Sports law has already caught the headlines in 2022 with Djokovic's deportation ahead of the Australian Open, further debate about racism in cricket, and a landmark ruling for footballer Marc Bola... and it is only January. At the end of last year, along with other top sports lawyers, our Alex Kelham was asked to contribute to leading sports law platform, LawInSport, to comment on the most significant developments in sports law in 2021 and to look ahead to what is to come in 2022. LawInSport have kindly agreed that we can reproduce Alex's contributions, which reflect her experiences as a commercial sports marketing lawyer:
The emergence of Web 3.0
The rapid emergence of Web 3.0 and the wide range of commercial opportunities this has presented to sports organisations has, for me, been the most interesting development of 2021. Cryptocurrency sponsorships, NFT 'drops', fan tokens and the launch of sport-based metaverses (see e.g. Man City's recent announcement of its virtual recreation of the Etihad Stadium) are now becoming commonplace in the world of sport. These developments present sports rightsholders with significant opportunities for new revenue streams and increased fan engagement, whilst also throwing up their fair share of legal, regulatory and consumer-protection related challenges.
The lawyers advising in this space also face challenges of their own, mainly around getting to grips with the fast-evolving technology, the terminology, and the regulation. Translating the commercial intent of clients in this space into legally 'tight' agreements is not easy, but it makes the job really interesting. I'm not sure anyone has all the answers yet (and I'm yet to meet a sports lawyer who can code a smart contract), but thinking through the diverse range of issues – from IP rights and NFT licensing terms, to the impact of sporting and financial services regulation – while all the time managing the risks (which as we've already seen can be high), makes advising in this space feel like law at the cutting edge. This is particularly the case given we do not yet have a pre-existing “industry standard” blueprint for contracting in these areas, so much of what we do in this space is at the forefront of bringing the law up-to-speed with the technology.
Sport as an entertainment product
Sport has always been entertaining, but is it time to accept that sport is primarily an “entertainment product” and adapt the rules accordingly? Fresh from the controversial climax to the 2021 F1 season, I predict that 2022 will see an increase in lawyers being called upon to closely review sporting rulebooks in this light. Some sports, particularly those with a 'purist' mentality, will no doubt want to tighten their rules (and how they are applied in key moments) to ensure they cannot be manipulated just to engineer box-office entertainment. There are also likely to be more sports adopting tech and AI to ensure the objectivity of decision-making. On the flip side, other sports will no doubt see the benefits of creating a more entertaining product, potentially fuelled by increased uncertainty/jeopardy, outside factors and/or fan engagement (think Formula-E's “fan boost”). It will be an interesting period and, personally, I think there will be a sweet-spot where sports are able to maintain the integrity of 'may the best man/woman win', whilst at the same time making the product more exciting. Writing the rules to allow for this will no doubt keep sports lawyers busy in 2022.
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There are also likely to be more sports adopting tech and AI to ensure the objectivity of decision-making