What is Sports Law? How does one become a specialist? Jennifer and Rini take us through some interesting aspects relevant to sporting sector.
The dismay of some and relief of others the World Cup 2014 is over, but even though the decorative flags have not yet been taken down and the team kits not yet laundered, preparations for Qatar 2022 are already well underway.
The decision to award the World Cup to the Gulf state was taken in part as an attempt to develop football and other sports in new areas, on the understanding that none of the 22 Arabic countries had ever hosted the tournament. This is just one example of the way in which the UAE and the wider Gulf region are becoming increasingly popular as sporting venues, with the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championship and DP World Tour Golf Champion-ship having also been added to the area’s sporting calendar over recent years.
Any emerging industry will, in turn, create a corresponding niche legal practice area, with the sporting sector is proving to be no exception. Both the Court of Arbitration for Sport and Emirates Sports Arbitration Centre (soon to be established) suggest the need for a parallel legal industry to manage the issues which arise within. And, just as we wouldn’t necessarily want a professor of nuclear physics to teach us art or have a dentist perform our abdominal surgery, why would we want anyone other than a specialist sports law attorney handling our sporting legal matters?
This leads to obvious questions – what IS sports law? How do we become specialists? What matters could arise within such a practice area? What makes these issues so niche? Let’s break it down:
1. First of all, most sporting events require some sort of venue – whether over a huge area such as the Tour de France or within the confines of an arena, every event will have to take place at some physical geographic location. Let’s say we are establishing a sports team of some description - our base will need designing, building and maintaining – all of which would surely fit within the remit of construction law. The 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics hit headlines not only for becoming the most expensive Olympic Games in history, but also because of the numerous legal issues encountered during construction of the athletes’ village. The complications of obtaining permissions to build on environmentally-rich marshlands, the illegality of the disposal of construction waste in the area and the failure to have works completed by contractual deadlines all required legal attention – but are such matters best dealt with by sports law specialists or by construction and environmental attorneys?
2. So our venue has been completed and now requires adequate staying. Despite best intentions every employer will inevitably encounter difficulties in maintaining legal harmony between himself, the company and an employee from time to time. Whether involving a team member or ground staff, it is as likely that employment issues will arise in the sporting industry as in any other business.
3. For example, footballer Luis Suarez reportedly threatened legal action when Liverpool FC refused to sell him to Arsenal, despite the fact that a GBP 40 million release clause in his contract had been triggered by way of Arsenal’s bid. The most obvious starting point for any resolution would be to refer to the relevant employment contract and the governing law – again, do we need to be industry-specific specialists in order to do this? Or would a diligent and experienced employment lawyer provide an equally effective service?
4. Our venue is complete and fully-staffed, and our team is ready to play. Already we are attracting a fan base, and people want to see our team in action. Although we can easily sell tickets we must remember that the sale and purchase of any item, tangible or otherwise, by definition forms a contract between the seller and the buyer. What if any disputes arise here? What if a buyer feels as though the seller has fallen short and not provided the advertised product? What if the seller considers the buyer to have breached the terms and conditions of the sale? Breach of contract is a matter in which we are all well-practiced – we wouldn’t look to appoint a maritime expert just because we were arrested for unacceptable behavior in a dock yard, so why would we need a specialist sports lawyer just because the breach of contract occurred in relation to match tickets?
5. Not everyone can make it to the game, so in the interests of our fans at home and in attempt to increase revenue we choose to air our event on television. This paves the way to a multitude of complications. For example, European rugby encountered difficulties earlier this year when English and French clubs threatened to withdraw from the Heineken Cup competition owing the way in which broadcasting rights were distributed. Although such a dispute is arguably specialist, it would seem as though a knowledge of media law would be more relevant than sporting law here.
6. Our team are playing fantastically and are attracting the attention of the media, a wider fan base is forming and our business strategies have been effective. The team and club are no longer just sporting entities - they have become a brand, and we therefore need to take legal steps to protect our intellectual property and trademarks. The nature of the client’s business is surely irrelevant – a good IP lawyer will be able to safeguard our rights regardless of the industry.
7. So now we have become firmly established and our team and associated business look set to thrive indefinitely. However, as in any environment, any number of things could still go wrong and we could find ourselves involved in litigation. Even then, would we require the services of a sports attorney? When footballer John Terry found himself subject to criminal prosecution in 2012 he was represented not by a sports lawyer, but by criminal defence specialist George Carter-Stephenson QC. Likewise the legal team dealing with the continuing repercussions of the 1989 Hillsborough disaster consists of lawyers and experts from a variety of legal backgrounds, with the very vast majority having little to no previous dealings with sporting matters.
It therefore appears as though a large amount of the legal work generated by the sporting industry is already catered for – a reputable full-service law firm could arguably deal with any matters which may arise regarding construction, employment, general contract, IP and resulting litigation. So with that in mind, does the region really need to develop a niche practice area in order to maintain the growing industry? Or can we conclude that we are reasonably well-equipped to support it already?