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Contract Bridge ‘Is not a Sport’ Tax Tribunal Rules

The nation’s predominantly silver-haired army of Contract Bridge players will be perplexed by a tax tribunal’s ruling that it is just a ‘game’ – not a ‘sport’ – and that membership subscriptions paid to the English Bridge Union (EBU) are thus not exempt from VAT.

The EBU argued that its members were just as much sportsmen as any Olympic gold medallist. However, the body was dealt a losing hand by the First-Tier Tribunal which ruled that Bridge, for all the mental acuity of the millions who play it, does not involve enough ‘physical activity’ to be viewed as an exempt ‘sport’ within the meaning of article 132(1)(m) of the VAT Directive 2006.

Bridge is recognised as a sport by the Olympic Committee, various sporting federations, the Charity Commission and several other European Union member states. The EBU pointed out that Bridge promotes both physical and mental health and that studies have shown that regular play may benefit the immune system and even reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s or mental deterioration.

But, in dashing the body’s hopes of a bumper rebate in respect of VAT paid on membership subscriptions over a three-year period, the First-Tier Tribunal (FTT) ruled that the physical skill of Bridge aficionados plays ‘second fiddle’ to the logic and lateral thinking that they need to win.

Noting that ‘sport normally connotes a game with an athletic element, rather than simply a game’, the FTT added to the EBA’s chagrin by observing that some other games not necessarily noted for athleticism – including croquet, darts and billiards – all have sufficient ‘physical’ elements to qualify as ‘sports’ for VAT purposes.

The EBA insisted that the concept of ‘sport’ was not limited purely to ‘activities which principally involve physical skill or exertion’. However, the FTT accepted the tax authorities’ argument that it is the physical, rather than the mental, aspect of a game that benefits from the VAT exemption.

Noting that a high percentage of Bridge players are elderly, the FTT noted that it ‘harboured one concern’ that it had been ‘unable to dispel’  – that failing to recognise the card game as a sport might discriminate against older people. On the basis that ‘a person’s capacity for physical activity is generally acknowledged to reduce with age’ it could be argued that the sports exemption was ‘skewed towards the young’.

However, the FTT ‘consoled itself with the thought that, although the direct beneficiaries of (physical) education are the young, the old may benefit from their labours’. It was also an ‘undoubted fact’ that older citizens benefited most from tax exemptions afforded to health care and old people’s homes.

Dismissing the EBA’s appeal, the FTT concluded: “Contract Bridge involves some physical activity, but not a significant amount. The physical activity is not the aim of participation and physical skill, as opposed to purely mental skill, is not particularly important to the outcome of participation”. On the basis that the interpretation of the tax exemption was clear, the FTT declined to refer the dispute to the European Court of Justice.