Why lawyers love footy
8 August 2007
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Fans might find it nail-biting, but the lawyers are loving every minute.
This summer's football transfer window has played host to a series of legal battles over player transfers as the complexity of player contracts increases.
The final whistle is yet to blow on a number of complicated deals that could influence the futures of some of England's top clubs and players.
Current champion Manchester United FC has been at the heart of this year's two most hotly contested moves. The club has spent most of the summer trying to prise Carlos Tevez from West Ham United FC, as well as trying to stop fellow Argentine star Gabriel Heinze from going to rival Liverpool FC.
Manchester firm Brabners Chaffe Street is advising Man Utd on both transfers, with Blackstone Chambers barrister Andrew Green representing both players.
Meanwhile, Teacher Stern Selby partner Graham Shear is advising Tevez and his agents, while Hill Dickinson partner Richard Green is acting for Heinze.
Travers Smith corporate partner Philip Cheveley and dispute resolution partner John Kingston are acting for West Ham. Mark Gay and Simon Levine, both partners at DLA Piper, have been advising the Premier League on the saga.
Tevez's commercial rights, and the dispute over their ownership, have helped rack up the billable hours for the lawyers.
The question is whether Tevez's commercial rights are owned by his club or sports companies MSI and JSI, the third parties that helped arrange his original transfer to West Ham last year.
The owner of those rights will receive the transfer fee, which is thought to be worth up to 30m.
The various parties are now locked in negotiations, which looked like being settled at the time of going to press. The Heinze transfer is a more simple case of longstanding club rivalry. Man Utd is unwilling to sell the player to arch-enemy Liverpool, with Heinze's lawyers battling for his release.
The negotiations are on hold for the moment, with the player still not sure which club he will be playing with when the season begins on Saturday 11 August.
But when the legal team is as big as the football team, it means the game is changing.
The rise in legal activity this year is part of a growing trend, with the commercialisation of the game at its heart.
Shear says: "A few years ago clubs would deal with the agents and rarely use lawyers. Now we're seeing a tripling of the amount of work we're getting involved in. This [transfer] window has seen a tripling of work from the January window."
Broadcast rights, sponsorship deals and player endorsements have brought a flood of money into the game, raising the stakes for players and clubs alike.
Shear says: "Clubs are employing more and more lawyers because the contracts are more complicated and there's more money involved.
"Football is a major entertainment industry. Money has turned it from a minor entertainment player into a major one. That's why people like me get involved."
The increased legal complexity and demand for lawyers is boosting firms with established sports groups. For example, Teacher Stern Selby has added to its non-contentious sports practice with the hire of an associate from Slaughter and May.
However, firms without a name in the market will find it hard to set up from scratch in time for the next transfer window.
Green at Hill Dickinson says: "My department's grown. It's a question of being in it for the long term and having the right people.
"Dealing with a club is like any normal commercial client, but if you deal with a sportsman or woman as an individual, they won't use you if they don't feel a personal connection."
This year's transfer window has been active for sports lawyers, but that trend is only going to accelerate as agents, clubs and players look for new commercial opportunities and attempt to stretch an evolving regulatory regime.
The Tevez case may have been the first of its kind, but it is unlikely to be the last.