By Matt Noble
In the first of a series of interviews with practitioners in what might be called niche areas, I was fortunate enough to speak with Andy Korman, partner at Couchmans LLP. Couchmans is the UK’s premier specialist sports law firm, based near Gray’s Inn in central London. Andy has worked on deals including David Beckham’s endorsement arrangement with Gillette, and Aegon’s sponsorship of the Queen Club tennis championships. My first question to him was a fundamental one:
Q: What do sports lawyers do, and is it mainly players’ contracts?
Actually players’ contracts are what we do the least. Football players, for instance in the Premier League all have a standard contract which has to be used, but we do work on the image rights side of things. We do contracts for other sports though, such as Chris Froome’s [2013 Tour de France winner] with Team Sky. Sports law is split into sectors, I do a lot on marketing and sponsorship, but there is also intellectual property, broadcasting, corporate – where there is the buying and selling of sports businesses, and of course disputes. Disputes are mainly to do with regulatory bodies, which is special to sport, where someone has failed to abide by the rules, for example with doping.
Q: What made you want to be a sports lawyer, and do you have to be a sports fan to work in the sector?
When I started in 1995, sports was not massive, there were only small sports groups. I sent in speculative applications and got a position at Townleys, the original boutique sports law firm. You definitely have to be a sports fan – not to do the actual work, but for the added value. It is important to understand the client and their market, and to understand the business of sport. When I see applications, the ones that interest me are from people who are involved in coaching a team, people who contribute to a sports organisation.
I wanted to be a sports lawyer because I knew I would be interested in it. During events like the World Cup we all watch on a second monitor in the office. I need to know about what is going on because sport is headline news. If a client calls me up at 9:30am and asks me if I’ve seen the news, I need to know what they are talking about. Reading the back pages isn’t a trial because if I wasn’t a sports lawyer I’d be doing it anyway, and hiding it from my boss.
Q: Which other areas of law go hand in hand with sports law as a practitioner?
Sport is a bit different as it cuts across all the traditional legal areas. I do a lot of contract work, but we have corporate and commercial lawyers as well for example. Entertainment is also an area we work in. The only non-sports work that I do is sponsorship of arts events, such as the Royal Ballet. Sport is multi-disciplinary; other firms have lawyers interested in sport who work in different departments, who they pull in when needed to work on a sports matter. Sport is really at the forefront of technology, businesses use sport to show that off, so we have a digital department too. The way people consume sport has changed a lot. From the days of it being people attending matches and then having a few games on Match of the Day, now people have a second or third screen. They watch, tweet about it on their mobile and check statistics or betting on a tablet.
Q: What kind of clients do you advise? What are they like to work with?
My clients are split 50/50 between rights holders to a team or event, and commercial partners who want to be in a business relationship with a sports organisation. They are nice people. The rights holders know a lot about their sport, and the commercial partners know a lot about business but not necessarily about the sport side of it. Sport is an interesting area, unlike a property transaction where once the deal is done the parties go their separate ways, here the parties need to maintain a relationship. It can be quite adversarial at the beginning, so I tell clients that to get that out of the way they should use me, the other side won’t have anything to do with me later anyway.
Q: What has been the most interesting or significant recent development in the field of sports law?
It has really been the consumption of sport, and how that has affected sponsorship and marketing. If you look at endorsements, when companies began using sportspeople it used to be just the best player that they wanted. Then it was the best one, or a top one who was good looking. Then they wanted someone who was good in interviews. Now they look for someone who is great on social media. Take Ian Poulter – he has never won a golf major but he has a lot of Twitter followers and is very savvy about his own brand. Perhaps David Beckham is the best example. Sponsors of ‘Brand Beckham’ are always very pleased.
Some cases have had an effect, such as Arsenal v Reed, which was a trademark infringement case. There was also a passing off case with Eddie Irvine [Irvine v Talksport Ltd] which was backed up by the Rihanna Top Shop case [Fenty v Arcadia Group Brands Ltd]. Bosman of course is the daddy of all sports law cases which abolished transfer fees for out of contract players, and ensured freedom of movement.
Q: What is the best thing about your job? What is the most challenging/frustrating part of it?
I like all of it, I’m embarrassed at how much. I had a three hour meeting with the International Rowing Federation and was really impressed with their commitment to fairness and transparency. It’s a very privileged position to be in and the lawyer is the dullest person in the room. As an Everton fan it was satisfying to work on the kit sponsorship deal with Kejian, and to see your work in action. It was the same with the Aegon sponsorship at Queen’s.
What is frustrating is when it is hard to convince people that they need a sports specialist. They may have an in-house department who think they can deal with the contract, and they will get a 6 out of 10 job. We can do a 10 out of 10 job. It’s about the added value.
Q: What advice would you give to someone hoping for a career in sports law? How did you get to where you are today?
It is competitive so don’t be discouraged. Don’t pin your hopes on sport. When looking for a training contract, be interested in other areas to get a rounded training. Areas like IP, commercial, litigation, corporate. Be a generalist and then refine it. Some exposure to sports is good, but the business of sport is the main thing. I did French and Spanish at University, then did the CPE. I worked for a year and needed to get a job, and I wanted a profession.
Q: If you were to give some advice to a sports law hopeful, what would it be?
Competition law is important now, for example why should one body get to be in charge of a sport? Get some work experience in a law firm, but also with a sports organisation.
With great thanks to Andy Korman for allowing us to interview him. www.couchmansllp.com.