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Bridge a sport for VAT purposes, says AG opinion

Mental element alone can satisfy definition of sport

19 June 2017

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Bridge is a sport and should qualify for tax exemptions under EU law, an advocate general of the European Court of Justice has opined after confirming that a significant physical element was not necessary for an activity to be considered a sport.

Advocate General Szpunar said for an activity to be a sport within the meaning of Council Directive 2006/112/EC (VAT directive) it was ‘sufficient that the activity has a significant mental element which is material to its outcome’, yet a significant physical element ‘is not necessary’.

He went on to conclude that bridge – a card game played by four players in two competing partnerships – was a sport because it required ‘considerable mental effort and training’.

AG Szpunar was responding to a request for a preliminary ruling to the CJEU from the UK’s Upper Tribunal (Tax and Chancery Tribunal), which had sought guidance on the intentions of the VAT directive.

The referral came during the English Bridge Union’s appeal against a First-tier Tribunal decision not to grant a VAT exemption. The EBU had sought to recover VAT from HM Revenue and Customs in respect of player’s entrance fees for tournaments but was told that bridge was not sufficiently ‘active’ to be considered a sport.

In reaching his opinion AG Szpunar said the endorsement of mental sports or activities without a physical element such as chess and bridge by the International Olympic Committee was relevant to whether an activity can be regarded as a sport.

Moreover, an activity in the public interest should be covered by the exemption. He concluded that sport needed to be understood ‘as meaning the training of mental or physical fitness in a way that is generally beneficial to the health and the wellbeing of citizens’.

Regional perceptions should also be considered when the term ‘sport’ is determined in an autonomous manner on an EU level. AG Szpunar cited the sports of hurling in Ireland or kumoterki in Poland as not being present throughout the EU. Meanwhile, bridge had a higher degree of participation in the UK, Ireland, and northern countries of the EU than elsewhere.

The definition of sport, he added, excluded games of chance as ‘there is no relation between the effort invested and the outcome, and the tasks involved do not require any mental or physical skill’.

In reaching a conclusion as to whether bridge was a sport, AG Szpunar said: ‘Bridge is neither a game of chance, nor does its classification as a sport seem to be contrary to the principles established above. The fact that tournaments take place on an international stage and that the results of the game seem to be directly dependent on the skill and training invested in the activity, according to the findings of facts made by the referring court, point in the direction of contract bridge being a sport. Considerable mental effort and training are necessary in order to compete in duplicate contract bridge.

‘Moreover, there is a broad international acceptance of duplicate contract bridge as a sport, not least because the International Olympic Committee, in 1998, decided to classify it as a sport. It has now even been granted Olympic status which means that it will be offered at the 2020 Olympic Games.

‘Finally, the relatively small role played by chance in obtaining the results points to duplicate contract bridge constituting a “sport” for the purposes of the present case.’

Matthew Rogers is a legal reporter at Solicitors Journal

matthew.rogers@solicitorsjournal.co.uk | @lex_progress

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Tax & Wealth structuring International

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bridge European Court of Justice sport