In a nutshell
Sports and media and entertainment are distinct yet overlapping areas of the law; some aspects of their practice – contracts law, for example – are common to both. Whichever strand you practice, one thing is for certain: the work is incredibly varied. Neither of these specialisms has its own distinct branch of law. Rather, they involve piecing together elements of a broad range of legal disciplines and applying them to one particular industry sector.
Split between transactional and litigation work, sports lawyers help out individuals and companies involved in the sports industry. That involves anything from drawing up player signing contracts, purchasing and selling stadiums and negotiating branding agreements to litigating licensing issues.
Media and entertainment
Media and entertainment lawyers provide legal advice and representation to those working in the entertainment industries, including the fields of theater, television, music, publishing, gambling, film and digital media. The practice has a major fault-line down the middle, with most lawyers falling on either the transactional or the contentious side. Many entertainment lawyers hone one particular specialism – the music industry, for example – while others remain generalists.
What lawyers do
Media and entertainment
- Draft and negotiate record, publishing, producer, management, distribution, touring, merchandising, corporate sponsorship, licensing and internet agreements.
- Consult with artists, record companies and publishers regarding their financing, entertainment and internet strategies, plus the protection of their IP rights.
- Advise media and entertainment companies on their M&A and merger activities.
- Provide pre-publication content advice to broadcasters and publishers.
- Litigate matters including contractual, copyright and trademark, employment, and payment disputes.
- First Amendment law is a substantial specialism in itself – advising on issues of free speech, censorship and defamation, among other contentious issues.
- Assist with contract negotiations, be they between clubs and sportspeople, agents and players, sporting institutions and sponsors, broadcasters and sports governing bodies.
- Handle varied employment and immigration issues.
- Defend sportspeople accused of doping offences or other unsporting behavior.
- Advise on corporate or commercial matters like takeovers, public offerings, debt restructurings and bankruptcies, and the securing and structuring of credit.
- Enforce IP rights in the lucrative merchandise market and negotiate on matters affecting a sportsperson’s image rights.
- Work on regulatory compliance issues within a sport.
- Offer reputation management and criminal advice.
- Advise broadcasters and other sports bodies on audio-visual media piracy issues.
- Sports-related litigation – anything from athlete contractual disputes to stadium construction and copyright issues.
- Advise professional sports leagues, club owners, investors and other financial institutions on sports-related licensing agreements, project finance, securitizations, and security offerings.
- Involved in M&A transactions involving sports-related bodies, and in the purchase and sale of sports teams.
- Advise sports administrators, commercial bodies and municipal authorities on hosting major sporting events.
- Manage IP portfolios for sports brands.
Bruce Wilson, a senior corporate lawyer at Covington & Burling with expertise in sports law:
“Probably the most important thing I've learnt is that in this transactional area, there's industry expertise but not sports law per se – it's not a separate branch of the law. There are very unique issues in antitrust law and competition, but the most important thing to remember is that a transactional sports practice requires you to draw on so many different areas of corporate work. It's M&A, financing, IP, media, and competition all rolled into one and you have to be comfortable in each of those areas.”
“Challenges are the rules of the game. In order for sports to be interesting, someone else must be doing the same thing. You can't have a football game or test match with just one team turning up. It's a competitive universe, with people competing in terms of sport, attention and ticket sales. But competitors on the pitch need to be business colleagues off the pitch.”
Scott Edelman, a litigation partner and co-chair of Gibson Dunn's media, entertainment and technology practice group:
“From my perspective, I don't think entertainment law is inherently 'sexy.' I don't work with celebrities – I work with studios, networks and music companies, which are corporate enterprises just like Bank of America, General Motors and the Shell Oil Company. Even for those working at boutique firms who represent the talent, it isn't necessarily easy. Some celebrity clients can be demanding, and frequently need to be pampered. Competition to do entertainment work is intense, and nobody should get into entertainment law thinking it is easy.”
“My general advice is don't load up on entertainment classes at law school – maybe just take a couple of basic classes like copyright or IP. If you want to get into entertainment law, use law school as a time to cover basic solid subjects including securities, commercial law and antitrust. There will be plenty of time to focus on entertainment later.”
