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Why the Scottish Premiership should amend its rules on bonus pool negotiation

Monday, 05 January 2015 By David Winnie

This article considers the implications of the recent dispute at Scottish Premiership club, Kilmarnock FC (“Kilmarnock”), where the first team players (“Players”) are currently in dispute with the club’s management over the operation of its bonus scheme.

The dispute reflects a wider concern in the Scottish Professional Football League (“SPFL”) over the way clubs currently determine bonus pools, with the Scottish Players’ Union Chairman, John Rankin (midfielder at Dundee United), now calling1 for a modification to the current SPFL Rules2 pertaining to bonuses to help combat the problem.

Below, we will examine (i) the general nature of footballers’ bonuses and the related dispute at Kilmarnock; (ii) how bonus pools are currently treated under the SPFL Rules; (iii) the differing treatment of bonus pools under the Premier League and Football League’s respective rules, and (iv) reflect on whether the SPFL should amend the SPFL Rules to try to prevent the problems that can arise out of bonus pool disputes by looking south of the border to how their English counterparts regulate this area.


Footballers bonuses and Kilmarnock’s dispute

Kilmarnock discarded its traditional policy of paying the Players win bonuses on a game-by-game basis at the end of season 2012/13. A bonus pool was introduced in its place, the value of which is to be determined by the Club each season.

Media reports indicate that,at the end of the 2013/14 season, Kilmarnock Chairman, Michael Johnston, decided that the cash pool would be around £20,000, to be shared by the Players based on a number of factors, including final league position and the number of appearances made by each player.3 During 2013/14 season, Kilmarnock played 38 league games and 33 players were used over the period. As a consequence, many of the players received (on average) just a few hundred pounds each at the close of the season.

Before the start of the 2014/15 season, it is understood that Michael Johnston notified the Players that the first team bonus pot would remain unchanged. The Players refused to accept this and the Scottish Professional Players’ Association (the “SPFA”) had to be called in to mediate the dispute. Michael Johnston claims that the dispute has now been resolved, while the SPFA claims that it has not. In a further twist, the Players have considered the threat of strike action as the dispute continues to escalate.4

What is the likely position under the Players’ contracts?

We cannot know for certain what the Players’ contracts say but, in the author’s experience, contracts of employment of professional football players follow a standard form and the only variance is in the personal terms (such as: commencement date, the term of the employment contract, basic monthly/weekly wage, payment per appearance (in the first team), lump sum payments, holiday leave and medical cover).

The contract will usually include an annex or schedule in relation to payment of bonuses. Richard Berry has helpfully set out the various bonus structures used by clubs to incentivise players in English professional football and the same is generally true of clubs in Scottish football. In his article, Richard states that, Clubs will sometimes link appearances to other bonuses that may be awarded in recognition for contribution to the club’s on field achievements. For example, players might be rewarded for every point the team gains during matches in which the player participates, or for every win that the team achieves.5

Richard adds that, In the event that a team is promoted/wins the league/cups, it is common for an additional bonus pot to be shared amongst the playing squad, usually by further reference to appearances. Some clubs might award a fixed bonus to each player who has played in more than a set number of games depending on final league position. Others have more complicated arrangements in place”.6

Richard uses the example of how an English Championship club, which wins promotion to the Premier League divides the bonus pool between the players based on the number of games played. His article states that, A club in the English Championship which wins automatic promotion to the Premier League might award points to its players based on the number of games played during the regular 46 game season - with 3 points available for a starting appearance, 2 points for a playing substitute and 1 point for a non-playing substitute. Over the period of a season, a certain amount of points will therefore be available. It is then simple to divide the bonus pool equally to give a value per point and allocate it at the end of the season if the club is successful”.7

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Written by

David Winnie

David Winnie

David is partner and the head of sports at Burlingtons Legal LLP. His practice spans a wide range of transactional and regulatory areas of sports law. 

David specialises in commercial and regulatory advice to clients in the sports and media sectors. His experience includes acting for athletes and rights holders on sponsorship matters. He also regularly advises on governance issues in sport and on player contracts, football transfers and image rights structures.

David has acted for clients in cases before the Football Association's (FA) Rule K Arbitration, the EFL Compensation Committee, FIFA's Football Tribunal and the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) in Lausanne.

Prior to his career in law, David was a professional football player and coach at the highest levels. He played in Champions League, UEFA Cup and ECWC competitions and won the Scottish FA Cup as a player. David also represented his country at U21 level.

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