Where does the “European model of sport” stand, 25 years on from the Bosman ruling?


Colin Miège, chair of Sport and Citizenship’s Scientific Committee


The idea that there is a “European model of sport” despite the structural divergences at national level across the continent was put forward in a consultation document published by the European Commission in 1998. This paper must be seen in the light of the thinking in the wake of the Bosman ruling in December 1995, which had rocked the international sports movement and caused difficulties for many public sports authorities. Insofar as the famous ruling of the European Court of Justice questioned the scope of international sports federations’ regulatory power, some also feared that it would undermine the traditional foundations of the organisation of sport in Europe. This led to the belief that it was necessary to identify the European sports model in order to better preserve it.

What is the European model of sport?

The paper published by the Commission started with the premise that all sports are organised according to a pyramid model, with the many grassroots clubs laying the foundations. The national federations, which federate both the grassroots clubs and the local and/or regional levels below them, form the next layer, and they in turn are members of an international federation. As such, they are responsible for organising and promoting their sport nationally and representing it internationally. They organise the national championships culminating in the award of official qualifications and play a regulatory role, with the power to impose disciplinary measures on their affiliated members. These federations have a monopoly, as only one organisation per country is responsible for representing and managing a given sport. The international sports federations, which are the supreme governing and regulatory bodies for each discipline, form the pyramid’s peak.

This model is completed by the International Olympic Committee, a body represented in each country by a National Olympic Committee (NOC), whose role can vary from being a mere vehicle for Olympism to being the national confederation for all sports disciplines. The European Olympic Committees organisation brings together the CNOs from the continent of Europe. The pyramid structure thus formed operates according to two principles: a top-down approach and participation, with members adhering to organisational rules and the possibility of electing governing bodies.


Promotion/relegation system key to how it works

The reason for this system is the need to organise competitions at all levels according to the same rules. It works on the principle that competitors (athletes or teams) can be promoted to the next level by consecutive qualifications or, conversely, relegated if they lose. This framework is a specific characteristic which differentiates open competitions from closed championships, such as those in the United States, for example. At sporting events, the competitors represent their local area, and both their achievements and their defeats help to develop a sense of belonging to a community, which is still very much alive in Europe. The system is also based on a principle of solidarity between professional and amateur sport, as well as between the richer and poorer elements.

Lastly, the model works thanks to the supervisory role played by a vast network of volunteers, which can vary according to the cultural traditions of each country, and which ensures that sports clubs remain the first port of call for the greatest number of people wishing to discover and practise amateur sport.

Trends in sports industry affect model

The Commission’s 1998 paper already pointed out that the traditional model for organising sport in Europe had undergone major changes since the 1980s, leading high-level sport to be gradually dominated by commercial interests and reconsidered from the angle of spectator-sport. The first step came with the IOC’s decision to end the distinction between amateur and professional sport at the Olympic Games and allow the Games to be sponsored by multinational companies, which have become vital “partners”. The next stage was marked by the revolution of the audiovisual sector, which led to fierce competition for the broadcasting rights to major sports competitions and a spectacular increase in their value, to the benefit of international federations in the most high-profile sports.

The federations, which traditionally acted as regulators, had also become traders in television rights, now the main source of funding for professional sport. By 1998, the European Commission was already questioning “whether federations can be both regulatory bodies and commercial entities”.

Under threat: moves to preserve the specific nature of sport

Some people thought that such trends put the European sport model at risk. The rise in commercial interests encouraged some professional sports representatives to repeatedly try to break free of the control of the federations, which seem to be torn between performing their traditional supervisory role in amateur sport and managing professional sport with its growing demands for independence.

A decline in voluntary work observed in most European countries was also linked to these trends, and there were fears of the associative sport model being undermined as a result. The other threat seemed to come from European law itself, in particular from the implementation of its rules on the free movement of persons and goods and on free competition, which initially seemed to largely go against the rules drawn up by sports organisations.

In this somewhat alarming context, and under pressure from part of the sports movement, the European Commission supported the concept of the “specificity of sport” to be taken into account in implementing common policies. For example, the Council’s  Declaration  on “the specific characteristics of sport and its social function in Europe, of which account should be taken in implementing common policies” which accompanies the Treaty of Nice (December 2000), was adopted after the Commission submitted a report that it produced the previous year “with a view to safeguarding current sports structures and maintaining the social function of sport in the European Union”. In this eminently political Declaration, there was an underlying link between preserving the European sports model and taking into account the specific nature of sport, at least in the eyes of the sports movement.

According to the Commission, sport plays a special role in society, education, health and culture. As we know, this concept, which had never been clearly defined, was eventually included in Article 165 of the Treaty of Lisbon in 2007, which states that “[the Union … shall take] account of the specific nature of sport, its structures based on voluntary activity and its social and educational function.” It is also responsible for “developing the European dimension in sport”, implying recognition of the concept of a European model of sport.

An idea backed by the Council of Europe

In 2008, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe in turn adopted a Resolution on “the need to preserve the European Sport Model”, broadly echoing the arguments put forward by the Commission at the very moment the latter seemed to be distancing itself from the notion, as can be seen from its White Paper on Sport published in July 2007.

The Assembly stated that “[t]he European sports model is neither homogeneous nor perfect. It is, however, deeply rooted in European civil society and is an important expression of European culture and the European attitude towards sporting values” (paragraph 2). It recognised that this model built on the principles of “financial solidarity and openness of competition (promotion and relegation, opportunity for all)” (paragraph 3) before underlining the specific nature of sport which “has important social, educational and cultural functions” and pointing out that “[s]olidarity between different levels in sport (in particular, between professional and amateur) is a fundamental aspect of the European sports model” (paragraph 4).

