Wonga, Newcastle, and Cisse Uniform Dispute May Result in Impasse

As Barclays Premier League players return from their summer vacations to begin preseason training with their clubs, one star striker is noticeably absent from the field.  Newcastle United has directed Papiss Cisse to train separately from the rest of his teammates after Cisse objected to wearing Newcastle’s training and game day jerseys, which prominently feature Newcastle’s new sponsor, Wonga.  Wonga is a cash advance  and pay day loan company that charges high interest rates (1% interest per day) on short-term loans to individuals up to $1,156 per day.  Cisse, a Muslim, has refused to wear the jerseys displaying the Wonga sponsorship on religious grounds, on the basis that Muslims object to  practices in which a creditor benefits from charging interest on monetary loans.  By wearing a uniform displaying Wonga as the sponsor, Cisse would arguably promote such practices against his religion.images

Newcastle and Cisse have reportedly entered into discussions to resolve the conflict—with Cisse offering to wear a Newcastle uniform that instead supports a charitable organization—but the fact remains that Cisse is contractually obligated to wear the team’s jerseys that include Wonga’s logo.  As a result, the possibility of Cisse’s transfer away to another club during the current transfer window has been suggested, although it is unclear whether that option is being seriously considered.

The dispute brings to light two considerations.  First, and as addressed more fully by Law in Sport, there is a potential issue of indirect discrimination.  That is, commentators have asked whether Newcastle’s requirement that Cisse and other Muslim players wear jerseys promoting Wonga’s loan business would constitute indirect discrimination against those players.

Second, the resolution of the dispute may have an impact on Wonga and other club sponsors, as well as on player contracts.

With respect to the sponsors, it is safe to assume that a club sponsor expects that players will wear the club’s jerseys with the sponsor’s name prominently displayed, particularly the club’s most visible players.  As Newcastle has stood firm, however, it seems less likely that the value of Wonga’s sponsorship deal will be threatened by the Cisse dispute.  Should Newcastle waver in its enforcement of Cisse’s contractual obligation to wear tops in which Wonga is featured, sponsors may question the ongoing value of their club deals.

The resolution of the dispute could also impact players and how they negotiate contracts.  For example, players may now—and perhaps unsuccessfully—attempt to negotiate the criteria that clubs employ for future sponsorship deals.  Such a player contract provision may seem unlikely because it could result in a single player or a small group of players limiting the club’s ability to seek sponsorship funding sources.  But in the modern game, where Premier League teams are comprised of players from a multitude of ethnic, religious, and national backgrounds, the players’ preferences may play a more significant role in club decisions.

The convergence of the sponsor’s, club’s, and player’s interests may ultimately result in an impasse.  Sponsors expect that their brand will be promoted by all players who wear the jersey, particularly the most visible players.  Teams will need to protect the sponsorship revenue stream and will continue to try to enforce players’ contractual obligations to wear the sponsor-branded uniforms.  And yet, players with rational arguments against wearing those jerseys, particularly where such arguments on premised on religious grounds, are unlikely to compromise.  The impasse may result in a push for transfers for non-sporting reasons.  Whether and how Wonga, Newcastle, and Cisse resolve the issue may foreshadow the resolution of similar disputes in the years to come.

Reporting on the business side of the world's game.