Brexit stokes uncertainty in sport

The United Kingdom’s decision to leave the European Union could have a positive impact on South Africa’s player drain problem, which is fuelled by the stronger pound.

The air of anxiety hangs too thick to be penetrated by the eyes that gaze towards a post-Brexit world. So much uncertainty over trade and movement in the near future, and in the distance – who knows?

As the hour of turning back passes for Britain and the window of sanity is shuttered, 29 March, the day the United Kingdom is to leave the European Union (EU), looms like a doomsday signifier on the horizon. This date will mark two years since British Prime Minister Theresa May triggered Article 50, the EU’s timed exit procedure to allow for the withdrawal of Britain from the union.

Brexit votes have dominated a brutal week for May in the UK parliament. On 12 March MPs rejected her withdrawal agreement for the second time. The following day they voted and rejected leaving the EU without a deal. Then on 14 March, parliament voted by 413 to 202 in favour of an extension to Article 50.

Brexit is technically still possible on 29 March, because no laws have changed. Politically though, this may prove unlikely, and this is the funk that the UK languishes in now.

May will now propose that Brexit is delayed until 30 June –  only if parliament approves her Brexit deal.

Had it not been for the fog of uncertainty around what Brexit means for sport, world sport governing bodies would at least know what to expect. Brexit curtails freedom of movement and trade between UK and EU countries, and those that have signed an EU Association Agreement.

Changing sport as we know it

Millions of travellers will require special documents and foreign employees looking to work in the UK will need to be sponsored or present proof of being a leader in their field of expertise.

When, or if (and it’s a big if) Britain exits the EU at the end of March, it will set into motion a series of dangerous repercussions that, if not adjusted to suit the real world, could change the face of sport as billions know it.

Of course, that is a worst-case scenario. But the reality may not be far off.

Sport, a multibillion-pound industry in the UK, spans the world and requires the movement of people and equipment across borders and between ports. Brexit exposes sports such as horse racing, cricket, rugby and football to the chokehold of government bureaucracy and red tape that could deprive them of life.

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Kolpak contracts are particularly vulnerable if the EU and Britain go their separate ways. The Kolpak rush in 2017 saw several South African cricketers end their international careers in favour of a heftier salary and longevity in the game.

Named after Slovak handball player Maros Kolpak, the European Court of Justice ruling declared that citizens of countries that have signed EU Association Agreements have the same right to freedom of work and movement within the EU as EU citizens.

Post-Brexit, the European Court of Justice may no longer have jurisdiction over the UK and therefore the Kolpak deals may fall away. “May” seems to be a keyword in this Brexit saga.

If an extension to the exit process for the withdrawal is approved, it will buy athletes at least two years more to December 2020. So many maybes and not enough affirmation.

Kissing home goodbye

When former Proteas fast bowler Duanne Olivier surprisingly pressed the ejector seat on his international career, his decision was met with rage at worst and bitterness at best from cricket officials. Certainly, the reaction from Cricket South Africa (CSA), Olivier’s former employer, was between shock and apoplexy.

In previous years, players who were in the twilight of their careers with no prospects of further international exposure found their way to Kolpak contracts. But the departure of players like Hardus Viljoen, Rilee Rossouw, Kyle Abbott and now Olivier, players with still so much to offer their national teams, has changed the game.

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You could hear the pain in CSA chief executive Thabang Moroe’s voice when he said, “We find it extremely disappointing that Duanne has taken this step after all the opportunities we have given him, particularly over the past season and going forward, to live his dream of being an international cricketer.”

From a business point of view, CSA lost an asset in which it had invested millions of rands. Olivier made his first-class debut for Free State at 19 in 2010-2011 and worked his way up to national colours. The time and effort Olivier’s employers spent on him had only just begun to pay off before he excused himself.

Now Olivier is no longer a part of South African cricket, along with dozens of promising South African sportspeople plying their trade in Europe, who are now caught in the smog of a potential Brexit devoid of clarity.

Brexit’s effect on Kolpak

The impact Brexit will have on Kolpak deals and sporting regulations worldwide are mysteries no one seems capable of solving at this point in time. Scores of South Africans and other non-European rugby and cricket players may find themselves unable to work, not to mention the devastating impact Brexit could have on other forms of migrant labour.

