by Chris Foss
As I typed this column, it was interesting for me to note that the word “Brexit” was not a spelling error. The word has entered our lexicon for better or worse, as the British are seemingly on the verge of leaving the European Union after a “Remain” or “Exit” referendum that took place on June 23. At a conference I attended that day in San Diego, my European colleagues were unanimously dismayed after the “Exit” vote narrowly carried the day among British voters. Among the concerns registered among the conference-goers, however, one important one was not discussed: what the impacts would be on the sports world.
Below is a brief digest (with links) of some of the initial reactions of the sports world to Brexit, followed by a brief analysis of the situation from a sports fan’s perspective.
From BBC Sport on July 1: “British clubs could suffer in transfer window, warns sports expert,” http://www.bbc.com/sport/football/36620201
The article warns that the biggest problem facing British soccer clubs competing for the best European talent lies in the steep drop in the value of the pound following the Brexit vote. On June 24, the dollar-to-pound ratio fell to $1.33, and it has roughly remained there ever since. True, the euro fell against the dollar as well, but not as fast as the pound. Professor Simon Chadwick predicts the fall of the pound will make it more expensive for British clubs wanting top European players. But Gordon Taylor, head of the Professional Footballers’ Association, argues “the decision could give homegrown youngsters a better chance of breaking into the first teams of top clubs.” The article also includes an informative video: “How might Brexit affect football?”
From The Guardian on June 25: “Jessica Ennis-Hill back to her best as fellow athletes lament Brexit,” https://www.theguardian.com/sport/2016/jun/25/jessica-ennis-hill-heptathlon-olympics-team-gb-brexit
This article focuses on the effects of future British Olympic competition. Unlike in all other world sports championships, England, Northern Ireland, Wales, and Scotland compete as a United Kingdom at the Olympics, and did so at Rio. Runner Seren Bundy-Davies pointed out that the hinted-at referendum votes by Scotland and Northern Ireland to leave the UK and rejoin the EU would have a negative effect on the remaining UK countries in future Olympic competition. Bundy-Davies claimed she did not know any athletes who voted to leave the UK. Fellow runner Andrew Steele, meanwhile, made the somewhat snobbish claim that British athletes had a more international outlook than most UK citizens because of their frequent travel, and thus had a “better basis to which to make these decisions.” But he also regretted the effect that Brexit would have on national identity. “We would be forced to identify ourselves as English not British, and personally I don’t want to do that. I’ve no interest in anyone dividing us.”
What about the American sports perspective, however? At this point it is, perhaps naturally, more muted. There was one interesting column at ESPN.com, however, about Wimbledon and Brexit, on June 25: “Andy Murray, Johanna Konta put Brexit on the back burner for now,” http://espn.go.com/tennis/wimbledon16/story/_/id/16508732/wimbledon-2016-tennis-stars-say-leave-brexit-talk-dinner-table. In sharp contrast to the Guardian story about British Olympic track stars, Konta, the country’s top tennis player, commented, “With the tour, you’re very much in your own little bubble […] I haven’t really watched very much news.” Konta smiled, however, when noting that her politics were “best discussed at the dinner table.”
And herein lies one of the major differences between marginal track stars, dependent upon the integrity of the British national team, and major world professional athletes who tour in multinational or global sports conglomerations that are, at least for now, insulated from the effects of Brexit. Not only are they more insulated, the author of this article contended, they also have more to lose in particular endorsement deals by injecting their personal politics into a highly-charged debate. Andy Murray, for instance, said to have a keen interest in the politics of Brexit, declined to comment entirely to ESPN. But the author also noted Murray, a Scot, had taken a hit in September 2014 for tweets sent out prior to the referendum on Scottish independence which was rejected that fall. On the larger question of whether or not tennis would be affected by Brexit, the columnist argued work permits are not required for non-resident players, unlike in the Premier League, which would lose out on top European talent that could not get non-resident work permits once Britain ultimately withdraws from the EU.
Should U.S. sports fans care, however? At this point, apparently not. Much of the focus of the media and players since Brexit has been on NBA free agency, the start of the NFL and college football seasons, the dog days of the MLB summer, and, of course, Ryan Lochte. There are very few Brits in the major American sports, and so far, none of them are talking to the media about Brexit. Luol Deng, for example, is probably more concerned about his big new payday from the Lakers than with the fate of his adopted home country. Also, whether or not Britain is in the EU, Brits need a passport to play in the U.S., and American players traveling to any European country—like NFL players heading to Britain for the international series, for example—need passports to go there, and will (in all likelihood) only require a visa or more complicated paperwork if they were to stay for a long duration. The bigger immigration issue for American athletes will continue to be for Canadian Football League, MLB or NBA players on the Canadian teams there.
In the long run, however, it’s in the realm of inter-European competition that we are going to notice the effects of Brexit. Under Article 50 of the EU Constitution, once a country submits an application to withdraw from the union, the process normally takes about two years, so we can expect Euro sports to be more strongly impacted by Brexit by late 2018. Fans here will notice the changes discussed in the above articles to a greater degree than they might have at the start of the decade. ESPN and Fox Sports have dramatically increased their coverage of European soccer in recent years; ESPN highly touted its coverage of the European championships this summer, even sending top talent Mike Tirico over to headline its broadcast team just prior to his departure for NBC. If the Premiership takes the dive in quality some expect it to, there will be more American commentary on it in the coming years. Also, if the pound continues to lose against the dollar, it’s conceivable that MLS in particular could benefit by attracting more British talent to the sunnier, warmer weather in the United States.
My initial take on this whole situation is that American sports shouldn’t be impacted too much one way or another by Brexit. American fans who enjoy European sports, however, will notice some changes in the coming years. Players in professional soccer leagues, in particular, are able to move freely among European leagues due to the EU’s Schengen agreement, which allows for free mobility between international borders among EU countries. If/when Britain leaves the EU, it will presumably withdraw from Schengen as well, limiting travel mobility for non-British Premier League players in particular, but also for some national team members in the UK countries (Wales, Northern Ireland, Scotland, England) and in other sports like rugby and cricket.
The bigger shocks for Americans as a result of Brexit are, ultimately, registered in financial and political terms than in the sports world. The sports world has taken notice as well, however, primarily in Europe. BBC, The Guardian, and other British websites with sports content have a great deal of comment from athletes, players, and analysts on the impact of Brexit on British and European sports. The British are understandably worried, and fans of European sports should take notice. But at this point, either the American sports fan will have more to gain than lose from Brexit, or Brexit won’t matter very much at all.