A miserable World Cup for England, but the lawyers have done very well

Times Online, April 26, 2007

The England cricket team may have failed at this World Cup but one thing is for certain – the lawyers have done very well. It is true that, more than most, sports lawyers manage to align their passions with their work, but that doesn’t mean they work any less hard. A look behind the scenes at the tournament shows that legal advisers are involved with everything from broadcasting rights to player discipline.

In fact, even as this World Cup nears its climax, they are already busy negotiating future events. Richard Verow, the International Cricket Council’s commercial lawyer, is currently putting together rights packages for the next eight years, his mind occupied not with the failures of Michael Vaughan’s side but with the 2011 World Cup in India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh and the 2015 World Cup in Australia and New Zealand.

“Our media rights tender has gone out and we’ve appointed ESPN Star Sports as global audio-visual rights holders for the next eight years,” he says. “Now we’re looking at sponsorship deals and all the other bits and pieces that are integral to a well-run tournament.”

ESPN Star Sports is understood to have paid in the region of $1.1 billion for the rights, approximately double that of the ICC’s previous deal with the Global Cricket Corporation (GCC). The package covers 18 ICC events, beginning in September this year with the Twenty20 World Cup in South Africa. Verow is a fan of the Twenty20 format: “It’s an intense burst of cricket, very popular with families and a great way of getting the game to a wider audience,” he says.

The process of putting together contracts for this kind of event is a “great challenge”, Verow says. It entails “reconciling all the moving parts – everything has to be back to back. Sports lawyers have a unique perspective on how major events are put together.”

One of the biggest legal efforts during the current World Cup has been the use of “spotters”. “Spotters are usually students who volunteer for the work, or maybe local lawyers,” explains Verow. “Their job is to monitor attempts at concerted ambush marketing.”

Ambush marketing occurs when a brand owner not chosen to be among the lucky few as an official partner or sponsor endeavours to give a false impression that it is connected to the event. Pepsi, for example, is one of the four official partners at the current World Cup, so spotters would be on the lookout for determined efforts by Coca-Cola to get their logos inside the stadia.

Individuals can also perpetrate ambush marketing. Linford Christie provided the textbook example by turning up at a press conference during the Atlanta Olympic Games sporting blue contact lenses with a white Puma logo, to the immense chagrin of Reebok, the official sponsor.

Max Duthie, a partner in Bird & Bird’s sports law team, says “there is often a degree of tension between the various stakeholders in a tournament - individual players, participating teams, the event organizer – and their sponsors as to what level of exposure is legitimate.”

The issue arose prior to the tournament when Cricket Australia wanted the Australian team to wear shirts bearing the Travelex logo. As with a large number of disputes arising from sporting events, the rights and wherefores were decided by arbitration. Duthie: “It had been agreed that the competing nations would submit disputes of this kind to the ICC’s Dispute Resolution Committee, which was chaired by Michael Beloff, QC. Just before the start of the event the Committee ruled that the Travelex logo conflicted with those of the official sponsors and Cricket Australia had to find a new sponsor.”

If broadcast and sponsorship agreements are the most obvious examples of a lawyer’s workload in a sporting event, Duthie – who acted for ICC in the Cricket Australia dispute – emphasises that this is only the tip of the iceberg.

“Lawyers will be heavily involved in everything from ticketing and catering contracts to the participation agreements that the players have with their countries,” he says. “Underpinning a lot of this work is the need for an event organizer to optimise revenue streams by appropriately exploiting and protecting the valuable intellectual property in their event.”

Fraser Reid, a partner with sports law firm Couchman Harrington, highlights another area that can often require a lawyer’s forensic skills – player discipline. Or, rather, the lack of it.

Reid: “Players will be subject to disciplinary procedures drawn up by their teams and overriding sanctions from the event organiser in the event that serious infractions – such as doping – occur. Fortunately, aside from Andrew Flintoff’s late night, the World Cup has not thrown up any controversies involving players.”

Ian Smith, a solicitor with the Professional Cricketer’s Association (PCA), agrees. “It's been an enormous relief that the players haven't needed lawyers during this World Cup,” he says. He puts it down to “the excellent legal work done before the World Cup started and the professionalism of the players”.

Such professionalism is second nature to the sports lawyers who toil behind the scenes. The scary truth, in today’s world, is that a major sporting event couldn’t happen without them.