The British referendum stunned Europe and the world as the results revealed a majority opinion in favor of leaving the European Union. The vote carried with 52% in favor of departure while sharp divides in opinion were seen between age, economic and geographic demographics.
While the referendum is only a gauge of sentiment it is a strong signal that England’s departure from the European Union will happen in the near future as political parties find themselves obligated to follow through on public opinion. With Britain set to lose easy trade access and labor movement within the common market the economic implications for the country are large, so what effect will a Brexit have on the English Premier League?
The Brexit Blowback
Let’s break down the effects between economic and regulatory. As a result of the near term uncertainty around the exit specifics and projected drop in economic growth it would be expected to see:
- devaluation in the British pound
- drop in GBP denominated asset prices
- slowdown in economic growth (potentially even a recession)
- drop in average wages (decrease estimated between 1.1 – 3.1% by the LSE)
The market effects have already appeared with both the GBP/EUR and UK stock indices dropping by roughly 5% and 4% respectively on Friday. The broader economic effects stemming from investment uncertainty and strategic shifts in foreign investment will only appear in the next few years.
In terms of regulatory/legal changes the most immediate effects are:
- loss of EU citizenship for British players
- loss of automatically permitted movement of EU players
- uncertain terms of access to the EU common market
So what effect will these changes have on the Premier League? Let’s look at them grouped thematically:
1. Reduced transfer power and investor attractiveness
Devaluation of the GBP makes continental players (and likely all foreign players) more expensive in pound terms as European clubs will likely demand the same Euro transfer fees to satisfy their costs. Similarly, wage demands are likely to increase as players compensate for the reduced buying power of the British pound, both effects which could be apparent as early as this summer’s transfer window.
Additionally, Brexit impacts the overall attractiveness of British assets, mainly due to the drop in currency value but also because of the increased uncertainty about the long term health of the British economy. The effects of this are more intangible but would be seen in lower prices for clubs and a reduced willingness by foreign owners to invest in players and domestic infrastructure. While this is possible it seems less likely given the myriad reasons that investors buy Premier League clubs, from capital preservation and diversification to international prestige, as well as the league’s continuing status as one of the most popular in the world.
2. Weakness in local revenues
A British economic slowdown would likely be accompanied by a stagnation in average wages as businesses reduce workforces and competition weakens for existing labor. We can do a simple estimate of the impact to an average supporter by taking median, after-tax British income (£18,700) and applying the lowest estimated wage drop (1.1%) giving us a drop of £206 in discretionary income.
Less spendable income directly impacts Premier League clubs in three main revenue streams:
Matchday revenue (ticket sales and in-stadium purchases) is probably most under threat with Premier League ticket prices clocking in as some of the highest in Europe and as less disposable income forestalls season ticket renewals and ad-hoc game attendance.
Merchandising revenue (sale of products through direct and distribution partners) is similarly impacted by softness in consumer spending, our estimated drop of 206 easily covers a decision to not buy a new shirt or two.
Licensing revenue (partnerships leveraging club image and players) is less immediately affected but could be impacted as businesses reduce advertising spending in an uncertain consumer environment. The reduced licensing effect is likely to be felt more unevenly among the league as clubs which have more global appeal will still be able to leverage their cachet with global partners, whereas smaller clubs will rely on British/local market partners for a higher percentage of their revenue. Stoke City will not be able to balance lower local earnings by signing a lucrative Asian noodle partnership anytime soon.
3. Restricted movement of players
The potential loss of streamlined player movement within the European Union is the change with the least near term consequences but perhaps the greatest long run implications for player development and overall player quality in the Premier League. Britain’s EU exit would imply that all UK citizens would be subject to the same travel and work restrictions as citizens from any other ‘outside’ nation, potentially slowing or restricting the movement of players around the major European leagues. But there are a lot of forces at work here which make the implications much less clear, including player preferences, perceptions of the long term stability of the EU and overall club strategies.
Incoming players are foreign nationals brought in on loan or transfer. Much has been made about the list of 100 current senior players who wouldn’t be work eligible because of the stringent English FA rules applied to non-EU players. The list means little other than illustrating the type of talent English soccer could miss out on because of the exit, but it’s hard to believe that such regulations would be allowed to remain in force. Making it harder for clubs to import outstanding senior talent benefits neither players nor leagues and it would take an extraordinary amount of xenophobia to see that avenue closed off.
The bigger impact is likely to stem from the loss of access to the huge youth pool within the European Union since Britain will no longer be able to benefit from Article 19 of the FIFA Regulations, which permits the ‘transfers of minors between the age of 16 and 18 within the EU or EEA.’ Additionally, players may see England as less attractive if they are seeking easier access to a larger number of clubs or long term EU citizenship (the effects of these types of preferences are arguably mixed).
Outgoing players are foreign or domestic players loaned out or sold abroad. Britain notoriously exports little of its domestic talent with only the biggest names leaving for continental experience…and transfers of British megastars are unlikely to be stopped by legal terms. The most impacted areas are loans and sales of marginally-international level players as heightened permit requirements are likely to prevent things like Chelsea’s buy-loan strategy from operating as efficiently or with as much scale.
Overall, Brexit certainly has negative near and long term consequences for the Premier League but it’s difficult to say how significant those are compared with the phenomenal growth of the league’s popularity across the world. Do marginally increased transfer costs matter when domestic and international TV rights continue growing with every renewal and will easily surpass £2bn annually by 2018? Will players even think twice about EU access if they’re already playing on the defining international (commercial) stage of soccer?
Perhaps the only effect would be on the youth level as clubs face a decision on whether to invest more heavily in youth development in light of the lost access to elite European youth or continue buying ready made senior players from abroad. But even that decision is decision is likely to be determined more by the FA than Brexit rules given the emphasis on things like the homegrown player rules and demands of the national team.
It’s certainly up for debate whether Brexit actually will be anything more than a footnote in the meteoric rise of the Premier League as a global product.