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Sports Bulletin – A Year in Review in Sport


It is beyond doubt that 2020 was an incredibly challenging year for the sports sector at all levels but particularly, from a business and commercial context, at elite levels. Covid-19 has proved to be a disruptive factor like no other and one that has left deep scars on the sector, some of which may be permanent. The ‘promised land’ of full stadia in early 2021 has unfortunately not materialised with the year commencing amidst the third wave of the virus. This has brought about renewed challenges on scheduling and fixtures with, for example, the suspension of European club rugby and reported fears about the prospects of other high-profile domestic and international events across a variety of different sporting codes. The landscape brought about by the third wave of the virus is changing on a weekly (if not daily) basis and brings huge challenges and uncertainty to the sector with consequent issues for rights holders, their commercial partners and stakeholders. This is an area where we have seen a marked increase in queries and activity and we expect this pattern to continue for H1 of 2021. 
There is at least some glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel for 2021 as the vaccine programme has commenced. In the short term however, many of the sectoral challenges of 2020 look set to continue for Q1 and into Q2 this year. Many of the legal issues that arose in 2020 (and look set to continue in the short term) are reflected in the articles and webinars published and hosted by the William Fry Sports Group which are highlighted below.

William Fry Host ‘The Tipping Point for Women’s Sport’ – January 2020

William Fry hosted the ‘Women in Sport- Tipping Point for Women’s Sport’ event.  This focused on the challenges and perceptions facing women in sport today, as well as what needs to be done to increase the visibility and participation in women’s sports. We were privileged to have an exceptionally experienced panel, expertly led by Rob Harnett of Sport for Business, consisting of Vera Pauw (Republic of Ireland women’s national team manager), Nora Stapleton (former rugby union international and Sport Ireland Women in Sport lead), Mick Bohan (Dublin ladies football manager), Carolyn Hayes (Irish Triathlete of the Year and Olympic hopeful) and Ruth Fahy (former WNL soccer player and TV pundit). Some pictures from the event can be seen here.

While the position of women in sport, particularly at the highest levels, is far from perfect, the panel agreed that significant progress is being made but challenges remain (and that was before the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic). It is beyond doubt that the financial challenges brought about by Covid-19 will impact continuing progress in women’s sport. We have recently learnt that the Women’s Six Nations championship has been postponed. 

However, the year ended on a positive note for women’s sport and the rights of female athletes, with the Gaelic Players Association and the Women’s Gaelic Player’s Association aligning in December 2020 to form one player representative body. Similarly, in golf with the GUI and the ILGU coming together to form one governing body, Golf Ireland.

COVID-19: The Key Question for Sport – to Cancel or to Postpone – April 2020

In April 2020 many sporting fixtures had been postponed or cancelled due to the Covid-19 pandemic which had significant potential to impact on commercial contracts and arrangements related to those events. 

In April 2020 William Fry published an article ”COVID-19: The Key Question for Sport – to Cancel or to Postpone?” which looks at the following legal considerations:

  1. The Premier League: Force Majeure clauses may protect the Premier League. It may not be in breach of its contract if it can show that a force majeure event, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, has prevented it from performing its contractual obligation to organise football matches for broadcasting.
  2. Wimbledon: Wimbledon was cancelled. Event cancellation insurance may cover irrecoverable cost, expenses and loss of profit up to the sum insured where a cancellation is necessary due to an event beyond the control of organiser.
  3. Tokyo 2020: The Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games were postponed until 2021. The Host Agreement between the International Olympic Committee (IOC), the Japanese Olympic Committee and Tokyo, protected the IOC in the event the Olympic Games were not held in 2020. The IOC had the right to terminate the Host Agreement and award the Olympic Games to another city, while the other parties indemnified it against all losses suffered by third parties.

Access the article here.

Sport, Sponsorship and COVID-19 from a legal perspective – April 2020

William Fry joined Rob Hartnett of Sport for Business as expert panellists for a special live webinar on ‘Sport, Sponsorship and COVID-19 from a legal perspective’. William Fry discussed a wide range of issues from the meaning and implications of Force Majeure through to the importance of maintaining good dialogue between parties and even some precedent that exists in a similar space from the African Nations Cup during the Ebola outbreak.

Playback can be found here.

Employment Update: Sporting Bodies Gearing Up to Get Back in the Game – May 2020

William Fry published ”Employment Update: Sporting Bodies Gearing Up to Get Back in the Game” which looks at the impact of Covid-19 on the sports sector from an employment perspective.

The National Return to Work Safely Protocol (Protocol) was published. The Protocol sets out mandatory guidelines that employers must follow to ensure the safety of their staff and to minimise the risk of the spread of COVID-19. Sporting organisations are not exempt and are expected to comply with the provisions of the Protocol.

Access the article here.

Barcelona hold firm on Lionel Messi buyout clause and Irish law implications – September 2020

William Fry published “Buy-Out” and “Free Transfer” Clauses in Soccer Contracts– a “Messi” Affair” which looks at Lionel Messi’s struggle to break free from Barcelona, as the club insisted his €700m buyout clause must be activated before he can leave. The article also focused on Irish law considerations that might arise in similar clauses. The article was published in the Sunday Independent. 

Access the article here.

About the William Fry Sports Group

The legal requirements of the sports industry are diverse and often complex. Our Sports Group has a wealth of experience across the broad spectrum of legal disciplines that exist in the industry. Our team consists of experts from core practice areas such as Litigation & Dispute Resolution, Intellectual Property, Technology, Corporate M&A, Real Estate and Employment & Benefits.

Our Sports Group represents numerous clients operating directly and indirectly within the sports industry. We advise clients from every aspect of the industry and understand the different legal challenges they face.  Our clients in this sector include governing bodies, sports clubs, corporates, stud farms, management companies and professional athletes. 

Please visit our website here for more information on our Sports Group. If you have any legal queries with regard to the operation of your business in this sector please contact Craig Sowman, Derek Hegarty, Leo Moore or your usual William Fry contact.


Contributed by Laura Flanagan