Tuesday 18 August 2009 8:00 pm

The beautiful game? It's nothing without lawyers

IT is hard to imagine the chant of “we love lawyers” rolling down the Kop, but as another season kicks off, football may be surprised to know that it owes the legal profession a considerable debt.

It was a solicitor, Ebenezer Cobb Morley, who had the idea to form an organisation that became the Football Association in 1863. He was its first secretary and also drafted the first laws of the game. It was a solicitor, Harold Hardman, who as chairman made Manchester United the first English club to enter European competition in 1956 in the face of Football League opposition. More recently, it was a solicitor, Chris Farnell of IPS Law in Manchester, who brokered the first meeting of the FA with Fabio Capello.

Football is a potentially lucrative source of income for lawyers, with the top end of the game proving recession-resistant, as witnessed by the £1.8bn broadcasters’ bid for the 2010-13 Premier League rights earlier this year, 5 per cent up on the existing deal. Broadcasting, sponsorship, licensing and merchandising are areas where legal input is obviously vital.

“Richard Scudamore the Premier League’s chief executive once referred to professional football as similar to the supermarket business – you’ll always need food and no one thinks that supermarkets won’t be there in five years’ time,” says Alex Haffner, a senior associate at City firm Denton Wilde Sapte. Haffner cut his legal teeth acting for the Premier League in its competition law battle a few years ago with the European Commission over the way in which it exploits its television rights, which led to the league having to agree to sell live rights to more than one broadcaster.

This illustrates the tension between general law and the special needs of sport, which are recognised to some extent (no other industry can justify transfer windows for employees, for example). Though collective bargaining on behalf of the 20 clubs has survived, it has led to a situation that is arguably worse for the consumer. “It has made my sports viewing twice as expensive,” says Andy Korman, a partner at niche sports law firm Couchman Harrington, who has to subscribe to both Sky and ESPN if he wants to watch his beloved Everton.

Haffner points out that big-money transfers are now akin to commercial deals, requiring a wide range of legal skills to complete. Nick Bitel, a partner at Islington firm Max Bitel Greene and chief executive of the London Marathon, has witnessed this from the player’s perspective, acting for Andrei Arshavin on his move to Arsenal and Emmanuel Adebayor on leaving Arsenal for Manchester City, as well as Harry Redknapp on taking over as Tottenham manager last year. Bitel just provides legal advice, but there are some lawyers who act as agents too.

Though a transfer is fundamentally a contractual matter – there is a standard player’s contract which the parties can supplement – Bitel says “the intellectual property side such as image rights is getting complicated and the tax side horrendously complicated”. With higher-rate income tax going up to 50 per cent next April, compared to 24 per cent in Spain, and currency fluctuations, this is becoming an important issue. Even though he is acting for the player, tax planning and so reducing the cost of the player is “where our expertise as lawyers is welcomed by the clubs”, Bitel says.

Research last month by consultant Deloitte showed that if a player negotiating a new contract this summer demanded €3m per annum after tax, the cost to a Premier League club following the income tax increase would be €6.8m, compared to the €4m it would cost a Spanish club to give a non-Spanish player the same net pay. It was €6.7m in France, €5.7m in Italy and €5.4m in Germany.

This is high-quality work. The involvement of big City firms is evidence of its appeal, but equally there are some significant niche players. Couchman Harrington is advising the Polish organisers of Euro2012, an example of how the expertise City lawyers have built up is translating into international work too. Jonathan Brogden, a partner at City firm Davies Arnold Cooper, says his firm is currently advising a foreign club – “this work tends to centralise in the London market,” he explains.

There are many other facets to being a lawyer in the football world, whether claims over career-ending injuries, litigation (Dentons advised Sheffield United on the Carlos Tevez case) or even defending players on motoring charges. Some have even been in the game – solicitor Darren Bailey, now the FA’s director of football governance and regulation, was on Chelsea’s books as a youngster, while Chris Farnell was with Blackburn.

Korman says that relationships are the key. Sports clients are seeking that “broader adviser approach… They don’t phone up asking for an intellectual property lawyer. They just want a lawyer. The actual law isn’t particularly difficult – it’s more about adapting it to the circumstances.”

Getting into any niche area of legal practice is about knowing the market, but football is a particularly small world. Korman says that Couchman Harrington views itself less as a law firm and more “as part of the sports industry, and the service we offer is law”.

And this industry knowledge is undoubtedly vital. The story is told, probably apocryphal, of the City law firm that sought to cosy up to clients by taking them to a game during Euro 96. Clients arrived at the offices, drinks and food were served, and it was only when people started looking anxiously at their watches did the organisers discover that the game was being played at St James’s Park Newcastle, rather than St James’s Park Westminster.