For a time, the two European bodies seemed united in their belief that this sports model existed, or at least were aware of its historical contribution to European identity and the variety of its multiple social functions, which triggered a reflection on trying to preserve its traditional structures which appeared threatened. But the European Union was quick to distance itself from the notion of a model.

A controversial idea

The concept of the European Sport Model seems to have been challenged by the European Commission itself. According to the working document accompanying the European Commission’s 2007 White Paper on Sport, “it must be recognised that any attempt at precisely defining the ‘European Sport Model’ quickly reaches its limits”. A few of its features, such as the system of open competitions based on promotion and relegation, are actually limited to team sport. Even for these sports, a licensing system somewhat mitigates the effects. Some countries in Europe also have totally or partially closed competition systems for competitions and “[t]he relevance of the pyramid structure for the organisation of competitions […] is thus greatly reduced”. The Commission also highlighted that some sports such as golf or tennis have their own unique structure. Lastly, the building blocks of the unique European model may actually be found in many other parts of the world. To conclude, it added that new trends which could be observed in most member states (such as increasing commercialisation, stagnation of the number of voluntary workers and a rise in the number of new stakeholders) “are challenging the traditional vision of a unified ‘European Sport Model’”. Most of these points are included in the Communication on Developing the European Dimension in Sport presented by the Commission in 2011. Is it possible to continue to entertain this idea when so many commentators have voiced their doubts?

Basis for the concept called into question

At national level, there are a great many different organisational structures. Each national system, consisting of a public administration and sport confederation, has its own characteristics. This huge diversity makes it hard to identify unifying factors and categorise sports organisations in Europe. There is, however, a marked divide between northern European countries with a more liberal approach to society and southern European countries where there is greater state intervention in the field of sport. The levels of participation in sport also vary considerably between north and south, as can be seen from the Eurobarometer surveys co-ordinated by the Commission’s services. If the European model of sport exists and can be a factor for unity, it is also marked by its diversity and is broken down into a multitude of sub-models in different countries. These observations, which apply to the 27 member states of the European Union, also extend to all 47 countries in the Council of Europe.[1]

Other experts have expressed a number of reservations about the concept of the European Sport Model. One of the most recent analyses points out that the arrival of new commercial partners made the model more complex, while the role of international sports federations changed considerably at the turn of the 20th century.[2] Furthermore, the good governance of these federations, with their apparently rigid internal organisation, is questioned, as is the lack of participation, democratic control and transparency at managerial level.[3] One of the recurring allegations is that some international federations use their regulatory powers as a cover for promoting their commercial interests and deterring potential competitors.[4] The openness of the European model, as opposed to the closed North American model, is also contested, because of the restrictions of all kinds quietly imposed by the federations. Lastly, the authors stress how the redistribution mechanisms supposed to justify the model are not very effective.

The European model of sport: a dream with a purpose?

At the end of this brief review, it seems quite clear that the notion of the European Sport Model has lost much of its substance since its introduction at the end of the 1990s, and that it is as much dream as reality. The same is undoubtedly true of the notion of the specific nature of sport, which is often associated with it, even if it has been enshrined in the Treaty of Lisbon.

Is there sufficient ground for disqualifying these notions in the name of realism, or more mundanely because they appear be the subject of strong lobbying by the sports movement which, under the guise of promoting traditional values, is seeking to preserve its economic interests and a monopoly that can be called into question by European competition law?[5]

This question requires a carefully measured response. After all, Europe needs dreams and beliefs in order to move forward in its construction. It must also ensure that the discrepancies between the somewhat idealised vision of the European sport model and the reality of the conduct of international sporting bodies are not too glaring. Hence the need to continue exercising its regulatory power with the means at its disposal, as it has been able to do in the past, while respecting the independence of sports organisations.

On the other hand, the notion of the European sport model includes an important intangible dimension, relating to the humanist values of sport, which is highly salutary and should be preserved. The pioneering work of the Council of Europe, which was the first organisation to contribute to establishing a European body of sports doctrine based on openness, non-discrimination and integration, is to be commended here. Most of this was enshrined in the European Sports Charter, which is currently being revised and deserves wider recognition and implementation. This European model undoubtedly deserves to be spread, perhaps in the form of guidelines to address the many distortions to the sporting ideal that are symptomatic of our times.


[1] In particular, see MIEGE C., Les organisations sportives et l’Europe, INSEP, 2000 and Sport et droit européen, l’Harmattan, 2017. See also SPORT ET CITOYENNETE, L’organisation du sport dans les États membres de l’Union européenne, 2013.

[2] CATTANEO A. and PARRISH R., European Union, June 2020, Edge Hill University; pp. 15 to 57.

[3] This concern is widely shared by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, which very clearly expressed this in Resolution 2199 (2018) of January 2018: “Towards a framework for modern sports governance”.

[4] Reference should be made in this respect to the decisions handed down by the Commission with regard to the International Automobile Federation (FIA) in 1999-2000 for abuse of a dominant position, which forced the FIA to radically overhaul its regulations and internal organisation.

[5] A perfect illustration of contesting these economic interests can be found in the ruling by the Union’s court on 20 December 2020, contravening the rules of eligibility set out by the International Skating Union (ISU, aff. T-93/18).

Sport et citoyenneté