- Amazon and Hulu presented further challenges to traditional TV players when they launched live streaming services in 2017. This will have an impact that spans beyond just advertising, as media and entertainment partner Matt Thompson at Sidley Austin tells us: “Broadcast TV has been declining for a long time – apart from sports and awards shows. At some point, an entity like Amazon is going to buy the broadcast rights for the NFL. When something like that happens, the future of broadcast TV will be uncertain.”
- Technology known as Deepfake uses video and audio to replicate images and voices of people, and can be used to imitate public figures like celebrities or politicians. Despite being relatively new, the sophisticated technology has become almost indistinguishable from real life. Deepfakes in the future could create a personalized film experience for example, letting you watch your favorite actor in any film you wish. This would bring up complex legal issues around who gets paid and whose intellectual property the performance becomes. For trial media lawyers, the technology could also be used in more sinister ways – as a tool for blackmail, defamation and manipulation.
- New technology presents new threats to the media industry in terms of IP infringement. To take new real-time piracy as an example, we can expect to see more copyright holders litigating for copyright infringement. However, the owners of live-streaming platforms may find an easy escape considering that current US law is still not firm on this point. Another option for copyright holders is to harness new technology to their own advantage to protect themselves from piracy.
- Sporting regulation is facing changes and challenges in gender equality cases such as Harrison Browne’s – a transgender man who played for the National Women’s Hockey League. In 2017 Browne was left with no choice but to announce his retirement from the NWHL to begin hormone replacement therapy. Sporting regulation, nationally and internationally, means that transgender athletes like Browne are left in a tough spot both legally and personally – either leave the sport altogether to transition medically, or stay and delay.
- Another significant sporting decision emerged in 2019 when the International Association of Athletics Federations (now known as World Athletics) ruled that Caster Semenya, the South African 800 m Olympic champion, will be required to medically reduce her testosterone levels in order to continue competing on the world stage. Semenya lost her appeal to the IAAF after challenging what she believed to be discriminatory new regulations that required female athletes with DSDs (difference in sexual development) or intersex female athletes to chemically alter levels of testosterone through the use of hormones.
- In 2018, the Supreme Court overturned the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act of 1992, legalizing sports betting at a national level. This legalizes what is estimated to be a $138 billion industry, but also throws fantasy sport betting companies like DraftKings and FanFuel up into the air.
- An ongoing legal battle continues to plague the World-Cup winning US National Women’s Soccer Team regarding equitable pay. Despite being a far more decorated outfit than their male counterparts – the USNWT are ranked first in the world, with four World Cup trophies under their belt – the debate concerning equitable pay continues. In part due to sponsorship and advertising deals, the team reportedly earn six times less in bonuses than the men’s side, causing the USWNT to file a lawsuit against US Soccer seeking to remedy the chasm in pay.
- The development and influence of women’s sport will continue to grow in 2020. Ever increasing exposure and momentum will see greater levels of corporate sponsorship; marketing geared toward younger athletes; and expanding broadcasting and television deals. Sports lawyers will be necessary as this evolution engrains itself in the mainstream.
- Esports remains a hot and evolving industry. Experts forecast that in 2020 the esports market will amass $1.5 billion in annual revenue. With money predominantly flowing from sponsorships and advertising deals, lawyers across the globe will become increasingly involved with issues relating to sporting governance, broadcasting rights, sponsorship, advertising, gambling, anti-corruption, and much more as the intersection between sport, tech, and media grows.
- The Esports Integrity Commission (ESIC) is a governing body overseeing the integrity of this embryonic industry. The Commission seek to regulate and eliminate all forms of malpractice in the industry, ultimately aiming to preserve sporting integrity in its digitized manifestations. Poland, for example, has expanded legal sporting regulations to prohibit doping and other areas of misconduct in this newly emerging field.
- Despite there being no sport happening under the coronavirus lockdown, sport has nevertheless featured in the news every single day, remarkably finding something to discuss. This offers us some reassurance that even under the most extreme conditions, our appetite for sport remains. A career in this niche area is hard to get into, but once there it offers some stability. Our research shows niche areas encourage more long-term commitment from associates.