Tuesday 20th of July 2023

EASE TALKS n°6 – The future of the European Sport Model

Presentation of the European Sport Model

This presentation of the European Sport Model has been gathered after an intervention of Jean-François Brocard, Associate Professor at the University of Limoges and researcher for the Centre for Sports Law and Economics. He participated in producing a study on the European Sport Model (that can be found here). Other inputs have been gathered thanks to the Study on the European Sport Model, reported to the European Commission (that you can find here).

The European Sport Model is a concept that refers to the construction and the current functioning of the European sport system. This system  emerged in England at the end of the 19th century, with the creation of sports associations and clubs. There has yet to be a consensus on a specific definition of the European Sport Model. Nevertheless, with the creation of diverse institutions from the beginning of the 20th century, the following pillars appear to be great indicators of the application of this model at the national level:

  • The monopoly of federations;
  • The regulatory power of federations;
  • The membership of sportspeople in clubs;
  • The organisation of sport according to a hierarchical system reinforced by the promotion/relegation phenomenon;
  • The structuring of sporting bodies in the form of federations,
  • The voluntary nature of the leaders of sporting bodies, a corollary of the adoption of the associative form of sports structures and their non-profit nature.

The European Sport Model is a unique sport system that focuses on the idea that sport is a collective good. It is based primarily on the idea that sport has important social impacts, which reflects in the following principles:

  • The solidarity within the sports system,
  • The social functions attributed to sport,
  • The territorial coverage of sport,
  • The integrity of competitions and the moral and physical integrity of athletes,
  • The training of talent.

Applying such principles helps protect the European Sport Model and remains at the core of the structuring of sports systems in the European Member States.

Recent evolutions and threats towards the European Sport Model

Recent evolutions and reflections on the protection of this model show that two considerations can apply to sports activities:

  • Either a very social perspective on sports activities that should remain associative and be non-profit activities,
  • Alternatively, a commercial perspective, stating that sports activities must be profitable and produce a commercial service, far from the associative origin of the sport sector.

The evolution from the first perspective to the second one mostly appears for the sub-sectors of professional sport and associative sport, as these two sub-sectors used to be non-profit with a strong social impact and must now evolve towards a business-driven operation.

These developments show the emergence of various threats regarding the protection of the European Sport Model, as the economic dimension of sport gains importance. Indeed, this model states that sport cannot be considered a regular economic activity and highlights the fact that sport creates social externalities (on health, citizenship or inclusion, for instance). These externalities cannot be monetised and the promoters of the European Sport Model tend to consider that there would be a significant risk of letting sports organisations be ruled by profit-driven organisers that only focus on profitable activities. This could go against the European Sport Model, which focuses on the social impact of sport and whose pillar is the non-profit nature of sports structures.

Evolutions of the professional sub-sector

These evolutions mainly impact the professional sub-sector, which was significantly shaped by the traditional model of the European sport system, with the promotion/relegation phenomenon. Indeed, it is organised under a pyramid structure, with an interconnection between the upper levels of the elite sport to the lower levels of the grassroots sports structures. This pyramid model induces financial solidarity between elite and amateur sports, as mentioned in the European Commission White Paper on Sports.

Nevertheless, new elite competitions organised by private commercial entities are emerging instead of official competitions organised by European federations. For instance, the EuroLeague Basketball is separated from the rest of the sport pyramid, as it is a closed league gathering a defined and limited list of European basketball clubs.

Reflections on the model of the European professional sport had a particular resonance with the emergence of the idea of creating the Super League, a closed league for elite football in 2021, that appeared as a significant threat to the European Sport Model. However, creating such a league means a disconnection between the pyramid levels and a lack of solidarity among all the pyramid levels. This is one of the main recent alarms that appeared in the last years regarding the sustainability of the European Sport Model.

The European Sport Model and the associative sub-sector

Even though the solidarity principle is often mentioned at the core of the European Sport Model, it appears that the financial solidarity between professional sports and grassroots organisations is not as important as it seems to be: professional sports are most often gathering their income without substantial redistribution to smaller sports structures. Indeed, in 2013, 56.3% of the total budget for grassroots sports came from households, followed by local authorities’ funds (32.6%). Funds deriving from professional sports structures do not participate in the funding of grassroots sports practice. Apart from the professional sub-sector, this explains that there still are some difficulties in using the European Sport Model concept in the day-to-day functioning of small sports structures, as this model sometimes seems outdated for these structures. They cannot rely on elite structures for their financial development, whereas it appeared in the last years that they need to secure their funding.

However, reflecting on the assimilation of sport to a typical economic good or a specific sector presenting a unique social impact impacts the whole sport sector. The model principles mainly refer to the social impact of sport, which cannot be considered a traditional economic good and whose value is not only monetary. A purely economic consideration of the sector would therefore risk jeopardising the protection of the social value of sport, as the positive social impact of sport is challenging to measure. It refers to positive externalities without economic or monetary value, such as integration, citizenship, health or education.

The current changes in sports practice trends challenge the social value of sports activities. Whereas sport used to be a leisure and social activity, sports practitioners tend to act as customers in front of their clubs. Clubs are therefore encouraged to apply a more commercial functioning: they get closer to commercial structures, and their positioning is changing. Significant changes also appear in the habits of sports practitioners: whereas sport used to be a competitive activity, leisure is more and more important for sports practitioners. Since the pandemic, the practitioners are also looking for individual and outdoors activities without any affiliation to a club or an association. This greatly modifies the functioning of sports associations, whose legitimacy used to come from the adhesion of sportspeople and that aimed at organising a competitive sport practice.

Sport: a specific sector or a typical economic good ?

Consequently, associative sports structures tend to work closer with active leisure structures: the active leisure sector benefits from the search for a more individual approach to sport, and commercial sports structures (for climbing, padel or fitness) are more and more attractive. As a response to this evolution of the customers’ sport practice, national and local associative sports structures try to create partnerships with commercial entities, to meet the needs of sport practitioners better and to adapt to the new trends of sport practice.

In the meantime, sports associations, that usually have a non-profit form, are trying to get more structured and professionalised on their own. It comes with the idea to make the sport sector a solid economic sector, presenting sport practice as a service for customers. This responds to the desire of sports practitioners for a more leisure-orientated practice, and it also helps the structuring and development of grassroots sports structures. It participates in structuring the market labour of the sector, but this must not come with losing the idea that the sport sector represents a robust social impact.

Here comes the reflection on how to reconcile the social vocation and associative nature of sports structures and the gradual professionalisation of sports structures, which needs to present sport as a classic economic and labour market. Indeed, for sports structures in development, the sport needs to be presented as a classic economic good to build a robust economic model. However, the balance between the solidarity of sport and the social impact of sports remain anchored in the sport system, presenting the main stakes of sports structures development, both as a social activity and a commercial activity.


The debates and the threats raised around the European Sport Model, for elite sport as well as for grassroots sport, more generally relate to the consideration given to the sector. Between economic structuration for a solid development of local sports structures and enhancing social functions of sports activities, the reflection on building sport as a commercial sector is a crucial question at this time, and it will guide the development of grassroots sports structures in the upcoming years.

Interrogations for the following years will remain on the commitment of European institutions to defending the European Sport Model and encouraging the consideration for the social value of sport. There still are difficulties for sports structures in the member states, and their functioning will be geared to the care given to sport. Sports structures should keep the social impact of sport as an essential feature of their functioning, even though they have to adapt and apply a more commercial model that makes the associative structures and the active leisure structures closer.