Legal Battles Off The Pitch
By Nguyen Tan
Vietnam’s football scene has recently been gripped by battles both on and off the pitch. The ongoing dispute over commercial rights pertaining to V-League, the country’s top-tier professional football league, has raised several issues.
|The ongoing dispute over commercial rights pertaining to V-League, the country's top-tier professional football league, is even "hotter" than the competition in the football field. Photo: Le Toan.|
At the annual review of V-League in September 2011, Nguyen Duc Kien, chairman of Hanoi ACB Football Club, blasted the Vietnam Football Federation (VFF) for its incompetence. Kien brought up such thorny issues as the appalling quality of the professional league, some referees’ perceived lack of integrity and, most importantly, the questionable 20-year contract between VFF and An Vien Group (AVG), under which the latter enjoys exclusive rights to broadcast professional football matches in Vietnam.
Subsequently, Kien’s idea of setting up a football league unfettered by VFF’s monopolistic grip came true. Six of the 28 football clubs under the federation, including illustrious names such as Dong Tam Long An, Hanoi ACB and Hoang Anh Gia Lai, proposed establishing Vietnam Professional Football Joint Stock Co. (VPF). These clubs contend that as the task of managing various tournaments simultaneously proves too daunting for VFF to fulfill, VPF can step in and take over V-League.
The pressure from these football tycoons was enormous and VFF eventually gave in. Three months after Kien criticized VFF, VPF came into being, with the federation as a stakeholder (35.4%) alongside major football clubs. VFF’s grip on V-League thus took a backseat. In late 2011, the federation passed a resolution that grants VPF the right to organize, manage and tap into the commercial rights of Vietnam’s various football tournaments.
However, controversy has erupted since VPF issued a document that allows Vietnam Television (VTV) to broadcast live matches of the above tournaments over three years. The contract is worth VND7 billion in the 2012 season. Kien, vice chairman of VPF, says that as the entity in charge of the leagues, the firm has every right to sign this deal.
Both VFF and AVG were understandably taken aback. After all, they had just clinched a 20-year contract over commercial rights in December 2010, with AVG paying VFF VND6 billion per annum. AVG has been scathing in its response, saying VPF has severely violated Vietnam’s laws and threatening legal action. Meanwhile, VFF says that it is the only organization to own commercial rights related to V-League and urges related parties to respect the contract between VFF and AVG.
Experts say the key to resolving this unprecedented dispute lies in determining the legitimate owners of commercial rights related to V-League. Unfortunately, this task is far from simple, owing partly to problematic regulations. Article 53 of the Sports Law and Article 12 of Decree 112/2007/ND-CP hold that national sport federations, professional sport clubs and those organizing professional sport tournaments are owners of events under their charge and are allowed to transfer such ownership to others. VFF’s management of V-League is thus equivalent to ownership of related commercial rights. However, will such ownership cease when VFF no longer oversees the top-tier football league? If so, is the contract between VFF and AVG still valid? The Sports Law has not foreseen this scenario. VPF can thus rely on this loophole to argue that its decision is lawful.
To complicate matters, the Sports Law does not include any provision that permits enterprises and sport clubs to organize professional sport tournaments. Instead, Clause 7, Article 71 of this law confers this right on national sport federations. This being the case, does VPF have the right to oversee V-League? A possible counterargument, of course, is that VPF is allowed to do what the laws do not ban.
VFF’s internal regulations are yet another source of headache. Article 74 of its revised regulations stipulates that VFF and its members are the original owners of commercial rights arising from football tournaments under its charge. These members include local football federations, clubs and associations of footballers, managers and referees. In other words, VFF is not the only owner of the commercial rights under debate. Does this run counter to the Sports Law? Besides, while VPF is an independent entity, does it need to be a member of VFF and conform to this federation’s internal regulations?
On another note, although VFF’s members are considered co-owners, Article 74 allows the executive committee of this federation to use these rights either exclusively or transfer them to a third party, entirely or otherwise, without seeking the consent of its members. Still, this is inconsistent with Article 75, which makes it necessary to consult VFF’s members regarding the distribution of match data.
In the face of so much confusion, it is extremely tough to assess the validity of the contract between VFF and AVG. Shedding light on such murky regulations is an uphill task, though.