Newly appointed ELPA Secretary General Alexander Engelhard took the time to answer questions about his new role, the past and current tasks of ELPA and the future plans of the association.
How did you get started as a lawyer and where does the connection with sports come from?
I have always loved sports. During law school, I interned with a sports law firm in London, which was an eye-opening experience. After qualifying as a lawyer in Germany, I pursued a Master in International Sports Management at universities in England, Italy and Switzerland. My first job was with the sports/dispute resolution law firm Martens, where I worked on many basketball-related matters for FIBA and the Basketball Arbitral Tribunal. Coincidentally, Andreas Zagklis, the current Secretary General of FIBA, was my colleague at the time. In 2017, I changed jobs and started working for my current law firm, where I gradually expanded my work in the basketball sector, including representing players and agents, and of course advising ELPA.
You were involved with ELPA since the beginning. How did that come about?
At the time, Bostjan Nachbar was seeking legal advice on how to best set-up a member-run players union in Euroleague with members from around the globe playing in different clubs in and outside the European Union. This was a challenging legal task, which became a passion project for me from day 1. There is nothing better than helping to build something from scratch and then seeing it grow over time. Moreover, I really appreciate the people of ELPA and their professionalism, especially Bostjan Nachbar, who is a great leader of the association.
How would you describe your work with ELPA? How does it actually look “behind the scenes”?
Over the years there has been a lot of variety in my work for the association, from advising on the set-up and foundation of ELPA to more commercial and sports marketing-related topics, also a lot of regulatory work and, of course, collective bargaining negotiations. Bostjan Nachbar and I speak on a daily basis. I am also in constant communication with ELPA’s legal counsel Luka Milanovic, and the legal department of Euroleague.
What were the main obstacles for the association in its first four years?
After its foundation, ELPA’s main task was building trust among players in order for the association to grow. Only with a critical mass of players as ELPA members were we able to negotiate changes to the benefit of the players. Players started to appreciate that ELPA was actually here for them as an autonomous organization independent from the clubs and Euroleague, fighting on their behalf to improve working conditions in the league. At the same time, we had to make sure that we build a good working relationship with Euroleague as our main bargaining partner, and also with individual clubs and player agents.
The Covid pandemic caused the termination of the 2019/20 season. Few years later, the Russian war in Ukraine led to suspension of three Russian clubs from EuroLeague. How did you and ELPA staff approach these crisis situations?
We approached both topics from a player-focused perspective, making sure that the unfortunate circumstances would not be used by clubs to infringe on players’ rights. The negotiations with Euroleague on potential salary reductions after the league was canceled in March 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic occurred during the first round of collective bargaining negotiations with Euroleague. They were tough, but we stood our ground and achieved a very positive result for players. They also helped us in mature as a players union early on.
As to the fallout of the Russian war against Ukraine, we mainly provided legal advice to individual players who were completely blindsided by the outbreak of the war. Players were concerned for their safety and the safety of their families. They were also concerned about the future of their sporting careers, especially after Russian clubs got suspended from the EuroLeague. For some players it became clear that they would not be able to play for their Russian team anymore and sought mutual termination agreements with their clubs. During that time we assisted around 20 players with general legal advice regarding their employment situation in Russia, in their potential transfer negotiations and with obtaining “letters of clearance” for those players that went on to play for another club.
You successfully concluded the first EuroLeague collective agreement between players, clubs and the league, called EuroLeague Framework Agreement (EFA). How would you describe the importance of this agreement?
The importance of the EFA cannot be overestimated. It is the first Pan-European collective bargaining agreement in professional sports. ELPA and Euroleague made history. But it’s also just the beginning. The first version of the EFA is the foundation for a collaborative working relationship with Euroleague. Many of the topics mentioned in the EFA can be defined further and many other topics must be added in the coming years.
How do you see the issue with conflicting calendars of EuroLeague and FIBA games? What importance should players have when solutions are (hopefully) being discussed?
While in its early years ELPA was focusing on other topics first, the calendar will be a focal point going forward. It should be clear for Euroleague, and ultimately also FIBA, that decisions on the competition calendar must involve the people that have to abide by that calendar every day, namely the players. Once both competition organizers start perceiving players as facilitators in bridging their differences, there can be a solution that works for everybody.
What are some of the things you envision for ELPA and the players in the future?
The next phase will be about the solidification of ELPA’s role among the different stakeholders of the game and the further professionalization and growth of the association. For our players, we want to make sure to continue and expand services and benefits that matter to them. In general, we want to strengthen our collaboration with Euroleague Basketball to help it grow and reach its full potential, because that directly benefits the players as well. Last but not least, we also want to build a working relationship with FIBA.
In the next month, ELPA will apply for membership in the World Players Association, an umbrella organization of player unions from around the world, which also encompasses top-level player associations such as the NBPA and FIFPro. We believe it is important to be part of that eco-system and to learn from those who have fought for players’ interests for decades.