Brexit and UK professional sport

Hampden park

Megan Louise
Junior Researcher, Impact Brexit

11 April 2018

While all the focus when it comes to Brexit and the divorce bill focuses on sectors such as financial services, the car industry and agriculture – and rightly so – there is a one billion dollar industry that is also worrying about Brexit. The impact of Brexit on professional sport is a highly contested topic, with several institutions such as the Football Association and the English Cricket Board have concerns about the impact of Brexit on free movement.

Professional sport has benefited greatly over the years from attracting foreign sports people with no need for work permits. Not only has free movement benefited British-produced talent but it has also significantly increased the global popularity of UK professional leagues. This blog post looks at some of the big questions being asked by UK pro sports governing bodies, in football, rugby and cricket.


Football is the most popular sport in nearly every country in the world and the nations of the United Kingdom are no exception. The biggest (in terms of popularity and wealth) league in the world is the English Premier League. This is a competition that is televised throughout the world and has benefited greatly from the UK’s membership of the European Union and EU players currently do not require a work permit to sign for a club in Britain.

But what will happen after Brexit? Currently any player from a non-European Economic Area (EEA) only qualifies for a work permit to sign for a club if they have played a certain percentage of international games, with the exact percentage determined via FIFA rankings. Once the UK leaves the EU, will this same rule apply to all European players? If so  then high profile transfers such as N’Golo Kanté’s £30M move to Chelsea would be unlikely to happen in the future. And if clubs are denied top international talent, will the English professional football leagues globally remain as popular and lucrative?

Free movement

Another impact of the removal of free movement will be on clubs’ football academies. Currently any player – domestic or foreign –- who has been signed to a club for three years prior to their 21st birthday is considered to be “home-grown” (a Premier League team requires 8 out of their 25 man squad to be “home-grown” players). This has resulted in the production of foreign superstar players such as Manchester United’s Paul Pogba as “home-grown” talent.  Were this to be restricted in future by Brexit, there may be possible benefits. 

For example, fewer foreign players may mean more playtime for domestic players. In turn, increased playtime may result in more experienced and higher skilled UK footballers.  Given than the four national teams (England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales) have underperformed for years, one might think that the UK’s FA’s – though perhaps not the professional league - might be hoping that Brexit will restrict the hiring of foreign player to the national team’s benefit.

As if we hadn’t seen enough of an increase in recent transfer fees – viz. (Virgil Van Dijk’s £75M move from Southampton to Liverpool) the situation might get worse. There is already an “English premium” placed on players – such as £49M Raheem Sterling only playing two full seasons before his move – if the big clubs need home-grown players then they won’t hesitate to ‘splash the cash’.

Brexit may lead to even bigger prices in the short term. Clubs will overspend on bringing overseas talent in before Brexit is finalised. This is because of the uncertainty of what will happen afterwards. Teams want foreign players tied down to contracts before the 29th of March 2019 as it will be easier to keep them in the country than to bring them over after that date.

Rugby and Cricket

Many county cricket players are from countries such as South Africa, Zimbabwe and the Caribbean who benefit from the ECJ’s 2003 Koplak ruling. Since then there has been an influx of eligible foreign players into the game. The English Cricket Board (ECB) has found it hard to stop such players coming into the game, as it wants more English players in county cricket to help increase the size of the national team pool. It has helped the ECB in recent years that the Home Office has stated that players would require a four year work visa to be considered an “EU citizen” but Brexit will eradicate this agreement completely.

Both professional rugby leagues – league and union – in the United Kingdom have benefited from the fact that the “foreign player” rule doesn’t apply to players from countries such as South Africa, Fiji, Samoa and Tonga. This is due to an agreement these countries have with the EU allowing free movement of citizens. While both rugby associations have refused to say anything until Brexit is complete, it is believed that players will have to have played a test match for their country in the previous 15 months to be eligible for a UK work permit.

These are just some of the ways that Brexit will influence professional sport in the UK, but we can’t be sure about all the impacts until the 29th of March 2019 when the UK leaves the EU – and perhaps not even then.

To find out more information on forthcoming seminars and lectures on the impact of Brexit in all industries, please visit

Tags: Brexit