate their obligations to the media on behalf of the club and the Premier League.

Comment

For as long as the Premier League has contractual rights with its broadcast rights holders, it will seek to pass down and prescribe media commitments to the players via their employment contracts with the clubs. Those obligations are there for a good reason: they are required to give fans greater access to the players, which in turn helps to sell the Premier League product to global television companies. The more accessible the product, the more human the face, the higher the price television companies may be willing to pay.

The significant television revenues which are now driving the game and, in fact, paying the players' wages, mean that players will have more and more difficulty striking or reneging on their media commitments to force the hand of the clubs. Players will not only be expected to toe the line but, in all likelihood, will have to permit greater and greater exposure to their lives, such as Manchester City have done. Other teams may soon have no option but to follow their lead.

United States

By Michael Rueda, US Head of Sports and Entertainment, Withers LLP

Generally, major U.S. sports leagues and their clubs contract with athletes regarding compliance by the athletes with television, radio, newspaper and other media requests. Collective bargaining agreements between players associations and leagues generally provide that such activities must be reasonable and also provide mechanisms through which players and the league and/or clubs can address grievances resulting therefrom.

For example, each Major League Soccer (MLS) player signs the same Standard Player Agreement (SPA) with MLS. The SPA is subject to the terms of the Collective Bargaining Agreement4 (the CBA) between MLS and the Major League Soccer Players Union (the MLSPU). The SPA and the CBA collectively set forth the requirements of a player to provide media, promotional and commercial appearances, among other things. Generally, the terms of the SPA and the CBA are non-negotiable as they were negotiated by the MLSPU on behalf of all MLS players. The current CBA took effect on February 1, 2015 and expires on January 31, 2020.

The current CBA requires that MLS players cooperate with reasonable requests of television, radio, newspaper, magazine and other news media representatives and cooperate with MLS and the player's team, separately and together, to be available for and participate in such news media photo sessions and interviews and other media appearances as may be reasonably be required.

If a player decides not to participate in a media session without breaching the SPA and the CBA, the player would likely have to claim that the requests for media appearances were unreasonable. To do so the MLSPU would likely initiate a grievance procedure and provide notice to MLS that a provision of the CBA was violated. MLS would have to respond to the claim. If the grievance is not resolved between the parties, the grievance is referred to a grievance committee, consisting of a representative of MLS and a representative of the MLSPU. If the grievance committee fails to resolve the grievance, the parties could then elect to arbitrate the grievance.

However, if a player is not claiming that the requests for media appearances are unreasonable and decides to just not participate in, or fails to report to, a media appearance, the CBA permits MLS to impose a fine on the player. The amount of the fine varies depending on the player's base salary, with players that earn more being subject to a higher fine. Players can be disciplined for each recurring incident thereafter and additional infractions would be evaluated on an incident by incident basis and be subject to increased fines up to and including suspensions without pay and/or termination.

Moreover, a player's failure to report to media appearances constitutes a breach of the SPA. A player's breach of the SPA in this manner grants MLS the right to utilize certain expedited arbitration mechanisms provided in the SPA. The decision of the arbitrator is final and binding and may be immediately entered as a judgment in any court of competent jurisdiction and/or communicated to FIFA. The judgment may also be submitted to any court having jurisdiction for the purpose of obtaining the equitable relief deemed appropriate, including but not limited to a decree enjoining the player from any further breach of the SPA.

Spain

By Josep F. Vandellos Alamilla, Sports Lawyer

Neither the Spanish Sports Act 10/19905, nor the Royal Decree 1006/19856 regulating the special labor relationship of professional athletes contain any specific reference to media obligations of professional athletes and therefore, in order to understand the extent of these obligations, one will have to look at the individual employment contracts, collective bargaining agreements, and also the media regulations of the different competitions.

Before that however, a distinction needs to be made between the media-related obligations that are intrinsically linked to competitions and other media-related obligations which are not related to competitions.

In-competition

As to the first category, media obligations related to competitions can be found in the internal regulations enacted by sports federations and/or the leagues, and whereas in the case of team sports, these are usually addressed to clubs which must in turn ensure compliance by their athletes and participants, in case of individual sports, they directly oblige participant athletes.

Thus, in the case of professional football, all clubs taking part in La Liga Santander and La Liga 1|2|3 (i.e. the first and the second national tiers) must comply with the obligations provided under the so-called “Regulation for the TV Broadcasting of the National Professional Football League” (Liga Nacional de Futbol Profesional) the latest edition of which has been recently approved on 26 July 2018 by the Spanish Supreme Sports Council. Clubs must accordingly, put certain players at the disposal of the audiovisual rights-holders, in order to conduct post-match super flash interviews, post-match flash interviews, post-match press conference, and the interviews in the mixed zone. Failure to do so entails sanctions for infringing clubs.

