VAT: Is the card game bridge a sport?

By   June 21, 2017

Latest from the courts: Advocate General’s (AG) opinion* on the English Bridge Union (EBU) case.

Certain supplies of services closely connected to sport are exempt from VAT.  Consequently the EBU (a non‐profit making membership‐ funded organisation committed to promoting the game of duplicate bridge) appealed to the ECJ wanting certain fees paid to it to be exempt.  HMRC consider that contract bridge is not a sport so that output tax was due on the supply.  This view was supported by the First Tier and Upper Tribunals. So, the simple question is: Is bridge a sport?  The ECJ hearing has come about due to a referral from the British courts in reference to how it should be applied to bridge.

The AG has looked at how the term “sport” should be defined.  As a starting point, it is clear that games such as football, cricket, tennis and squash are sport.  However, this does not mean that activities which are less strenuous cannot be a sport, and the examples of archery and badminton were given.  The AG was also of the view that sport does not need to include any physical element, meaning that any activity which is characterised by:

  • competition
  • an effort to overcome a challenge or obstacle
  • results in physical or mental wellbeing

may qualify as a sport.

In connection with contract bridge; as a card game it:

  • is dependent on skill and training rather than luck
  • requires considerable mental effort and training to compete at an international level
  • is recognised by the International Olympic Committee as a sport

such that the AG concluded that bridge can indeed be defined as a sport.

This, if followed by the ECJ, means that the EBU will be due a refund of output tax declared on competition entry fees charged to its members.

The EBU has always maintained that bridge is a sport and point to the UK Charity Commission which recognises bridge as a sport.  It adopted Parliament’s most recent definition in the Charities Act, updated by Parliament in 2011, which specifically included Mind Sports in the definition of ‘sport’, stating that sports are “activities which promote health or wellbeing through physical or mental skill or exertion”.  Additionally, bridge is seen as an excellent way of improving mental acuity and delaying the onset of dementia, and the social and partnership aspects of bridge are of great benefit to those who may otherwise become isolated.

We now await the court’s decision on whether one needs to wear shorts and get sweaty to be participating in sport.

*  The most important work performed by the Advocates General is to deliver a written Opinion, named “reasoned submission”. The role of the Advocate General is to propose an independent legal solution. It is important to note that the Court is not obligated to follow the Opinion delivered by the Advocate General. Even though the Opinion does not bind the Court it has an impact on the decision in many cases, and in fact, in most cases the ECJ follows it.

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