2020 a year in review… what has 2021 got in store?

As 2020 draws to a close, to many peoples delight, it creates a perfect opportunity to look back and review the “unprecedented year” and start looking towards what 2021 may have in store for the sporting world.

2020 began with major international governing bodies looking forward to the summer, where major competitions were due to be held across the globe; the Football European Championships, the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics, and the Ryder Cup. These, amongst others taking place on an annual basis such as; Wimbledon, the conclusion of domestic leagues and cup competitions in various nations and sports, were all postponed following the outbreak of the Covid-19 virus, leading to the pandemic we are currently in. Trouble started late in 2019 for Rugby Union side Saracens when they were found guilty of breaching RFU salary cap rules resulting in a 35-point deduction and £5.35million fine but their troubles worsened in early January as their points deduction was increased to 70 points ensuring their regulation to the second division of English Rugby.

In February, football teams in Europe’s top cup competition, the UEFA Champions League, are usually beginning to prepare and participate in their first knock-out fixture of the competition, however, Manchester City had another battle on their hands. The club was sanctioned by UEFA under the Financial Fair Play rules after “overstating its sponsorship revenue in its accounts and in the break-even information”.[1] This led to a 2-year participation ban of UEFA competitions being imposed on the Manchester club to commence from the 2020/21 season. Manchester City appealed the decision immediately and thus paved the way for a legal battle against the governing body for the foreseeable future. 

With Coronavirus continuing to develop around Europe and the rest of the world, countries were beginning to shutdown in order to protect the people and prevent the spread. Professional sport also followed suit, competitions and leagues were stopped and tournaments postponed until the situation became safer. As the world stopped, so did sport.

That, however, is not to say sports law stopped. Legal discussions were continuing, issues about the potential restart or abandonment of sport were being raised. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) were one of the first governing bodies to make the decision to move the 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games to the summer of 2021, albeit after pressure and concerns from athletes and stakeholders alike. UEFA followed by postponing the European Championships and FIFA released additional guidance on impact of the pandemic on player contracts. The economic pressures caused by lockdowns and, subsequently, amended sporting calendars created great financial concern for governing bodies, sports clubs and athletes within all sports. UEFA preemptively launched the club benefit payment scheme, the International body of Gymnastics (the FIG) and the International Federation of Tennis (ITF) all made direct efforts to support athletes and alleviate the financial strains caused by the virus[2].

Professional sports began to restart in June, despite within a behind closed doors scene, such as the Premier League and the Championship. A number of leagues around Europe and the UK made the decision to conclude the leagues on a points-per-game basis (as recommended by a previous blog-post at the time – https://cutt.ly/8jtXLt2 ) Manchester City’s legal battle also came to close as their 2-year ban was overturned and the £30 million fine was reduced to £10million following a CAS appeal. Domestic league competitions were concluded in late July and European cups in late August in order to facilitate the bid to start and complete the 2020/21 campaigns within a reasonable timeframe.

October raised issues of human rights issues within sports, as Caster Semenya prepares to challenge her ban of competing in 400m, 800m, and 1500m races by the World Athletic governing bodies as a result of refusing testosterone lowering medication. Her team are preparing the make the challenge in front of the European Court of Human Rights. This was a result of the failed attempt to challenge the decision of the CAS at the Swiss Federal Tribunal. All the while, English football continued its support of the Black Lives Matter campaign through encouraging the “Take the knee” stance before kick-off and the addition of the “no room for racism” on the sleeve badges of every player. Both instances of suppressing an athlete(s) human right and positive action against discrimination will continue through into 2021 with the hope improving the lives of athletes for future years to come. More articles discussing these two topics in detail will be coming soon to TheSportsLawReport.com.

The year concludes with the UK successfully negotiating a trade deal with the EU, as a result of Brexit. In relation to sports law, FIFA have granted an exemption within the Regulations of the Status and Transfer of Players (RSTP) for UK clubs which will allow them to transfer players between the ages of 16-18. Article 19 of the RSTP would usually prohibit the transfer of minors (under 18) unless there is an agreement between 2 clubs within the EU. As a result of Brexit, UK clubs would therefore lose this ability. With the exemption granted by FIFA, it means that UK clubs can continue to transfer players between EU clubs between the ages of 16 and 18 allowing for a more flexibility in English football and development for young players both in the UK and in Europe.

The Court of Arbitration for Sport, in December, reduced the ban imposed on the Russian state and prevents athletes from representing their country at international competitions. The ban was initially 4 years as result of the doping scandal, but CAS decided in 2019 it will be decreased to 2 years. Russian athletes were previously allowed to compete under Neutral Athlete and not representing the Russian flag or colours’ and this will continue during the next year.

In a year like no other, the Sports Law world remains busier than ever and this will continue to be the case throughout 2021. With issues such as the Caster Semenya human rights appeal set to be the forefront of legal dispute in athletics and the fallout from the implications of the pandemic set to play a significant role in sports law discussions and debates. The betting regulators in the UK look set to impose a form of gambling advertisement and sponsorship embargo within, certainly, football but perhaps leading to the inclusion of many other sports, to protect the welfare of the consumer.

The pandemic has produced the chance to review and evaluate the processes and regulations in sport that in the past may have required substance to avoid question of such rules. The Premier League and Project Big Picture proves this mindset of governing bodies and leading sports clubs – perhaps a review of governing structures and processes may lead to a new line of governance in sport in 2021.


[1] https://www.tas-cas.org/fileadmin/user_upload/Award_CAS_6298_internet.pdf

[2] Centre, A. (2020). Asser International Sports Law Blog | International Sports Law Cases . Retrieved 31 December 2020, from https://www.asser.nl/SportsLaw/Blog/category/International-Sports-Law-Cases

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