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Sports solicitor gives advice to law graduates

Sports law: area of practice

A knowledge of, and passion for, the industry is useful as a sports lawyer, says Mike Llewellyn – a partner at Olswang.
Sports law has been in a bit of a recession-proof bubble.

Sports law combines a number of different areas. It involves commercial contracts, employment contracts, litigation and tax issues. Lawyers will generally train in one particular discipline; litigators get involved with disciplinary and regulatory issues, employment lawyers deal with athletes’ contracts, and commercial contract lawyers handle media rights and sponsorship deals.

Lawyers facilitate deals between the Premier League and the Champions League

When working on sports media rights agreements, clients are mainly either sports governing bodies or broadcasters. Sports governing bodies hold the rights to particular events, while broadcasters bid for the rights to that content. For example, in the UK, Sky and BT are frequently competing with their bids to buy the rights to certain premium sports events, such as the Premier League and Champions League. Lawyers will then get involved to facilitate those deals.

A typical transaction begins with the creation of a tender document, which can in some cases take up to two or three months. This typically sets out the bidding process as well as a template rights agreement, which sets out what rights are included and excluded, and the obligations of bidders regarding how they use them. The document is then circulated to a number of broadcasters; they take a few weeks to review it and give feedback. This is followed by a negotiation process between broadcasters and the rights holder involving both legal and business teams. Being able to see the results of our work on TV is one of the best parts of the job!

When working on sponsorship agreements, these tend to be subject to a less formal process than the media rights tenders set out above. Clients in this space can be athletes themselves, clubs or governing bodies as well as corporates. It is also great to see the fruits of your labour in the public eye.

With bigger deals, we could have one partner, two associates and one trainee working on the transaction, but smaller deals are usually conducted with an associate doing most of the work under a partner’s supervision – although there is often scope for trainees to help out on these too. Deadlines can get tight, particularly on larger transactions, so quite a few late nights are required. With smaller deals, we usually have more control and a better idea of when work is going to peak, so 9.00 am to 6.30 pm or 7.00 pm are the typical working hours.

Are there opportunities to travel abroad as a sports lawyer?

Our work is mainly office based; however, we are moving towards more remote working, where we travel to clients’ premises to build up more of a relationship. We do most of our international deals from London, but there are some opportunities to travel. For example, I’ve visited clients in France, Luxembourg and Finland in my two years here.

Is sports law recession-proof?

Sports law has been in a bit of a bubble. There’s been a sustained interest in the sector because even if consumer spending generally decreases, people will generally retain their interest in sport. Watching their favourite team, for example, becomes a habit for many. It’s almost like a release from the difficulties they face in other areas of their lives. Businesses recognise this, so media rights and sponsorship deals are still growing significantly. Furthermore, the expansion of this area is entwined with the growth of technology. We used to just facilitate deals with satellite broadcasters; now, with the rise of broadband technology and apps, handling internet streaming rights and exploitation of rights through social media has become an increasingly large part of our job.

What skills does a sports lawyer need to do the job?

  • A knowledge of, and passion for, the industry.
  • Good attention to detail – deals can involve contracts 100+ pages long.
  • Strong drafting, negotiation and analytical skills.
  • The ability to network and bring in clients.

What is it like doing a trainee solicitor's job in sports law?

With smaller sponsorship agreements, we sometimes ask trainees to draw up a first draft of the contract. With bigger deals, trainees are charged with updating and managing certain sections of a document under our supervision, rather than taking responsibility for the whole thing. They also attend meetings, take notes, and get involved with research and marketing tasks.

Types of law practised

  • Contract.
  • Intellectual property.
  • Litigation.
  • Employment.
  • Tax.

MIKE LLEWELLYN is an associate in the sports sector group at OLSWANG LLP. He graduated from the University of Cambridge with a degree in classics in 2004.