Man of the match

Stephen Townley, founder of sports boutique Townleys, remains pragmatic when it comes to his firm’s marriage with Hammonds – it’s part of the game

Arriving at sports boutique Townleys is a very different experience to arriving at Hammond Suddards Edge – the former’s new merger partner.

When I arrive, there is already one man waiting outside who turns to me expectantly in the hope that I have a key to get in. Fortunately, we do not have to wait too long before the door is opened; seconds later, a receptionist scuttles past with damp hair – the ‘let-it-dry-on-the-Tube look’, popular with those who sleep through their alarm.

The offices lack the corporate veneer to be found in Hammonds’ City offices but are all the more charming for it. Piles of casenote boxes decorate the floor, and where City firm’s have modern art, designed not so much to give pleasure as to impress, Townleys has a gilt-framed, antique-style mirror hanging from forest-green walls.

Stephen Townley, the founder of the practice, is to be found at the back of a room which he shares with two or three others, drinking a coffee from a takeaway. He offers to move us to somewhere “very formal”, but I opt to stay put. Perhaps because Townley has to share his space there are very few personal touches about his desk, apart from an NSPCC collecting box on the edge.

In the grand scheme of things, the firm is tiny, with only four partners; but it is pre-eminent in the world of sports law. It counts among its clients some of the biggest names in sport and it covers every aspect of the industry, from media distribution, through governing bodies, to the clubs and players. But now the changing nature of the industry has forced Townley to look for a merger partner. The deals are simply becoming too big within the industry to allow a small – albeit fantastically well respected – firm to keep up.

“With the opportunities that exist for us in the world now, although we’ve done remarkably well here, we now need an international reach to be able to service international clients,” says Townley. This is something that Hammonds is able to provide, of course, with offices in France, Munich, Brussels and four-office Italian firm Rossotto e Associati.

Townley says that in the past he has received “tons” of approaches from various firms and has held other discussions, but he believes that Hammonds is a good fit culturally with his own firm. “We don’t take ourselves too seriously; we work hard and play hard,” he says without a smile. Perhaps a getting-to-know-each-other party the night before between Hammonds and Townleys accounts for Townley’s serious demeanour at our meeting.

The initial contact came through Richard Alderson, who came from the Edge Ellison side of the merger. Through Townley’s other baby, Active Rights Management, which is a new media consultancy business which he runs with his wife, he came to work on various projects, including the Olympics, with Alderson. The two got on very well.

The amount of merger approaches is hardly surprising given the exponential growth of money within sport since Townley set up the practice in 1983 – a growth that he admits has taken him by surprise. He originally set up the practice not because he foresaw sport becoming as big as it has, nor because he is a sports fanatic who just wanted to get closer to the action, but merely because he wanted to set up his own niche practice.

Townley, in fact, is surprisingly subdued about sport. I know you don’t expect tax lawyers to spend their spare time poring over their favourite investment guides, or property lawyers to wander around industrial estates at the weekend, but somehow one does expect a sports lawyer to be keen on sport, even if it is just so they are stocked up on small talk for the clients.

Townley says that he plays tennis and keeps fit, but otherwise his sport is limited to playing cricket with his kids. Until a few years ago he also played basketball. “I regard myself as a sports fan rather than a sports groupie,” he says. “I enjoy a variety of sports. Clients need objective business advice and there are disadvantages if you’re too engrossed in one particular aspect of it.”

Inevitably, the firm attracts a fair number of applications from sports nuts; but, says Townley, if he ends up employing any of them, then the sporting background is never a criteria in that decision.

After nearly 20 years of watching his baby grow from just “himself, half a secretary and the dog”, as he puts it, Townley admits that part of him is sad to give it up. “That’s human nature,” he says. “But I’d be very sad if I didn’t think that this is not a eulogy to the firm, but a great opportunity for two businesses to work together. A lot of people who’ve created a business have an issue about succession – if you’ve created something, then to some extent people live in your shadow. You have to make a decision; [the alternative is] me working until I’m a hundred, which I don’t intend to do.”

Townley puts the unarguable success of his firm down to an unwavering belief in putting the client first. As every other firm says the same, I ask him to clarify.

“Without blowing my own trumpet, the firm has got me, and I’ve always made it my business to be where the clients are,” he explains, adding that he is often the only English person at sports federation meetings abroad because no one else can be bothered to get on a plane.

“Before the industry became an industry, I was helping to create that industry,” he adds. “You can’t underestimate the power of relationships. I’m always prepared to travel and be part of the industry, which is often about going forward with no prospect of fees; but to get the intelligence you have to make the effort.”

Townley qualified by doing shipping work with Ingledew Brown Bennison & Garrett, a small London-based firm which no longer exists. He then moved in-house to become company secretary for Hawker Siddley Diesels immediately after qualifying. From there he moved to Société Monégasque de Promotion Internationale West Nally. This fantastically snappily-named company saw Townley move into the arena of sports law, as the firm had just acquired the broadcasting rights to football’s World Cup and the Olympics.

“That was four years on an aeroplane, which was great at that stage of life. The job gave me a great insight into the sports industry,” he says.

For those sports fans who hark back to the days before footballers lived their lives in the pages of OK! magazine, and when testimonial games were a vital pension plan, Townley has only bad news. The UK is actually quite a long way behind in the global industry, suffering, he believes, from an imperial attitude that because the country used to be a leader the world owes it a debt.

This is in part due to the traditional recruitment methods, where those at the top of the industry work their way up from the field rather than coming from business. “The States have been dealing for years and years with sport as a business,” says Townley. “They don’t understand how sport exists in the rest of the world. The pressures are all about money.”

And in the future, Townley believes that players will gain even more power than they possess at the moment. In the US, 60 per cent of the total remuneration coming into the industry goes on players’ salaries, which is well above the level here.

“Unfortunately,” says Townley, “if you take any sport, you constantly have this argument [of having too much power] when it comes to two or three elite clubs. However, they exist in a competition, and it’s the competition that has the value. If they don’t have any other clubs to compete against then the value goes.”

With added players, Townleys is now able to play a harder game against the competition. But a great sports law brand will pass into the annals of history.
Stephen Townley
Founding partner