UK tax laws repel top athletes

But this might be about to change.

Hydration, shoes, sponsorship, training, diet… tax rules? The last item in that list will not have been weighing heavily on the minds of many runners in the London marathon last weekend.

They are, however rather more of a consideration for international athletes competing in UK pro-sports events. Thanks to current Treasury policy, entry could easily leave them seriously out of pocket.

The HMRC Foreign Entertainers Unit levies tax on foreign sportsmen and women not simply by reference to earnings made from the events they enter the UK to take part in, but also by looking at global sponsorship income.

At the highest levels of sport, the majority of annual earnings are in the form of such sponsorship arrangements. Sellers of training equipment, drinks, perfumes, watches — even broadband (thank you, Mr Branson) — want a sprinkling of top quality athletic shimmer to help shift their wares. The remuneration for many such favoured athletes makes some of their event winnings look positively mean by comparison.

The UK and US revenues are alone in plundering this branding income of international guests at their championships, matches, games, and competitions — with the result that participation in UK events can appear on stars’ books as a loss-making endeavour.

This policy has in recent years found many top athletes deciding against entering UK events. There is a difficult call to be made as to whether the reputational capital they accrue from appearing in UK events is worth the tax payable. The value a major sponsor may put on their man’s profile in the UK is often quite intangible; the prospect of a bill from HMRC running to tens, or even hundreds of thousands of pounds, is not.

This difficult decision has been averted, however, for two upcoming athletics meetings as after years of lobbying by the sports industry, the Treasury has at last issued a concession to their policy. Buried in the 629 pages of Finance Bill 2013 (only slightly down from last year’s record-breaking 686) lie two clauses that grant exemptions from income tax to accredited competitors at the 2013 Olympic Anniversary Games and 2014 Commonwealth Games. News that Usain Bolt will make his first non-Olympic UK appearance in four years indicates the concession is timely.

This year’s concession is stand-alone, but could augur wider change. The case has long been made that UK plc loses out from its current approach to international sport. The Treasury may see the arrival to our shores of itinerant stars as a cash cow to be milked, but the taxes raised are coming at the expense of more significant opportunities (including the 2010 Champions League final which went to Madrid instead).

The economic rally of Q3 last year demonstrated the value to the UK of hosting international sport. Stand-alone tax breaks encourage competitors to help make such events the international displays of expertise they should be. However, the fiscal atmosphere surrounding them remains tense and the UK could benefit hugely from a permanent softening of its policy.

Edward Keene is from private client law firm Maurice Turnor Gardner LLP. This story first appeared on Spear's magazine

Usain Bolt. Photograph: Getty Images

This is a story from the team at Spears magazine.

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The strange death of boozy Britain: why are young people drinking less?

Ditching alcohol for work.

Whenever horrific tales of the drunken escapades of the youth are reported, one photo reliably gets wheeled out: "bench girl", a young woman lying passed out on a public bench above bottles of booze in Bristol. The image is in urgent need of updating: it is now a decade old. Britain has spent that time moving away from booze.

Individual alcohol consumption in Britain has declined sharply. In 2013, the average person over 15 consumed 9.4 litres of alcohol, 19 per cent less than 2004. As with drugs, the decline in use among the young is particularly notable: the proportion of young adults who are teetotal increased by 40 per cent between 2005 and 2013. But decreased drinking is not only apparent among the young fogeys: 80 per cent of adults are making some effort to drink less, according to a new study by consumer trends agency Future Foundation. No wonder that half of all nightclubs have closed in the last decade. Pubs are also closing down: there are 13 per cent fewer pubs in the UK than in 2002. 

People are too busy vying to get ahead at work to indulge in drinking. A combination of the recession, globalisation and technology has combined to make the work of work more competitive than ever: bad news for alcohol companies. “The cost-benefit analysis for people of going out and getting hammered starts to go out of favour,” says Will Seymour of Future Foundation.

Vincent Dignan is the founder of Magnific, a company that helps tech start-ups. He identifies ditching regular boozing as a turning point in his career. “I noticed a trend of other entrepreneurs drinking three, four or five times a week at different events, while their companies went nowhere,” he says. “I realised I couldn't be just another British guy getting pissed and being mildly hungover while trying to scale a website to a million visitors a month. I feel I have a very slight edge on everyone else. While they're sleeping in, I'm working.” Dignan now only drinks occasionally; he went three months without having a drop of alcohol earlier in the year.

But the decline in booze consumption isn’t only about people becoming more work-driven. There have never been more alternate ways to be entertained than resorting to the bottle. The rise of digital TV, BBC iPlayer and Netflix means most people means that most people have almost limitless about what to watch.

Some social lives have also partly migrated online. In many ways this is an unfortunate development, but one upshot has been to reduce alcohol intake. “You don’t need to drink to hang out online,” says Dr James Nicholls, the author of The Politics of Alcohol who now works for Alcohol Concern. 

The sheer cost of boozing also puts people off. Although minimum pricing on booze has not been introduced, a series of taxes have made alcohol more expensive, while a ban on below-cost selling was introduced last year. Across the 28 countries of the EU, only Ireland has higher alcohol and tobacco prices than the UK today; in 1998 prices in the UK were only the fourth most expensive in the EU.

Immigration has also contributed to weaning Britain off booze. The decrease in alcohol consumption “is linked partly to demographic trends: the fall is largest in areas with greater ethnic diversity,” Nicholls says. A third of adults in London, where 37 per cent of the population is foreign born, do not drink alcohol at all, easily the highest of any region in Britain.

The alcohol industry is nothing if not resilient. “By lobbying for lower duty rates, ramping up their marketing and developing new products the big producers are doing their best to make sure the last ten years turn out to be a blip rather than a long term change in culture,” Nicholls says.

But whatever alcohol companies do to fight back against the declining popularity of booze, deep changes in British culture have made booze less attractive. Forget the horrific tales of drunken escapades from Magaluf to the Bullingdon Club. The real story is of the strange death of boozy Britain. 

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.