These media-related obligations must be complied with by footballers as a part of their contractual obligations towards their clubs, which are by definition, to take part in sports competitions and implicitly by extension to all activities related to it. Therefore, a player who is requested by the club to appear in a super flash interview after the match must comply with such obligation as part of the contractual obligations undertaken when signing the employment contract.

In the case of individual sports, the process is somewhat different. For instance, tennis players7 enrolling for national official competitions are required to respect the dispositions in the Technical Regulations of the Spanish Royal Tennis Federation (RFET) amongst which, there exists an obligation for players making it to the finals of any tournament to attend the prize ceremony and media interviews which take place for a duration of 30 minutes, immediately after the conclusion of the match.

Similarly, the regulations of the Spanish Royal Motorcycling Federation (RFEM)8 provides that pilots unjustly refusing to step on the podium are to be stripped of their prizes and shall be subject to disciplinary investigations.

Out of competition

The second category –i.e. the media obligations falling outside the competitions - refers essentially to those obligations stemming from the commercial exploitation of image rights of athletes and the potential events related to it. In professional football, most if not all employment contracts between clubs and players explicitly include the assignment during the term of contract in favor of clubs of all image rights of footballers when they are identified as members of the club. Conversely, it is also common that players maintain their individual image rights, occasionally with some restrictions with regards to potential competitors of the club’s current sponsors.

By way of example, we have seen in the past seasons Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo attending multiple media events with Adidas and Nike respectively, while their clubs had contracts with the direct competitor kit sponsors.

It is therefore, in this context of negotiation and contractual freedom that clubs retain and regulate the right to request athletes to attend and participate in public or private events, conferences, promotional acts, conventions, camps, interviews, advertising etc. organized by the club itself or by its sponsors or partner companies.

In football, the most recent proof of the essential contractual character of these media-related obligations is the conflict which arose between La Liga and AFE during the last month. On 16 August, La Liga announced9 a 15-year joint venture with the North American company named Relevent Sports, to promote the La Liga brand in the United States and Canada through the implementation of youth academies, coaching education and training, marketing activities, brand activation, exhibition matches. One of the primary objectives of this project was the organization (after obtaining all necessary authorizations) of an official LA Liga match in the US, similar to how some NFL10 and NBA11 matches are occasionally played in London.

In spite of having the explicit support of the Spanish Government12, the agreement was concluded without consulting the football player’s trade union (AFE), which led to this conflict between La Liga and the AFE. Players’ representatives, which included Real Madrid and FC Barcelona stars, gathered in Madrid a few days after the announcement, refusing to play outside of Spain and threatened to go on strike13, asserting that such an unilateral and impactful measure (15 seasons) required their prior express consent as it occurred before deciding to play the finals of the 2018 Spanish Super Cup at Tanger (Morocco) between Sevilla CF and FC Barcelona14.

Finally, it is also worth a short remark to article 37 of the Spanish “Collective bargaining agreement for the activity of professional football” of 23 November 2015 which includes amongst its articles the commitment between the AFE and the La Liga to organize different events, marketing activities (road-shows, LPF campus, interactive fests etc.) and social corporate responsibility events in general with the obligation of AFE to make best efforts to ensure the presence of the requested players in such events and activities.

Belgium

By Gauthier Bouchat, Associate, Altius

The Belgian association of professional football clubs, the Pro League, adopted specific rules regarding obligations towards the media. Although those rules are addressed to the clubs, it is largely up to the players to ultimately fulfil these obligations. In case of infringement, the club is fined. Nevertheless, players often bear the financial sanctions since clubs impose the same media obligations on the players through their employment contract or through the applicable working regulations15.

Context and regulatory framework

As a rule, one’s image is protected based on Article XI.174 of the Belgian Code of Economic Law16. The right to protection is however less strict when it comes to public persons such as professional athletes. The image of a public person may be used without his or her permission for informational purposes, insofar the right to privacy of the person depicted is not violated.17 An athlete can however oppose the unauthorized use of his image for commercial or economic purposes.18

In football, the applicable Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) stipulates that the club may use, free of charge, the name and image of a professional player if the intention is to inform the public and the player's private life is not violated.19 Regarding the use for commercial purposes, players generally assign the exploitation of their image rights to the club via their employment contract. The player remains free to enter into advertising agreements with third parties, except for agreements with competitors of club sponsors and/or for advertisements that are deemed to harm the image of sport (e.g. tobacco and alcohol).20

In addition, the CBA allows the Pro League, the Belgian national teams (i.e. the Belgian FA) and their commercial partners to use photographs or images of the player, individually or as part of a team, as part of an overall campaign.

