Nick Craig: The Football League

There are a few dream jobs in the law, but Nick Craig, in-house solicitor with the Football League, has one of them. Incumbent at the Football League since the summer of 2001, eagle-eyed viewers of last month’s Carling Cup final between Middlesbrough and Bolton Wanderers would have spotted Craig in the tunnel, where he was managing player and official access. “Everyone here helps out at games,” says Craig, “it’s the way it is. It’s not in our contracts of employment, but attending games is the best way of meeting chairmen and club officials at their places of work.”

Craig was more than happy to attend the Millennium Stadium for the Carling Cup Final – although not so happy about the result. A passionate Bolton fan, his team was on the receiving end of a 2-1 defeat, which saw the referee on the day, Mike Riley, come in for some concerted criticism from the Bolton contingent. Riley opted to allow Middlesbrough player Bolo Zenden’s penalty to stand when the player appeared to hit the ball twice, and in the dying minutes missed what many regarded as a certain penalty in Bolton’s favour. “It was very disappointing but it was a great final,” says Craig. “You win some, you lose some, but at the end of the day, the referee’s decision on the pitch has to be final.”

Craig’s enthusiasm for football is shared by his colleagues, and he believes that his job could not be done without it. “In the office, on a Monday morning, the first thing we’re talking about is the weekend’s results,” he says. “You have to be passionate about the game and need to understand how the ‘football family’ works.”

The football family to which Craig refers comprises the Football League, which represents the 72 professional football clubs outside the Premier League, the Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA), the Premier League itself and, sitting at the top of the pile, the Football Association (FA). “To do this job you need to understand the interrelationship between all the entities involved,” says Craig. “Most of the time, it’s one big happy family, but like all families sometimes people fall out.”

Craig’s background in private practice helped prepare him for the more contentious aspects of the role. He completed his articles with Manchester firm Widdows Pilling & Co, qualifying in 1997, and spent a further four years at the firm. He describes his work there as a mix that enabled him to step into the Football League’s newly-created in-house post. “I did criminal legal aid work as well as company and commercial work for small to medium-sized enterprises. Throughout there was some work for Salford Rugby League Club – advising on players’ compromise agreements at the close of the season and the like – and this gave me a taste for sports law.”

Upon arrival at the Football League in 2001, Craig did, however, have a baptism of fire, which lends credence to his statement that although it is “a dream job, it’s not always easy”. Craig arrived in the midst of the collapse of the League’s deal with ITV Digital, which led to an astronomical loss of revenue for the clubs in a market that was already starting to suffer from a downturn in television rights revenue. “It was a very difficult time for the clubs, and certainly one of the biggest things to happen to the League since the breakaway of the Premier League in 1992,” says Craig. “Fortunately, my role here is very broad, and so there were plenty of other things to be doing as well as keep the clubs informed about developments and generally help sort out the ITV Digital situation. But once or twice, I did say to myself, ‘What have you done?’ You might say that it made for a running start.”

Since then, though, Craig has not looked back. An affable man, he gives the impression of being in his element, at ease both with football at grass-roots level and the increasingly complex legal issues surrounding the game.
Recently, he has been heavily involved in the negotiation of one of the League’s three top-level sponsorship agreements, a title sponsorship deal with Coca-Cola. The Football League runs three competitions: the League Championship, sponsored by Nationwide until the end of the current season; a knockout cup competition, sponsored by Carling, which guarantees its winner a place in Europe; and the LDV Vans Trophy, a knockout competition for clubs in the second and third divisions, as well as selected non-League clubs. Coca-Cola will be the new title, or League, sponsors in the three-year deal starting in the 2005 season.

“Sponsors are always after that little bit extra,” says Craig of the Coca-Cola deal, “and this was no exception. There are a variety of issues to consider, from provision of facilities and perimeter advertising to 3D mats being superimposed adjacent to the goals during the broadcast of games.

“But underlying everything is a complicated rights matrix that means you have to be very careful not to sell the same thing twice. A substantial sponsorship contract such as this dovetails with many other things – for example, live and highlights television agreements, as well as radio and internet deals. It’s important to make sure that contractual commitments are backed up by other contracts that the League has entered into; but the great thing about this deal is that it allows us to develop a brand hierarchy with the ability to offer other official partnerships at sub-title sponsorship level.”

On top of the media rights issues that dominate the modern sporting landscape, Craig has to be up-to-speed with a plethora of regulatory matters. “We represent so many clubs that we have to ensure our voice is heard,” he says. One place where it is currently echoing is in the clean air of Switzerland, where football’s overall regulatory body, Fifa, has its headquarters. Fifa president Sepp Blatter is not a man who is afraid of making a noise or two, and most recently has stirred things up by calling for players to be banned for the next game following a red card. This is not something with which Craig agrees.

“It’s too draconian,” he says. “There are always cases of mistaken identity. We’re putting forward the clubs’ views, and liaising closely with the PFA and FA on this.”

Yet another topical, and no less controversial, issue goes to the very heart of the game – its financial viability. Darlington, Bradford and Wimbledon football clubs all find themselves in administration, but from next season all League clubs will be subject to insolvency-related sporting sanctions, which were voted in by the clubs and drawn up by Craig. “The sanctions provide for the deduction of points upon a club becoming subject to insolvency proceedings,” says Craig. “The aim is to prevent the clubs making decisions now that will have adverse consequences later. We want to make sure they operate on a financially stable basis, and to prevent them from gaining a competitive advantage by the shedding of debt through insolvency.”

Meanwhile, Craig has some football to concentrate on. He is likely to be playing for the League in a game against the FA, to be played at Blackpool’s Bloomfield Road ground. It is not, though, something that he is looking forward to. “I love the game, but I’m not very good at it,” he says with disarming honesty.

He mentions that for his 30th birthday he did a parachute jump, but that the idea of taking to the field to play football fills him with infinitely more fear. “I’m happy with my legal skills in a football environment, but the chance to prove what I can do on the ball is, frankly, terrifying,” he admits. The League might not thank him come the game against the FA, but so long as he keeps going just as he is, Craig will be one man whose employers do not judge him on his ability to kick a leather ball.

Nick Craig
In-house solicitor
The Football League

Organisation The Football League
Sector Sport
Employees 50
Legal capability Approximately £200,00
In-house solicitor Nick Craig
Reporting to Director of Finance Tad Detko and the board
Main law firms Addleshaw Goddard, DLA and Mayer Brown Rowe & Maw
Barristers Adam Lewis and Michael Beloff QC (Blackstone Chambers) and Tim Higginson (Littleton Chambers)