It’s an enviable job considering the perks, but for Umbro general counsel Steven Hodkinson, the beautiful game sometimes gets
a little ugly.
Any lawyers who are football fans should look away now. Back in his days as a trainee, if Steven Hodkinson thought he would one day be able to see pretty much any football match he chooses, including England, he would have pinched himself.
As the general counsel of Umbro, Hodkinson looks after the legal matters of a national institution. With an 85-year history of making sportswear, Umbro’s involvement with the national game dates back to the first-ever England kit complete with knickerbocker shorts – historic days that the company’s latest England kit, unveiled recently with much fanfare, plays homage to.
“We tried to do something different and get back to the traditional Umbro brand born out of the rag trade in Manchester,” says a proud Hodkinson from the company’s Cheadle head office. Umbro has been based in the area since 1924 and during that time has built up a relationship with the Football Association (FA) that extends beyond that usually found between a manufacturer and client.
“It’s the jewel in our sports marketing crown and we’re very proud to have that relationship. They’re a really good bunch of people, they share our ideals and we support each other,” says Hodkinson.
The game has changed a great deal since the kit-maker and the world’s first football association began working together, highlighted by the multi-billion pound industry that now surrounds it. Umbro has changed too, in ownership at least. Nike bought the company in 2008 when the US sportswear giant showed its appreciation for the tradition and ethos of the brand by signing it up for £285m.
The day-to-day legal issues faced by Hodkinson and his lawyers are modern too, revolving largely around litigation over brand infringements and IP, for which he calls on Macfarlanes. But when he joined in 2005 his first task was to overhaul the 47 licensees who make and sell Umbro sportswear in 102 countries, a scheme he says Umbro has been rolling out ever since.
In his legal team he relies on a squad of two lawyers and former Trading Standards investigator Mark Rowley, who tackles the many brand infringements and ‘knocked-off’ shirts that find their way on to the market.
The takeover by Nike, however, was one of the largest projects for the former Bentley general counsel, conducted while surrounded by press speculation that Sports Direct and JJB were trying to scupper the deal.
“We had to do the sale negotiations away from the rest of the business because it would have been very disruptive,” explains Hodkinson. “It was interesting and challenging work.”
In 2006, Chelsea bought out Umbro from its sponsorship of the team and switched to Adidas, giving Umbro capital to invest in joint ventures with its licensees in France, Croatia and China. It is a quirk of sportswear that brands are valued differently throughout the world. In Japan, Umbro is a premium product and more expensive than its rivals.
“The nature of our global business model means that our licensees have their own position in the market so we’re top of the tree in some countries,” explains Hodkinson.
The company also sponsors footballers such as Michael Owen, Deco and John Terry, along with clubs including Blackburn, Sunderland and West Ham. As summer approaches, the team is gearing up for the annual round of new sponsorship contracts – agreements that throw up issues of their own.
“It can be a lengthy and complicated process. We often have rival brands appearing where they shouldn’t and occasionally we have to remind the players and clubs of their commitments,” says Hodkinson.
A committed Blackburn Rovers fan, Hodkinson jokes that heading the legal team of a major sponsor of Premiership teams can be a real hardship for a football fan.
“One of the difficulties of this job is which game you go to,” he quips. “There are certain perks, including tickets and access to the clubs we work with. I’m certainly not short of volunteers if I need any work doing, especially when there’s an England game on.”
Along with millions of fellow England fans, Hodkinson hopes there will be plenty of England games to choose from next year. The Umbro team has been busy approving advertising campaigns for the World Cup Finals in South Africa, carefully avoiding any brand infringements.
“There’s a degree of helping our own brand, keeping an eye on the others and making sure we’re all on a level playing field,” he adds. Back of the net.
Organisation: Umbro International
Industry: Sport and leisure
General counsel: Steven Hodkinson
Reporting to: CEO, Matthew Cook
Company turnover: £500m
Total number of employees: 240
Total legal capability: Four
Main external law firms: Macfarlanes, White & Case, Mace & Jones, Pannone
Total legal spend: £1.2m
Steven Hodkinson’s CV
1991-94: LLB, University of Essex
1994-95: Law, College Of Law, Chester
1996-98: Trainee, Chaffe Street
1998-2000: Corporate associate, Wacks Caller
2000-03: European legal counsel, Celestica
2003-05: General counsel, Bentley
2005-present: General counsel, Umbro