Football fans puzzling over where to put their cross in ‘spot the ball’ competitions may be surprised by a tribunal’s ruling that they are neither playing a game, nor taking a chance, and that the fees they pay for taking part are thus subject to VAT.
At the height of their popularity, the puzzles – which invite entrants to exercise their skill in marking the most likely position of a football missing from a photograph – attracted 1.6 million weekly entrants and earned annual revenues of £65 million.
The Football Pools, Vernons, Littlewoods and other ‘spot the ball’ organisers argued that it was a game of chance and thus exempt from VAT, like other forms of gambling. They sought huge VAT rebates, dating back to 1979, but encountered stiff resistance from HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC).
The organisers’ arguments succeeded before the First-tier Tribunal. However, in overturning that decision, the Upper Tribunal ruled that the solitary tasks of marking an X and posting a coupon were no more ‘playing a game’ than throwing a single dart anywhere on a dart board is ‘playing’ darts.