Sporting chance

Rows over Zimbabwe and an Australian collapse have not deterred Mark Roper-Drimie. Emma Vere-Jones meets the England and Wales Cricket Board’s head of legal

If Mark Roper-Drimie, director of legal affairs at the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB), thought it was going to be a quiet start to the new year, he was much mistaken. The board is currently caught up in the middle of a political wrangle over the upcoming Cricket World Cup games in Zimbabwe in February and March 2003.

Following a security review in Zimbabwe, the International Cricket Council (ICC) has given the go-ahead for the games in Zimbabwe and the ECB is legally obliged to attend the Cricket World Cup, having signed the Participating Nations Agreement with ICC Development (International) Limited back in March 2002. Roper-Drimie says that the ECB’s concerns are cricket-related, despite the current political situation under President Robert Mugabe’s regime.

International Development Secretary Clare Short put a spanner in the works when, in an interview on 28 December, she branded the board’s decision “deplorable and shocking”.

It was the first official statement the ECB had heard from the Government even though Tim Lamb, the ECB’s chief executive, had met with Tony Blair earlier in December 2002. The timing of the Government’s position has surprised the ECB and put the board somewhere between a rock and a hard place. It can either upset the Government or face the wrath of the ICC (and its member countries), and in doing so face the prospect of severe financial loss. Roper-Drimie is reluctant to speak on the issue because of its sensitivity. He will say, however, that the ECB has called an urgent meeting with the Government to put forward the board’s position, and that his job is to assess the legal risks involved in whatever decision the board takes.

Zimbabwe aside, cricket fans are probably focusing more on Australia. Roper-Drimie is quick to defend the team’s current performance. “The press has been very harsh,” he says. “People talk about what’s happening in Australia, but look at results over the last 10 series. We’ve won 5, drawn 3 and lost 2. In terms of results we’ve performed well – even though the press are having a field day in regard to the Australia tour.”

The goal, he tells me, is for England to be the best test and one-day side by 2007. They’ve got their work cut out for them, but Roper-Drimie’s belief in the team, and passion for the sport (or any sport for that matter) is quite obvious.

Although originally born in the UK, Roper-Drimie was raised in South Africa and he retains that Southern Hemisphere ’can-do’ attitude – and the accent as well.

After qualifying at Livingstone Leandy Inc in Durban he returned to the UK and won a job in the sports department at Denton Hall under Adrian Barr-Smith. “Barr-Smith gave me my break into sports law. He’s a friend and a mentor,” Roper-Drimie says.

It was also Barr-Smith who steered Roper-Drimie in the direction of the ECB. After three years at Dentons, Roper-Drimie had taken a job at Australian firm Gilbert & Tobin, where he was almost immediately seconded to the Sydney Organising Committee for the Olympics (SOCO). After his return in 2001, Barr-Smith mentioned over a few beers that the ECB was looking for its first in-house lawyer and by late August Roper-Drimie had been offered the job.

It was the first time that the board had employed internal counsel, and initially his job revolved around setting up in-house procedures and looking at ways to reduce legal costs. “The company was concerned about legal costs, and it also felt that it was a position within the organisation that needed to be filled,” he says.

On his arrival he reviewed the main panel firms – Denton Wilde Sapte, Slaughter and May, DLA and Beachcroft Wansbroughs. He ultimately retained them all, although he does sometimes instruct other firms. One such firm is SK Sport & Entertainment – an entertainment and intellectual property practice set up earlier this year by ex-Hammonds partner Jeremy Summers. Summers and Roper-Drimie had worked together in Sydney, before their respective returns to the UK. “He left [Hammonds] to set up a practice from scratch,” Roper-Drimie says. “I admire someone that is willing to take a punt and set up a start-up business.”

When looking for a good law firm both price and quality are a consideration. “We work to a strict budget,” he says. “And that budget has been reduced quite significantly [since Roper-Drimie’s arrival].”

“I drive a hard bargain with price in terms of discounts,” he says. “But we do tend to refer our work to well-established firms. One of the primary concerns is cost, but above that is the standard of work. It also comes down to personal relationships.”

The relationship with Denton’s Barr-Smith is obviously a close one. “He’s a very good sounding board on all general commercial issues. And very down-to-earth.”

Since Roper-Drimie’s arrival, the ECB has managed to bring a lot of the legal work in-house. “I do a number of agreements and much of the negotiations myself. That’s in the first instance. Where I don’t have the expertise, or I’m too snowed under with work, we’ll consider farming it out.”

He has also put together an internal legal guide that deals with internal organisation, contract approval processes and the like.

One significant development for the ECB in the last 18 months was the introduction of 12-month contracts for core players, a process that Roper-Drimie was quite involved in. The 12-month contract means players will still be retained during injuries or periods when they are unable to play.

The board is also developing a National Academy at Loughborough University, which is due to be up and running by September or October this year. The academy is aimed at developing the skills of young players.

And there is the development of Twenty20, a new 20-over game that’s designed to attract a wider audience to the sport. This version of the game will be much shorter, and because of the limited number of overs will involve a lot of big-hitting. The board hopes that it will be more like a football or rugby game, and therefore attract a bigger crowd.

An ongoing issue for the board is trying to promote the sport to as many school children as possible. Two initiatives designed to serve this purpose is Kwik Cricket and Flicx Pitches, both of which allow people to play the game in a wide variety of places, not just at a cricket ground. These are just a few of the initiatives that have been filling Roper-Drimie’s days of late.

Although he is the only in-house lawyer at the ECB, Roper-Drimie has a network of other sports lawyers who get together on a regular basis to mull over common issues. These include Nick Coward and Darren Berman at the Football Association, the Rugby Football Union’s Jonathan Hall, and Bruce Mellstrom at the Lawn Tennis Association.

“We often meet and discuss issues that are common to all sports governing bodies,” he says. These include such things as ways of competing for the general public’s entertainment dollar, and lobbying the government for more money for sport. “Another of the many issues is the influx of overseas players to the sport, and the relevance of European legislation in relation to that.”

For a sports fanatic like Roper-Drimie, there are numerous perks to the job. “One of the advantages of working in such a governing body is that you get to attend a lot of sports events,” he says. Wimbledon, the Ryder Cup and the European Cup final are just a few that he mentions.

“I’m really passionate about sport,” he says. “And I feel privileged to be able to combine my love of sport with my professional life.”

During the course of his career he has advised McLaren ace David Coulthard and seen him drive at Monsa in Italy. And while advising on the Olympics he met sporting legend Muhammad Ali. No doubt he’s hoping that some of the new blood about to grace English cricket will live on in sporting history too.
Mark Roper-Drimie
Legal director
England and Wales Cricket Board

Organisation England and Wales Cricket Board
Sector Sport
Employees Approximately 100
Legal capability One
Legal director Mark Roper-Drimie
Reporting to Chief executive Tim Lamb
Main law firms Beachroft Wansbroughs, Denton Wilde Sapte, DLA and Slaughter and May