In addition, the Pro League, has decided to implement specific rules and obligations towards the media in connection with the competitions organised under its auspices. In particular, the “Regulations concerning broadcasting rights for Pro League and Proximus League matches” ("Belgian Pro League Regulations") were adopted on 29 October 2014 and amended on 10 August 2016.

The Belgian Pro League Regulations are aimed at the members of the Pro League, i.e. the clubs, and not to the players. In other words, although the players must ultimately perform the media obligations, the liability in case of non-compliance lies with the clubs. As such, the players do not have any direct media-related obligations towards the Pro League. This being said, in order to mitigate their own liability towards the Pro League, clubs generally integrate an obligation to comply with media-related requests in the employment contract of the player or in the work regulations.

Specific obligations

Interviews and press conferences

The Belgian Pro League Regulations make a distinction between three categories of stakeholders: the Live Match rights holders, the Magazine Highlights rights holders and accredited press.

The Live Match rights holders are granted the right to interview the following people:

  • 75 minutes before the game: head coaches (5 minutes);

  • Beginning of half time: at least one player of each team (1.5 minutes);

  • End of half time: assistant coaches (1.5 minutes);

  • Immediately after the game: at least two players of each team (2.5 minutes);

  • Within fifteen minutes after the game: head coaches (2.5 minutes).

The Belgian Pro League Regulations however establish that if the requested player is unavailable for a legitimate reason, another player who has played for at least 30 minutes can replace him upon proposal of the club.

The Magazine Highlights rights holders are only entitled to an interview with the head coaches and one player of each team after the game (2.5 minutes).

All interviews must be organised in front of Pro League’s billboards.

At the latest thirty minutes after the head coach’s first interview, a press conference is to be held, which is open to all rights holders and accredited press.

As to the sanctions, the Belgian Pro League Regulations provide that each first infringement of the above-mentioned rules is sanctioned with a penalty of EUR 1,000 on the club. For any subsequent infringement of a rule of same nature during the ongoing season, the penalty is increased by EUR 1,000.

Mixed zone

After the game, all the players can pass through the mixed zone, where they can give interviews but without being obliged to do so. The club must however designate two players who can be interviewed.

In the mixed zone, the TV interviews are only allowed in groups and not individually.

The coach is not allowed to be interviewed in the mixed zone.

Magazines

Upon Magazine Highlights rights holders’ request, the clubs shall make their players and coaches available for the production of the magazine at least three times a year.

In case the club refuses to make the requested player or coach available for the magazine, a fine of EUR 2,000 is imposed. The fine will be doubled for any subsequent infringement of same nature during the ongoing season.

Conclusion 

In Belgium, the association of professional clubs has implemented specific rules regarding the obligations towards the media. Those rules are addressed to the clubs, but obligations are ultimately fulfilled the players. In case of non-compliance the club risks fines. In order to comply with the rules, clubs impose similar obligations on the players via their employment contracts or the work regulations.

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About the Author

Alistair McHenry

Alistair McHenry

Alistair McHenry, Director, Walker Morris LLP

Alistair is a director in our Sports / Finance Litigation department. He has extensive experience of sporting disputes, arbitration and general commercial litigation. He advises Premier League clubs, Football League clubs, sporting organisations and individuals on all types of disputes and appeals, including under the Premier League, Football League and Football Association Rules. Alistair has also successfully advised clients in the Court of Appeal, High Court and before the RFU Disciplinary Panel.

Gauthier Bouchat

Gauthier Bouchat

Gauthier Bouchat, Associate, Altius

Gauthier advices a wide range of Belgian and international clients on all aspects of sports law, including employment-related disputes, disciplinary proceedings and regulatory matters.

Michael Rueda

Michael Rueda

Michael Rueda is the US Head of Sports and Entertainment at Withers.. Michael advises athletes, coaches, agents and companies on playing contracts, coaching contracts, and international player transfers; and sponsorship, endorsement, licensing and merchandising contracts. Michael was a member of the University of Connecticut 2000 National Championship Men's soccer team and continues to play soccer and compete in triathlons.

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Josep F. Vandellos Alamilla

Josep F. Vandellos Alamilla

Josep is an independent lawyer with extensive experience in international sports law. During the last ten years his practice has entirely focused in representing athletes, clubs, national associations, agents and coaches in front of the different dispute resolution bodies and the Court of Arbitration for Sport in Lausanne (Switzerland). He also advises his clients on a regular basis in contract drafting and negotiations.

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