The Sports Sector

Key Facts

Sports law deals with the legal issues that arise in the world of amateur and professional sports

Sports law tends to be a 'sector' at a law firm, rather than a legal discipline. This means a lawyer can be a corporate lawyer or employment lawyer but specialise in the sports industry. 

As such, any lawyer can be a sports lawyer if they build up that specialist industry knowledge and build up a good client base in the sports industry. 

There are industry specific legal issues that can arise in this sector which is why the lawyers that work for sports clients must have sector specific knowledge. 

Regulatory Governance Structure

The UK government has adopted a non-interventionist approach to sport and there is no general law of sport

The regulation of individual sports is left to the 'national governing bodies' (NGB) of the relevant sport. 

NGBs act autonomously and their authority comes from a voluntary agreement entered into between the NGB and its members. 

The UK government only get involved if there's a public interest to do so. 

  • Example: following the Hillsborough disaster 1989, the Football Spectators Act 1989 was introduced to ensure all clubs in the top two tiers of English professional football would be required to provide all seated accommodation at stadiums to improve safety and assist crowd control. 

Doping Regulation

Doping is the use of banned athletic performance enhancing drugs by athletic competitors. 

The use of drugs to enhance performance is considered unethical and is prohibited by most international sports organisations. 

The regulatory framework for doping matters in the UK is based on the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) Code which is the global platform for anti-doping regulation alongside the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS). 

The UK Anti-Doping (UKAD) is a non-departmental public body that is responsible for ensuring UK sports bodies comply with the WADA Code. 

UKAD has developed a policy and rules and such rules are implemented into the rulebook of each NGB. 

Protection from liability

Sports participants do not benefit from blanket immunity from civil and criminal actions whilst playing sports. 

Civil - sports participants owe a duty of care to each other and the standard and type of care will depend on the sport being played. Participants will need to pursue civil claims against one another for damages suffered such as personal injury. 

Criminal - there is a general concept of implied sporting consent so those that commit dangerous acts are exempt from being charged provided that the act falls within the boundaries of what would be expected in that sport. 

Dispute Resolution

There is no single authority or body in the UK that automatically has jurisdiction over sporting disputes. 

The NGB's rules will determine who has authority to deal with the dispute. 

If the dispute falls outside of the scope of the NGB rules but the dispute is civil in nature (like a breach of contract), the majority of NGBs require participants to resolve disputes by way of arbitration. (There'll be an arbitration clause in their rules). 

Sometimes the dispute can still fall outside of the arbitration clause so it can be litigated in court - depends on the facts and relief sought! 

Other common legal issues in sports...

The following are legal issues that commonly crop up in the world of sports: 

  • sponsorship and image rights - this is using a particular club or sports players name / image to promote products or services or to sponsor deals. 

  • brand management - this is protecting the brand of a club and usually relies on a variety of IP law such as trademarks to protect brand identity, copyright to protect original material like books, blogs etc and registering domain names. 

  • media coverage an individual or organisation in the public eye can experience adverse media coverage - organisations and employees need to be aware their actions may reflect the reputation and brand of the club so 'morality clauses' usually provide some protection here. 

  • broadcasting - in the UK broadcasting is monitored by 'Ofcom' which has the power to implement various rules and codes of practice. The sports related code defines which events must be made available free to air and those which may be shown exclusively on pay-television. It also includes things like use of sponsor credits, virtual advertising and competition law elements. 

  • event organisation hosting sporting events involve major operations and event organisers can be civilly liable to attendees and event participants. 

  • immigration - under EU law, athletes, coaches and administrative staff who are EU/EEA nationals have the right to work in the UK (this will change post 31 Dec 2020). Non-EU/EEA national athletes need to be sponsored to work in the UK. 

  • sports union - sports unions sit within the same framework as other trade unions in the UK and workers (which includes sports players) have the right to be members of their trade unions. 

  • employment - in sport, transfer systems arise through the rules of NGBs. Usually, players are required to be registered with their clubs which gives the club the right to transfer the registration from another club. The transfer system must comply with the UK employment laws and EU laws on freedom of movement. 

  • welfare obligations - sports organisations have a legal duty to take reasonable care of their employees' health and safety (including mental health) and take steps to provide a safe workplace. 

  • tax - foreign athletes living and working in the UK under UK employment contracts will likely be UK tax residents and subject to UK tax on worldwide income but certain foreign athletes may be deemed 'UK non-domicile' to avoid their worldwide income being subject to UK tax.