Sports 2018: Trends & Conclusions

Despite challenges facing the sports industry – including integrity issues following anti-doping scandals at the Sochi Olympics, the need to adapt to the ever-changing ways consumers view sports, and data protection issues – the future looks bright for sports practitioners and their clients. The ongoing globalisation of sports “is generating huge investments” and is therefore accompanied by a “rapid rate of commercialisation”, according to interviewees this year. This is creating “lots of opportunities and also lots of problems”, which market participants are keen to exploit and overcome respectively.

Practitioners reported to us a “year-on-year growth” of their sports practices, as “business continues to grow in significant ways.” Clients are keen to take advantage of the abundant opportunities the market is providing, including the legalisation of sports gambling in the US and the emergence of e-sports and associated marketing. They are also keen to engage in major deals, with “huge transaction sizes” being reported. In the words of one practitioner, “Naturally, within the sports world, the money is getting bigger,” making it a lucrative environment for practitioners and their clients.

Commercial considerations in sport

Market sources told us, “All sports are concerned with how visual rights remain relevant to a generation that is internet focused.” An influx of broadcasting players, as well as new platforms for viewing, such as Amazon Prime and Facebook Live, have disrupted the traditional model of sports viewing. Capturing viewers is “much more competitive” and so, to stay relevant, “sports must set up new concepts to attract new audiences”. There are concerns about how these new platforms may impact the value of broadcasting rights. One lawyer told us, “While the value has been going up and up, there are some indications that that might come to an end, and there is a question over what the broadcast landscape will look like in five years.” Practitioners predict that there may be more dedicated channels run by leagues or organisers, such as the one the National Football League has run in the US for several years.

Overall, the sports industry is subject to huge volumes of investment, which has attracted private companies and entrepreneurs to the field. “There is a move towards corporate involvement in sport,” reported one practitioner, who added, “Bigger and bigger companies are locking down bigger sponsorship deals and larger amounts of money extending to the hundreds of millions.” Lawyers observe that “when there is a good property or team up for grabs the numbers are astronomical”, meaning any buyer must have “very deep pockets”. For example, in August a prominent US businessman Stan Kroenke bought the remaining shares in Arsenal FC for around £600 million, valuing the club at a total of £1.8 billion. 

Maintaining and building integrity in sports law

The integrity of sports law was a key trend once again this year, and is unanimously regarded as “a key issue in the sector”. Practitioners foresee “a conflict between commercial interests and the integrity of sports law”, necessitating sports federations to look carefully at how to protect integrity. One lawyer noted that a case involving the International Skating Union (ISU), in which the European Commission considered whether the ISU’s eligibility rules breached EU competition law, “provides lots of guidance on how to do things right without creating monopolies”.

“Anti-doping issues continue to be consistent and high-profile,” noted one lawyer. Doping scandals surrounding the Russian Olympic team at Sochi in the 2014 Winter Olympics, which resulted in the disqualification of several athletes, brought anti-doping issues to the forefront of the industry’s attention. The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA)’s lifting of the 2015 suspension of Rusada, Russia’s anti-doping agency, in September 2018 has been heavily criticised in the industry, including by Professor Richard McLaren, who authored the independent investigative report into the Sochi allegations. Interviewees told us that WADA is currently revising its code in relation to anti-doping, and “faces a huge task trying to regain its credibility”. 

As well as at the international level, national sports authorities “continue to be very active in discussions surrounding the integrity of sports and in preserving that effectively in regulation”. In recent years, governance has been “a big issue”, which market participants are taking active steps to address. For example, in April 2017 UK Sport, the government’s vehicle for managing the direction of elite sport, introduced a new Code for Sports Governance. This means that “sports governing bodies have to improve, or they won’t get funding”. According to one source, this goes a long way towards “working towards changing the constitutions of governing bodies”.

Data protection is described as “a particularly interesting element of the integrity of sport”, at present. Anti-corruption drives and anti-doping investigations involve processing very sensitive data, which necessitate the highest levels of protection, while balancing the need for transparency and accountability. Practitioners told us that “very specialist advice” is required in this niche area of law. More broadly, and in light of GDPR, “The impact of data protection in sport is something that we will see develop over the next few years,” with lawyers predicting, “More cases will arise where data is at the heart of the issue, particularly in relation to how sporting clubs use the data they have on fans.”

Gambling in the US

In May 2018, the US Supreme Court in Murphy v NCAA struck down the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act, which banned sports gambling in US states, as unconstitutional. This decision has legalised and “opened up” sports gambling in the US. Naturally practitioners expect this “to have a huge impact on the sports market”. As a consequence of this decision, “there is huge interest in this opportunity” and lawyers are advising on a broad array of regulatory and licencing matters. So far “it is a bit of a Wild West situation” due to variations in the speed of uptake between states. Mississippi, where an amendment was inserted into regulation a few years ago to allow legal sports betting there if the Supreme Court overturned the anti-sport betting legislation, was quick off the mark. Consequently, “It has developed something of a monopoly on the sports market already,” as the framework was already in place to allow it.

Whether all states will enact regulation to legalise sports betting is so far unclear, as is the structure the regulation will take when this does occur. The debate goes to the wider issue of the role of federal legislation in the area. One practitioner argued against federal structures “as they are unwieldly and inflexible”, and favours state legislation, despite the “mish-mash” of rules this may lead to across the country. On the flip side, another practitioner commented that “a regulated federal structure for sports betting would be preferable” and posits that “individual state law for sports betting would be a disaster, as it would be too open to manipulation by market operators”. Other practitioners raised concerns about the states’ abilities to enforce regulation across state boundaries and internationally. “This is where a federal structure may come into play”, one practitioner told us, and suggested “criminal activity in sport betting across state lines may be dealt with federally in a hybrid regulatory situation”.


The past 12 months have been busy for practitioners in the sports arena, who have been actively engaged in assisting their clients exploit opportunities surrounding the continuing growth of media rights and the legalisation of gambling in the US. Sophisticated regulatory advice is more highly sought after than ever in the field, and governance in sport is a major area of focus that is crucial to the prosperous future of the industry. In this diverse and varied area of law, practitioners in boutique and full service firms alike occupy their own individual niches, and are sought after by clients for specialist work in their respective areas of expertise.

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