Dominance in Wrestling: Court ends the (antitrust) fight between Sports Federations
When it comes to wrestling, it’s well established that fighting is an essential part of the sport. However, whilst it’s typical to see wrestlers meeting in the ring, the opponents in this case went to battle in court.
The question that ignited the fight before the Nuremberg-Fürth Regional Court and Nuremberg Court of Appeals is not a new one: Can a (governing) sports federation ban athletes from its events because they participated in competitions organised by rival federations? Given all that has come before on this topic, the Court of Appeals’ recent judgment did not unearth any groundbreaking new insight, but it does shed some light on key errors that governing sport federations should avoid when facing off with rivals.
In this case, the German Wrestling League (Deutsche Ringer-Liga, or DRL), and five of its teams successfully appealed against the German Wrestling Federation’s (Deutscher Ringer-Bund, or DRB) and United World Wrestling’s (UWW), the worldwide federation governing amateur wrestling, decisions to ban athletes from their competitions because they had participated in DRL events.
The DRL was launched in 2016 in reaction to internal disputes within the DRB. It organises an independent wrestling league in Germany that is not associated with either the DRB’s or UWW’s. From the outset, this independence created tensions between the three organisations. The DRB, which is a member of the German Olympic Sports Federation, and the UWW both openly questioned the legitimacy of the DRL.
In order to prevent wrestlers and teams from participating in the new “maverick league”, the DRB banned nine athletes that had competed in the DRL from taking part in the official 2017 German wrestling championships organised by the DRB. For the same reason, the UWW disqualified nine German athletes (some of whom were already impacted by the DRB’s ban) from all international competitions under its control in 2018. This included the 2018 wrestling world championships.
The DRL and five of its teams opposed these bans before the Nuremburg-Fürth Regional Court. The claimants argued that DRB’s and UWW’s actions amounted to an abuse of a dominant position and thereby breached German and EU competition law. In 2019, the regional court agreed and found the bans to be unlawful. Subsequently, in January 2021, the Nuremberg Court of Appeals confirmed this view and rejected DRB’s and UWW’s appeals against the lower court’s decision.
The finishing move
The Nuremberg Court of Appeals found that the exclusion of athletes by a sports governing body for taking part in events of rival organisers can indeed constitute a forbidden impediment under EU (and German) antitrust law.
Sports federations, such as the DRB and the UWW, govern access to sport competitions, such as national or world championships. As such, they have a regulatory function. At the same time, these federations compete with other organisers of sport events. This dual function creates a conflict of interest for the federations. If they (ab)use their regulatory function to foreclose rival organisations, e.g., by sanctioning athletes for participating in a rival’s events, this can breach principles of competition law. This is especially the case if athletes’ livelihoods depend on their participation in the federation’s events – as is the case with the DRB and UWW.
However, federations such as the DRB and UWW are not completely barred from protecting their own economic interests against rivals. As befitting for sports, it’s just that they must not employ “unfair” measures to do so (as the General Court also confirmed in its 2020 International Skating Union decision).
In line with settled case law of the EU Courts (starting with the 2006 Meca-Medina judgment), the Nuremberg Court of Appeals assessed the (un)fairness of the DRB’s and UWW’s bans in a well-known three-step test: (i) did they pursue a legitimate objective, (ii) were they necessary to achieve the objective, and (iii) were they proportionate?
The court considered, but eventually left open whether the DRB’s and UWW’s objectives for evoking the bans were legitimate. Even if the federations’ actions pursued legitimate goals, they were neither necessary nor proportionate to achieve them. For instance, the court found that the bans were not necessary to secure adherence to their anti-doping rules. After all, the DRL did not stop the DRB and the UWW from conducting drug tests on any athletes – even if it had no elaborate drug testing scheme of its own.
Another point that the court admonished was the ad hoc basis of the bans. At the time of the bans, both federations lacked proper approval processes and statutory rules governing participation in their events that were sufficiently precise, transparent, comprehensive and non-discriminatory. For this reason alone, the court found the bans to be a priori disproportionate.
The Nuremberg Court of Appeals’ decision emphasises that antitrust law is becoming an increasingly important factor in the sports world and the interactions between sports federations and individuals.
On the one hand, the decision strengthens the position of individuals opposing governing sport federations. It shows that athletes cannot be excluded from events just for participating in a rival organiser’s event. On the other, the decision provides said sports federations with valuable guidance. It not only confirms their general ability to take defensive actions against rivals, but also highlights key errors that federations should avoid in their struggles. First, spontaneous reactions and arbitrary restrictions that aren’t based on a clear, pre-defined set of rules don’t stand a chance in court. Second, it’s not enough to have legitimate goals – it is also critical to select actions that are necessary and proportionate to achieve them.
As in wrestling and any other sport, careful planning and preparation are therefore imperative for success, both in- and outside of the ring.
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