Sports law in 2021: Data disputes, the evolution of esports, all eyes on Premier League TV rights, and rules tighten for clubs and agents
While there may not have been as much action on the pitch in 2020, this year has been an eventful one for sports lawyers off the pitch to say the least.
Coronavirus has acted as a magnifying glass, intensifying the financial and legal pressures that those in the sports ecosystem face.
But how is 2021 shaping up from a sports law and governance perspective? We attempt to answer that question below, focusing on four key areas.
Day-to-day data use
The exploitation of sports data is increasingly the subject of complex multi-million pound disputes.
In 2020, we saw just how high the stakes can be in the supply of sports data and sports betting services.
Possibly the most high-profile dispute is between Sportradar and the Premier League’s official data collector, Genius Sports. The dispute related to Sportradar’s inability to exploit such data itself without going through Genius.
The outcome of the case, which raises interesting arguments of competition law, is expected in 2021 and will certainly have a major impact on how live match data is collected and exploited.
Then there is “Project Red Card”. It has been reported that a group of ex-professional footballers across the UK have threatened legal action under GDPR rules against a wide range of companies who they claim use athletes’ data.
Those claims are relatively novel, and are a sign that data protection potentially gives athletes, and by implication fans, a wide set of rights.
Businesses using such data need to be aware of the potential for such claims. Colleagues of ours are involved with these claims and it will be one to watch in 2021.
These cases show that anyone working in the sports industry should carefully consider how they are using personal and other related sports data.
Esports: it’s no longer just a game
The professionalisation of esports continues to accelerate at a blistering pace.
In 2020, European giants Fnatic secured a $10m investment before going on to successfully close a £2m crowdfunding round.
Similarly, fellow UK team Excel Esports continued their professional evolution by securing a groundbreaking partnership with a non-endemic sponsor, BT.
Excel also brought in new leadership, including the former director of global marketing at Adidas, to help further their aim of becoming a leading household brand.
However, it is not only esports teams that are looking to professionalise.
As demonstrated by the number of disputes, there’s been a real increase in esports players seeking to protect themselves by appointing their own legal advisors.
Take stars like Alex McMeekin who, after suffering burnout at his former team, sought the help of a lawyer, rather than using an agent, to secure a multi-million dollar move to US team, Cloud9.
This marks an increasing trend of esports players realising exactly how much they are worth, refusing to sign unfair contracts, and taking steps to protect the exploitation of their image rights.
Premier League: TV times
The next auction for domestic broadcast rights to show the Premier League from 2022-23 is set to conclude in 2021.
The headline last time around was the entrance of Amazon, which secured 20 Premier League matches a season for its Prime Video platform.
The prospect of a bidding war between Amazon and Sky recently narrowed after the two companies announced a new long-term partnership. That, coupled with the financial challenges of coronavirus, could see domestic rights income reduce for the second cycle in a row.
However, given the rise of other streaming platforms such as DAZN, which splashed onto the scene in 2018 signing the first ever $1bn boxing deal with Matchroom Boxing, having been advised by Mishcon, we could still see a challenge to the dominance of traditional broadcasters Sky and BT.
Either way, the legal terms will certainly be pored over, with each side trying to protect its position from any pandemic-related disruption similar to what we have seen in 2020.
Alongside this, the Premier League is rumoured to be considering dipping its toe in the streaming market with its own direct-to-consumer (DTC) model, emulating the NFL’s Game Pass and NBA’s League Pass.
If the Premier League does pursue this route, it could constitute a transformative shift in the rights model of English football, but also risks potentially damaging relationships with commercial partners. In our view, a more limited foray into DTC in a smaller jurisdiction is most likely.
One thing we know for sure: given last summer’s postponed events, 2021 will be a busy one from a sports perspective.
Events organisers, broadcasters and governing bodies on the one hand, and sponsors and other commercial parties on the other, will all be trying to maximise the value of their deals and make sure that the agreements that they enter into adequately protect them – so that, ultimately, all matters can be settled on the field rather than in the courtroom.
Regulators on a roll
Rather than taking a softer approach in light of the pandemic, sports regulators around the world seem to be gearing up for a year of introducing tougher rules.
For instance, following high-public defeats for the English Football League and Uefa in landmark judgments opposite Derby County and Manchester City respectively, we are likely to see changes to the regulatory regime that football clubs are subject to.
In particular, this could mean the introduction of salary caps in the Championship to replace the existing financial fair play rules.
Fans of several clubs will be hoping that the regulators take a sensible approach to enforcement, though, ultimately recognising diminution in value of club’s assets and revenues that were completely unforeseen and have impacted even the best run clubs.
We are also likely to see the imposition of stronger rules, including caps on fees, for agents.
Such measures will be hotly contested, though, and ironically, in light of Brexit, may be stopped in their tracks by legislation that originates from Brussels.
Simon Leaf is head of sport and Tom Murray a sports lawyer at Mishcon de Reya.