Inquiry into foreign ownership in A-League flagged as Criminal Intelligence Commission investigates

Two of the government’s high-profile integrity agencies have begun a partnership to investigate foreign ownership and sponsorship of sporting entities in Australia.

Sport Minister Richard Colbeck has flagged the work may ultimately lead to a formal public inquiry, as the government examines integrity risks and human rights records of investors.

Five of the 12 A-League men’s clubs are foreign-owned or controlled and these links are a focus of the work, but Senator Colbeck has flagged an inquiry could cover all sport in Australia.

Sport Integrity Australia (SIA) and the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission have begun the work, SIA chief executive David Sharpe revealed at Senate estimates on Wednesday night, to “identify any risks that may occur” from foreign investment.

“Part of the work is to look at all investment into sport … sponsorship as well as ownership,” he said.

The A-League’s long established reliance on foreign capital has come under the microscope following this year’s change of ownership from Football Australia to Australian Professional Leagues, a body owned by the A-League clubs.

Melbourne City is owned by UAE-backed City Football Group.(AAP: David Crosling)

Overseas investment in football “is front and centre of some of the inquiries but there are many other sports that have foreign investment”, Mr Sharpe said.

Football has enjoyed a boom in cross-border capital inflows from Russia, China and the Middle East in recent decades, and some owners have drawn criticism due to their association with corrupt regimes or states with poor human rights records.

Only this month, Premier League club Newcastle was bought by a consortium backed by Saudi Arabia’s sovereign investment fund.

The English government has remained relatively quiet on the Newcastle takeover, although it held meetings about the sale with the Premier League.

Foreign-controlled football clubs may be increasingly common, but they are not ubiquitous. Germany’s Bundesliga requires its professional clubs to be majority-owned by members.

A formal inquiry into foreign ownership in Australian sport would be a significant regulatory incursion and draw parallels to the work of the Foreign Investment Review Board, which already has responsibility to review high value or significant investments from foreign sources.

Human rights focus

At Senate estimates on Wednesday night, answering questions from Greens senator Lidia Thorpe, Senator Colbeck warned human rights in relation to investors was a concern.

“Like you, I think we would all be concerned with respect to ensuring that investment in sport is from appropriate sources from a whole range of perspectives — whether that be directly in relation to the integrity of sport itself — or with respect to other elements such as those that you’re raising including human rights.”

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Sport Minister Richard Colbeck says he wants to ensure people’s human rights are upheld.

Senator Colbeck added that he had discussed the issues with Foreign Minister Marise Payne.

“As a government, we’re really keen to ensure that peoples’ human rights are upheld.”

Sport Integrity Australia declined to comment further.

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