Recent media reports suggest that a record 329 footballers, including Premier League players, are now under investigation by HMRC for suspected tax avoidance. This is more than triple the number of investigations started in the 2021/2022 season. HMRC is also investigating 31 clubs and 91 agents.

David Pickstone, Lisa Vanderheide, Alex Lerner and Krishna Mahajan look at the issues driving the substantial increase in HMRC tax avoidance investigations and consider what football players, clubs and agents can do to protect themselves.

 

Background

HMRC investigations into football players, clubs and agents’ affairs are nothing new, but the substantial increase in the number launched this year will inevitably be a serious concern for anyone under investigation.

A key driver of the increase in investigations is HMRC’s assessment that there may be a significant amount of unpaid tax in football. We understand that an officer from HMRC’s fraud investigation team has been appointed to act as liaison to the FA’s Football Compliance Project. If correct, this would be a key indicator of how seriously HMRC is treating this issue.

The principal areas of focus for HMRC are likely to be player image rights and agents’ fees.

 

Image rights

Image rights include players’ legal rights over their image, name, likeness, voice, signature or other personal characteristics. Players can set up companies to sell or license their image rights to their clubs (or others). These companies then pay tax on the image rights at a lower rate (19%) than the players themselves would (45%). This structure also offers clubs opportunities to reduce their tax bills.

Image rights can be extremely valuable to high-profile players. However, HMRC may investigate if clubs have made image rights payments to players despite having no real interest in exploiting their image rights commercially, or where clubs have acquired players’ image rights for amounts significantly in excess of their actual value. HMRC may, on these grounds, challenge image rights payments as disguised salary payments by clubs to players.

 

Agents’ fees

Agents’ fees are fees paid to agents for managing football transfers. These are typically paid by clubs rather than the players themselves, but HMRC’s view is that these should be treated as taxable benefits in kind to players. Failure to pay tax on agents’ fees could therefore attract steep HMRC penalties for players.

 

Protective measures

The number and scope of HMRC investigations into players, clubs and agents will likely rise in future seasons, so it is important to consider what protective steps can be taken.

When negotiating future deals, players, clubs and agents should take appropriate steps to determine the actual commercial value of image rights and ensure that relevant league rules are adhered to. Players and agents should also enquire as to whether clubs have clearly defined intentions or plans to exploit players’ image rights commercially.

Contractual documents effecting transfers should be clear about tax liabilities on agents’ fees. Players may also wish to seek indemnities from their clubs to protect them against future tax liabilities that could result from any subsequent HMRC investigations.

Although image rights and agents’ fees are of particular interest to HMRC, clubs and players may have other issues under investigation. This may cause serious reputational issues, as seen recently in Spain.

For those already under investigation, the first step should be to instruct appropriate legal counsel to advise on the strategy and approach in response to HMRC’s investigation. If you are affected or concerned by HMRC’s investigations in this area and would like to discuss matters, please contact David Pickstone or Lisa Vanderheide.

 


 

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