Working conditions of professional athletes

Professional athletes in Europe rarely have the benefit of collective agreements or social dialogue to help establish good basic working conditions and some form of employment protection. A study prepared by the sector’s social partners, UNI Europa Sport Pro and EU Athletes, says that many have no formal employment contract at all, and lack of insurance or pension provision is all too common. In its conclusion, the social partners call on the European Commission to foster encourage social dialogue in the sector.

About the study

A joint study, An analysis of the working conditions of professional sports players (4.31MB PDF), has been carried out by social partners in the sector, including the European Elite Athletes Association (EU Athletes) and UNI Sport PRO, the professional athletes’ branch of the Uni Europa union. The study examines the working conditions of professional players of basketball, hockey, handball and rugby in the Member States of Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Slovenia, Spain and Sweden.

The collection of data began in early 2012 and ended in May 2013. Questionnaires were returned by 566 respondents, and 11 in-depth interviews were conducted with sports professionals in Poland, Slovenia, Spain and Sweden. The data were supplemented by desk research conducted throughout the survey period.

Main findings

The social partners note that many thousands of EU citizens make their living as sports professionals and it is important to ensure that their working conditions are adequate, given that not all athletes are covered by social dialogue or collective bargaining.

Specifically, say the study authors:

…there is a difference between amateur sport and sport that is practised as work. Athletes who are in a work relationship with a sport organisation need the protection of EU law as it relates to work – especially relating to working time, mobility, training, health and safety, data protection, etc. Importantly, there is a general acceptance by athletes of the need for a sector-wide agreement.

The report identifies a number of working conditions issues that raise concerns.

Contracts, wages and pensions

The report notes that many players do not have a formal contract, which means that their employment is less secure and that employment rights are not guaranteed. Many players have also complained about late payment of wages, ‘sometimes’ or ‘always’. The report calls on the European Commission to address this issue, involving the social partners.

The report also finds that many players have no pension, and this has serious implications for their future. It is suggested that the EC and the social partners could work together to raise awareness of the need for pension provision among sports professionals and their employers.


Many players take part in some form of education or study while working as a professional sports player. Even so, many are not aware of the educational opportunities they could take advantage of, and others find that their employers are unwilling to help them take those opportunities. The report suggests that the EC and the social partners could work together to raise awareness of educational opportunities and that the Commission and UNI Sport PRO could try to influence the level of employer support.

Health and safety

The study found that over 63% of players within the four disciplines covered by the research feel that their profession poses a risk to their health; there is a constant possibility of, for instance, broken bones, torn ligaments, concussion, back and shoulder injuries, damage to teeth, stress, general fatigue and sleeping problems.

Significant variation was found in the quality of support given to injured players by their employers, and the report’s authors say that they will work together to improve this.

Insurance is also an issue. The study found that only just over 31% of players surveyed have insurance to protect them against a career-ending injury, and the EC and all the sector’s social partners are urged to work together to publicise the importance of health insurance.

Harassment, discrimination and drug-testing

The report highlights incidences in which players have been subjected to threats, bullying and discrimination on grounds of ethnicity and age. The Commission and UNI Sport PRO should consider working with sports bodies on this issue, say the authors.

Of the respondents, those players who said they had been asked to take routine drug tests in places other than their workplace were more likely to consider this an invasion of privacy. The report notes that this is an area for further consideration and calls on the Commission to provide a framework for the social partners to re-evaluate this process.

Discipline and refereeing

A significant number of players said they were not familiar with their league or club’s disciplinary rules. Although players are often fined by their club as a disciplinary measure and often agree the level of the fine with their club, the report’s authors draw attention to the fact that there is no consistency in the use of this type of sanction across sports or countries. UNI Sport PRO will consider raising this issue with employers to improve the situation.

The report also finds that players consistently complain about low quality of refereeing, and makes suggestions for improvement.

Work-life balance

There is a prevalence of Sunday working and, particularly in Spain and France, an increase in the numbers of handball players working in the evenings. Respondents also drew attention to being given insufficient notice of changes to work schedules. Nevertheless, the majority of players feel that their working life fits well with their private life. Many, however, also said they would prefer to play fewer matches and have more time off around Christmas and New Year. UNI Sport PRO will work with sports bodies and employers to monitor the situation and plan accordingly.


This is an important joint report because it considers all the major issues relevant to the working conditions of professional sports players in the four sports covered.

One major possibility for progress would be the conclusion of a sector-wide collective agreement to address all the issues raised in this report. This is why the social partners responsible for producing this report call on the European Commission to support better social dialogue in the sector and bring together the social partners on both sides to create the conditions needed for the negotiation of a collective agreement.

Andrea Broughton, Institute for Employment Studies

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