The world of football is not only a source of passion and entertainment for millions of fans worldwide but also a lucrative business where clubs fight for success on and off the pitch. In recent years, the phenomenon of MCO has emerged as a prominent feature of the football landscape, presenting both opportunities and regulatory challenges for football’s governing bodies.


Multi-club ownership refers to the practice of individuals or entities owning multiple football clubs simultaneously. This can take various forms, including ownership of clubs in different leagues, regions, or even countries. The motivations behind MCO are diverse with the bottom line usually being diversifying business portfolios, reducing financial risks, creating synergies across marketing and services, and facilitating player transfers.


The increase of MCO is one of the most notable trends in football investment, with over 150 clubs worldwide operating within an MCO structure (compared to a few dozen only a decade ago).



Potential Issues


While MCO can potentially bring benefits, it also raises several regulatory concerns.


Some of the key issues are conflicts of interest when owners with stakes in multiple clubs may face dilemmas when their teams compete against each other or when transfer negotiations involve players shared between their clubs. This raises questions about fair competition and the integrity of the game.


MCO can also influence financial fair play (FFP) compliance, which is designed to promote sustainability and prevent excessive spending by football clubs. MCO structures allow funds and resources to be transferred between affiliated clubs in ways that obscure the true financial picture.


Competitive balance might be an issue as well, as clubs with shared ownership may enjoy advantages in terms of access to talent, resources, and strategic planning, which can create disparities and undermine the integrity of sporting outcomes.


Finally, MCO can dilute the sense of identity and connection that fans feel towards their clubs, especially if ownership interests prioritize commercial interests over the traditions and values of the clubs and their supporters.



Regulatory Landscape


In response to the challenges posed by MCO, football’s governing bodies have implemented various regulations and guidelines at both the national (league) and European (UEFA competitions) levels, aimed at promoting transparency, fairness, and accountability.


At the UEFA level, Article 5 of the Regulations of the UEFA Champions League prohibits clubs controlled by the same owners or directors from competing in the same European competition (except for clubs that have qualified for the UEFA Champions League group stage and any stage of the UEFA Europa Conference League).  



Approach of UEFA and CAS


MCO issues have been dealt with by UEFA bodies and the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) as well.

In the “ENIC decision”, the CAS determined that the MCO regulation preventing one entity from owning shares in more clubs serves “the fundamental goal of preventing conflicts of interests which would be publicly perceived as affecting the authenticity, and thus the uncertainty, of results in competitions” (CAS 98/200). The European Commission refused subsequent complaints against the UEFA MCO rule.


In 2017, UEFA had to deal with another MCO issue when both Red Bull Salzburg and RB Leipzig qualified for the UEFA Champions League. UEFA ruled that the clubs could not compete in the same competition because of the “decisive influence” of Red Bull over both clubs due to the existence of several links between the company and the clubs (and the clubs themselves).


Red Bull Salzburg subsequently implemented certain changes to distance itself from the company Red Bull (at both an individual and contractual level) and provided commitments to UEFA related to the lease of their stadium from a Red Bull related entity and the issue of similar branding. Based on these changes, UEFA concluded that the Red Bull and Red Bull Salzburg relationship resembled only a standard sponsorship relationship and therefore there was no decisive influence of Red Bull over the club. Both clubs were therefore allowed to complete in the UEFA Champions League.   


Ahead of the 2023/24 season, UEFA dealt with MCO issues with respect to several clubs, such as Aston Villa, Brighton, AC Milan, Union Saint-Gilloise, Toulouse, and Vitoria Sport Clube, and cleared all of them to compete in European competitions.


The UEFA Club Financial Control Body (CFCB) which oversees the application of the UEFA Club Licensing and Financial Sustainability Regulations stated that it accepted the admission of the aforementioned clubs to UEFA club competitions for the 2023-24 season “following the implementation of significant changes by the clubs and their related investors” and that “the significant changes implemented brought the clubs into compliance with the multi-club ownership rule.


As per the CFCB, all concerned clubs accepted that they will not transfer players to each other, whether permanently or on loan, directly or indirectly, until September 2024, will not enter into any kind of cooperation, joint technical or commercial agreements and will not use any joint scouting or player database.



What’s next?


Multi-club ownership presents both opportunities and challenges for the world of football. While it can facilitate investment, innovation, and strategic growth, it also raises concerns about conflicts of interest, competitive balance, and the integrity of the game. Addressing these regulatory challenges requires a balanced approach that safeguards the principles of fairness, transparency, and fan engagement, while fostering sustainable growth and development within football.


Given the trend of MCO, UEFA has already admitted, via its President, that it may need to reconsider the current regulatory framework. By navigating the complexities of multi-club ownership with diligence and foresight, football’s governing bodies can uphold the values and traditions that keep the beautiful game truly special.