A freedom of information request from accountancy firm UHY Hacker Young found that HMRC investigated 246 professional footballers during the 2019/20 tax year, up from 87 the previous year.
The main focus of HMRC’s activity was on image rights, extra revenue which is used to supplement players’ contractual wages.
Image rights have been a tax flashpoint for years now. The notorious Rangers FC tax case, which saw the Scottish side relegated to the second division in 2013, also involved revenue from players’ image rights.
We can trace controversy around footballers’ image rights all the way back to 2000. HMRC challenged Arsenal players Dennis Bergkamp and David Platt after the players paid their image rights into a holding company, paying corporation tax on the income rather than income tax.
The tribunal eventually ruled in the players’ favour.
After this case, a framework was put in place under which the tax department won’t challenge image rights payments as long as players and clubs fulfill certain criteria. Players must demonstrate that they have a substantial level of public recognition and that they are monetising the images in a way that goes beyond their contractual employment terms.
The issue with many of the players that HMRC cracked down on was that they weren’t of significant popularity to command such high earnings from the use of these images.
Elliott Buss, a partner at UHY Hacker Young, said: “Lots of lesser-known footballers are effectively avoiding tax by getting paid huge sums for image rights that HMRC views as overpriced.”
The image rights of prominent footballers are undoubtedly worth millions and are unlikely to trigger an investigation by the taxman. However, if HMRC sees that the second choice left back in a lower ranking team is getting paid a great deal in image rights, they are likely to dig deeper. The player would need to make a strong argument as to how the figure has been arrived at to justify this type of scheme.
The taxman didn’t just recoup money from players; the tax affairs of 25 clubs and 55 agents were put under the spotlight in a campaign that eventually yielded £73m from the industry. As well as image rights, UHY Hacker Young suggested that HMRC have evidence that commission, which agents earn on player transfers, was not being declared properly.