You’ll never work alone

The Premier League’s director of legal and business Simon Johnson always needs to put in a good performance. Steve Hoare reports

The legendary Sunderland and England striker Len Shackleton famously devoted a blank page of his autobiography to the amount the average football chairman knows about football. These are the men who make up the Premier League membership and are ultimately the people that the league’s director of legal and business affairs reports to.

The senior legal role was created due to the huge amount of legal work generated by English football’s premier competition. Simon Johnson stepped into the role at the start of the football season. Although the current crop of chairmen probably differ from Shackleton’s 1940s heyday, Johnson has stepped into a role where his every move is examined under a microscope, whether by those chairman, the media, or even his fellow lawyers.

“There’s no shortage of lawyers who have an opinion on the Premier League’s activities and are not shy of expounding that opinion,” says Johnson. The Mancunian (who supports Leeds United) happily shrugs off the attention.

“I find that entertaining. They don’t have access to as much information as I do or as my external lawyers do. Sometimes I read something and think that people must think that we haven’t taken any legal advice at all on a matter,” exclaims Johnson.

The Premier League was launched in 1992, when the top professional clubs broke away from the 104-year-old Football League. The 20 clubs in the Premier League at any one time are the members, or shareholders, of the Premier League. When clubs get relegated they have to resign membership of the league and get their shares transferred to the promoted clubs.

The clubs appointed a board, an executive and staff to run the league. This is the administrative body that Johnson has joined. The shareholders (the club chairmen and/or chief executives) meet every two months to deal with the business of the league. Johnson and his colleagues are running the business of the Premier League on their behalf.

Johnson left Denton Hall (now Denton Wilde Sapte) in 1993 to join Central Television. In 1994 he joined ITV Network Centre and in 1997 he became director of rights and business affairs. He joined the Premier League in August 2003, the Monday before the current football season kicked off, and with revelations of sex crimes, drugs and violence, it has been a hell of a season so far. Luckily for Johnson, most of the hellish business comes under the jurisdiction of the Football Association (FA).

The FA regulates onfield activities. This means it deals with the drugs and violence, while sex crimes are a matter for the police. The Premier League has its own rules and regulates the way the league operates. The league handles many of the money issues – and there is a lot of money sloshing around football.

The league is responsible for the way money is distributed. It is responsible for the manner in which audio-visual rights are sold, the way that clubs trade with each other in the field of transfers, the way that they employ players and the way that they liaise with their supporters.

Johnson has a wide range of responsibilities. Obviously, his key role is managing and coordinating the legal service to the Premier League. All of the league agreements come to an end at the end of this season: audio-visual rights, sponsorship, licensing and international rights. They are on a three-year cycle.

“My brief is to be the legal sign-off on all the contracts,” says Johnson. “The Premier League only enters into a contract where it is authorised to do so by the clubs, by a resolution in a shareholders’ meeting.”

One of Johnson’s key responsibilities is supervising a complex rights matrix. The league’s centrally negotiated rights are divided into a number of different packages: four live packages; highlights; near live clips and mobile, radio and internet rights; and rights in overseas territories. These centrally negotiated rights also have to sit happily alongside the rights that belong to each of the 20 clubs.

“As part of the rights matrix, once rights come out of the central packages, they go into the clubs’ individual packages,” says Johnson. “We’ve just renewed our title sponsorship agreement [with Barclays], and clearly, one of the key elements of that is making sure that the rights that clubs have authorised us to sell centrally don’t rub up alongside or conflict with the rights that the clubs themselves have.”

Johnson was a key member of the ITV team that negotiated the deal to steal Match of the Day from the BBC (they lost those rights after he left), so he has a wealth of experience in this area. Some of the other facets of his role are not as immediately obvious.

Johnson supervises the league’s customer relations, which includes ticketing, merchandising, community relations, educational work, complaints procedures and anti-racism initiatives.

More obviously legal-related, Johnson liaises with regulatory authorities such as its own self-regulatory body the Independent Football Commission, Government agencies and the European Commission (the Commission), and has to deal with changes to the league’s rulebook.

He has been looking into what the policy should be for clubs that go into administration. The Football League (Divisions One to Three) will make a 10-point deduction for any club that goes into administration because, it is claimed, clubs can gain an unfair sporting advantage from the situation. The Premier League is debating its policy and Johnson has prepared a proposal with his external advisers to be put to the league as a resolution.

Johnson has three main external advisers, which he inherited when he took on the job. Denton Hall, Johnson’s first employer and one of his advisers at ITV, was the first law firm to be appointed by the Premier League. Denton Wilde Sapte, as it is now, is being kept extremely busy on broadcasting and Commission competition issues.

The Commission issued a statement of objections into the way that the Premier League sold its television rights the last time round and is continuing to ask questions about the way it sold the rights this time.

“We’re cooperating with the formal procedures of the Commission every step of the way. They’re constantly asking us for information and we assist them,” explains Johnson. “Well before I got here, there was a team that had been in dialogue with the Commission trying to find a way for the matter to be resolved to the satisfaction of both parties.”

McCormicks in Leeds advises on a number of other commercial matters. Senior partner Peter McCormick has been around football for a while, as has the league’s other key adviser, James Chapman & Co partner and Manchester United director Maurice Watkins, who tends to advise on regulatory issues. For example, Watkins was very active in advising the Premier League clubs on the implications of the Bosman case and international transfer matters.

Despite tabloid revelations that suggest the contrary, football has come a long way since the Premier League was launched in 1992. At the time it was reeling from the Bradford, Heysel and Hillsborough disasters. Although some mourn the loss of football’s traditions and criticise the corporatisation of the sport, the appointment of Johnson as a lawyer in a senior role at the Premier League is another progressive step.

Simon Johnson
Director of legal and business affairs
The Premier League

Organisation The Premier League
Sector Sport
Employees 50
Legal capability Two
Director of legal and business affairs Simon Johnson
Reporting to Chief executive Richard Scudamore
Main law firms Denton Wilde Sapte, James Chapman & Co and McCormicks