The English Premier League (EPL) is a colossal industry and a pillar of English society. In the 2017/2018 season, England’s top soccer league amassed £4.8 billion in revenue, 72% more than its nearest competitor, the German Bundesliga. It generates £3.3 billion in tax revenue for the United Kingdom (UK), adds £7.2 billion in value to the country’s economy, and supports 100,000 jobs. However, the UK’s departure from the European Union (EU) casts a shadow over the future of English soccer.
The British Home Office (HO) announced its new immigration system in February, marking the end of EU-era immigration rules. The new bill will introduce a points-based system which requires that applicants from EU and non-EU countries have an offer for a high skilled job, English skills, and a high salary or level of education. The ramifications of these post-Brexit immigration laws could be disastrous for the EPL. The potential fall out for the Premier League underscores the irony of the nationalist sentiments behind Brexit as new immigration laws will limit the league’s crucial source of talented foreign players.
Under EU Freedom of Movement rules, which allow any EU citizen to move and stay in other member countries if they are employed or seeking employment, players from EU countries complete transfers to EPL clubs without applying for a visa. This has opened the door for elite European players to provide a key labor supply to English teams and elevate English domestic soccer. In the 2018/19 season, non-UK European athletes played 45% of all Premier League minutes and scored 43.3% of all goals. Even stars like Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Riyad Mahrez, who were born in France but represent non-EU national teams, have been able to transfer to the EPL easily because they were born in EU countries.
Although the UK’s new immigration system is primarily designed to target low-skilled laborers, it will inevitably cut into the EPL’s highly skilled foreign labor force. The bill plans to apply current immigration requirements for non-EU players to EU players. These include demands that players regularly play for their national team, a requirement that usually applies only to established players. These requirements would bar many young, promising athletes as well as non-English-speaking players from signing with Premier League teams.
Teams could also struggle to sign foreign players to their training academies. Current regulations allow players between the ages of 16 to 18 to switch teams only if both clubs are in the EU. England’s departure from the Union could threaten this section of the EPL’s workforce that technically qualify as “homegrown” players. These players are classified as “English” in the Premier League and allowed to play for the English national team even though they grew up outside of the UK. Thus, even the English national team, a point of national pride, would suffer without them.
Consequently, post-Brexit immigration rules will cut into the EPL’s skilled, inelastic labor supply and lower the level of play. The blowback will affect the entire league. Teams that rely on EU players will lose a key recruitment market and even poorer teams may see their best British players poached by rich clubs who will no longer be able to turn to EU labor markets. Teams could try to recruit more English talent, but the best English players already play in England. 21 out of the most recent English National Team roster’s 23 players play in the Premier League. Elite soccer players are scarce. Extra training can help to a point, but it appears that a limited number of players possess the innate ability to become top-tier professionals. Certainly, if teams could train more British players to meet the league’s level of play, they would already because it would be cheaper than recruiting from abroad. Consequently, even if teams invest more in their training academies to find young domestic talent, it will be nearly impossible to produce enough skilled English players to account for the loss in EU recruits.
In addition to players whose transfers to the EPL are blocked by new immigration rules, European players may begin to voluntarily choose transfers to the EPL’s competitors, such as Spain’s La Liga, because of the UK’s visa application process. International viewership could follow suit, taking TV revenue away from the Premier League’s and bringing it to Europe’s other top leagues, thus diminishing the EPL’s positive effect on the British economy.
The Football Association (FA), English soccer’s governing body, could take Brexit as an opportunity to require teams to have more English players on their rosters. The FA proposed lowering the number of non-homegrown players from 17 to 12 on each 25-player roster in a bid to strengthen the English national team by giving more English players exposure to high level soccer.
To English fans who are stereotypically avid and sometimes tribalist supporters of their local teams, Brexit should be a disaster. Yet even 62% of Chelsea’s fanbase, a team on which over 50% of the roster is made up of EU nationals, voted for Brexit. The impending detriment to EPL teams and the English economy stemming from Brexit reflects the fault in the movement’s nationalist motivations. Although pro-Brexit arguments initially centered around barring low-skilled immigrant workers and protecting English culture, the British economy will likely suffer and labor shortages could arise. Similarly, instead of protecting the integrity of English soccer and its place in English identity, Brexit will undermine its success and benefits for the British economy.
Nonetheless, just as subsets of Brexit voters may have wanted to restore English identity, subsets of the EPL’s local fan base may be glad to see the league have fewer foreign players. Kick It Out, England’s organization for inclusion and equality in soccer, reports that there were 32% more reported incidents of discrimination in English soccer leagues in the 2018/19 season than the season before. Fans have thrown bananas at black players and hurled racist insults on social media. This uptick is likely tied to broader increases in hate crimes in the UK. It points to potential backlash against the increasingly international workforce and viewership of the league, which may contribute to rising ticket prices.
It is up to the FA and the UK government to ensure that the EPL does not devolve into a less diverse, entertaining, and lucrative league. First, the FA should not increase the required number of English players on each roster. As previously noted, changing that policy would hurt parity in the league and block access to a foreign labor force that is vital to the league’s wellbeing. High-skilled players from teams in South America and Africa could fill part of the void left by the loss of EU players under the new immigration system. If the FA allows fewer foreign players, it would limit the effects of even this imperfect solution. The FA’s argument that requiring teams to have more English players will strengthen the English national team overlooks the fact that those players would not face as good competition if fewer foreign players are allowed into the league.
Second, the UK Home Office should expedite visas for players from EU countries without requiring FA endorsements for work permits. Although the FA has thus far overseen work permits for international players, their incentives are to protect the national team, as the organization’s desire to cut the number of foreign players in the EPL highlights. The Home Office should intervene to protect England’s soccer industry and its cultural significance to English society. By allowing EU players into the country as long as they are certified professionals from the EU, the Home Office would protect this labor supply while still achieving their goal of barring low skilled laborers from entering the country.
Of course, neither of these solutions would solve all the problems that Brexit will cause the EPL or address underlying nationalist sentiments. EPL teams will still not be able to recruit players from ages 16 to 18. Even if the Home Office and the FA are able to mitigate the effects of Brexit on the EPL, it would do little to account for the faulty nationalist logic of leaving the EU. The consequences for the English Premier League should serve as a reminder of Brexit’s destructive nature. Instead of defending symbols of English pride, it undermines them.
Photo: Image via Flickr (Brian Sikorski)