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Hundreds of footballers are planning to take legal action against gaming, betting and data-processing companies that use the personal statistics generated when they play without consent or compensation.
The lawsuit, first revealed by sports website The Athletic, has been joined by more than 400 players from the Premier League, the English Football League, the National League and the Scottish Premiership.
If successful, the claim could be worth hundreds of millions of pounds as players aim to recover lost income stretching back six years – the UK’s statutory limit on such claims – which could lead to individual payouts of tens of thousands depending on the level at which a player has competed and the amount of exposure they have had.
The claim, dubbed Project Red Card, is being spearheaded by the Global Sports Data and Technology Group, an enterprise co-founded by former Cardiff City and Leyton Orient manager Russell Slade and technologist Jason Dunlop, which is working alongside law firm Freeths and data advisory company Elias Partnership.
They argue that the statistics are being used unlawfully, asserting that third-party companies involved in gathering and disseminating performance data are not taking the players’ data rights into account.
“We have no issue with football clubs using the data, nor do the players involved in this case,” Dunlop told BBC Sport. “Our issue is where the data goes thereafter. We believe it goes into betting companies, gaming companies.”
Richard Dutton, director of Elias Partnership, told Computer Weekly: “The legal position is straightforward – an individual doesn’t own their data, but what they have are data rights. Nobody is suggesting it’s about ownership [of data], it’s about protecting their data rights and seeking to address the issue of people using that data without consent.”
Dutton pointed out that under the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), consent had to be freely given and informed. “The players can tell you – they haven’t given it and they haven’t been informed,” he said.
Dutton added that a key principle of the GDPR is transparency, but in practice that does not exist in this context because players’ performance data is “broadcast all over the place, to different companies, without the players having consented to it”.
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Although there is plenty of football data in the public domain, and there is nothing to stop fans recording statistics for themselves during matches, the problem lies in enterprises using that personal data for their own profit, said Dutton.
“When you start aggregating all that data and then selling it for commercial gain, it’s a different legal dimension,” he said. “That’s what companies are doing. They’re selling this data without the players’ knowledge and consent.”
A further issue is the accuracy of the footballers’ performance data – another of the GDPR’s key principles.
According to Dutton, a footballer’s performance data is used to build up a profile of that player which, if inaccurate, “could cost a player a transfer or influence their valuation”.
Slade has previously told BBC Sport about the “staggering” inaccuracy of player data, with most players involved in the project having the wrong data stored.
Project Red Card expects most male and female footballers in the UK to join the effort, and its aim is to win initial settlements in 2021.
But according to Dutton, this timescale line largely depends on the response of those accused of mishandling data. “If the defendants wish to have a conversation, then we'd be happy to sit down and discuss it constructively, but if they don’t, that’s when you have to go to court,” he said.