There are roughly 20 South African cricketers on Kolpak deals in English county cricket at the moment, and more than 90 South African rugby players throughout the UK with similar deals. They may be feeling a twinge of vulnerability as 29 March draws closer.

It’s possible they may be counted as foreign players, forcing counties and clubs to choose between paying a heavier price for their services or letting go of them.

It’s business, after all, as former South African Kevin Pietersen reminded us when he tweeted: “The #DuaneOlivier scenario: EVERY sportsman is a business now! Name me someone in business that wouldn’t move jobs for: 1. More money? 2. Less work? 3. Job security?
It’s the world of sport now! You might not like it, but it’s REAL!”

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James Allen, director of policy, governance and external affairs at the Sport and Recreation Alliance in the UK addressed the House of Lords recently, saying, “We fear that there is a very real risk of a ‘chilling effect’ where new regulations … could cause significant reductions in the movement of people, services, expertise and equipment.”

The UK government’s response has been almost South African in nature, saying it’s “engaging with stakeholders”.

Minister for Sport and Civil Society Tracey Crouch tried to reassure the UK Parliament. “The UK’s immigration system already makes specific provision for UK sport to access top-level sports people from outside the EU, which after we exit the EU will include Kolpak players. We recognise the need for sport, including football, rugby, and cricket, to continue to be able to access talent from the EU and globally.”

Brexit’s impact on sport funding

Her words are of little comfort to the sports industry, which relies heavily on the freedom of movement of people and equipment. Brexit could cause the pound to plunge, leaving less funding for sporting events such as the Olympic Games and World Cups. An agreement on the freedom of movement of horses between Britain, Ireland and France could be null and void if Britain leaves the EU.

Brexit isn’t catching everyone by surprise though. According to The Guardian, the All England Club had already put plans in place shortly after the Brexit vote in 2016 to import more than 50 000 tennis balls from Indonesia by March, for this year’s Wimbledon Grand Slam. However, because 34 000kg of strawberries are consumed during the tournament, British farmers may struggle to recruit seasonal workers to pick and pack fruit. It’s the stuff of nightmares.

Strawberries and cream aside, the biggest headache belongs to the International Cricket Council (ICC), which has the small matter of a World Cup to arrange in May. The ICC faces administrative minefields involving everything from suppliers to visa requirements for players, staff, and supporters.

In 2009, the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) successfully lobbied the UK government to permit players who have participated in a Test match within the past two years, or who have had a UK work permit for the past four years, to sign Kolpak deals. The ECB has also given monetary incentives to counties that sign up young England-qualified cricketers, which has caused the number of Kolpak players to drop in recent years.

It’s unlikely that if the worst happens, the country’s Kolpak players will come rushing back to the land of their birth and opt to play for their country again. That move will probably not be entertained.

South Africa’s player drain

Brexit could stop the player drain in rugby and cricket currently fuelled by the rand’s whipping boy status against the pound, and prevent top-flight players from using the Proteas’ national stage as an audition venue for international scouts. A knock-on effect could result in a greater focus on homegrown talent for both the UK and South Africa if that is at all realistic.

Tony Irish, chief executive of the South African Cricketers’ Association and chair of the Federation of International Cricketers’ Associations, has taken a pragmatic approach to dealing with players who choose Kolpak over country.

“The Kolpak situation is similar to the issue of free agency in cricket in that‚ in both‚ a player is free to exercise a choice as to where and how he plies his trade as a professional cricketer,” Irish said in a recent interview. “I think this is important to emphasise because players are often blamed for the choices they make, but the system is set up to allow those choices.”

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Retention, Irish said, is best achieved by paying players what they are worth. Other measures Irish mentioned are solid contracts over a defined period and a “trusted environment with good culture and free from politics”, hinting perhaps at CSA’s transformation policies, which have been proffered as reasons for some players abandoning international cricket.

Moroe, still stinging from Olivier’s snub, seems unconvinced at this point. “If one looks at the bigger picture, this is not good news for the global game either, that a player who has just broken into the top 20 on the ICC Test match bowling rankings for the first time should opt effectively to bring down the curtain on his international career in favour of playing only in domestic leagues,” he said. “The Kolpak ruling is something we have had to live with for some time and we have to manage its implications as best we can.”

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