Sports law: area of practice

Even if you don't travel, working in sports law can be international in nature with clients based in Europe and the USA.

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Being able to see the results of our work on TV is one of the best parts of the job.

Sports law combines a number of different practice areas. It involves commercial contracts, employment contracts, litigation, regulatory 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.

Sports lawyers facilitate deals between governing bodies and broadcasters

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 have frequently competed with their bids to buy the rights to certain premium sports events, such as the Premier League or Test cricket. Lawyers will then get involved to facilitate those deals.

A typical media rights 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 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.

We do most of our international deals from London, but there are some opportunities to travel. Even if you don’t travel, however, work can be international in nature. We have clients in the sports sector based throughout mainland Europe and the USA for instance.

How recession-proof is sports law?

The sports sector is unique in certain respects. Even if consumer spending generally decreases, interest in sports is usually sustained. Watching their favourite team, for example, becomes a habit for many. Businesses recognise this, so media rights and sponsorship deals continue to grow significantly, generating work for sports lawyers even when other sectors might suffer.

What sort of work do trainees in sports law do?

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 associate or partner supervision. They also attend meetings, take notes, and get involved with research and marketing tasks. There are also good opportunities for client contact, with trainees often lending a hand throughout media rights bidding days.

Skills and characteristics successful sports lawyers have:

  • 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.

Types of law practised

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

ALASDAIR LAMB is an associate at CMS . He graduated from the University of Warwick with a degree in history.

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