Opinion | Friday, 28th February 2020

Sports law: The new kid on the block

Sports law may be a comparatively new discipline but university education is reacting to the market, says Kevin Carpenter

Sports law is now in the mainstream
Sports law is now in the mainstream conscious

Orginally published by Solicitors Journal

By Kevin Carpenter, Senior Lecturer in Sports Law at Manchester Law School.

I had never heard of sports law when I began my training contract to be a solicitor in August 2010 at the then heavyweight corporate law firm SJ Berwin.

It had never crossed my mind that it may be a discipline all of its own until, by chance and through a mutual friend, I was introduced to a now close friend of mine who ran what was (at that time) an online sports law journal.

When I started to write on, and work in the field in March 2011, there was still a very live debate as to whether sports law truly existed as a separate discipline - or whether it was really 'sport and the law.'

Today, a significant number of law schools in the UK offer sports law either as a masters degree programme or as an optional unit on the law degree (LLB). This is a clear example of university education reacting to the market.

However, what are the reasons as to why sports law has grown at such a pace that is now a recognised and valued part of legal education?


The rapid growth in sports law in the past decade has undoubtedly been due in part to a strengthening of the principle of the autonomy of sport. This is the principle by which the governing bodies of sport, driven principally by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the International Federation of Association Football (FIFA), have manoeuvered themselves into a position where other stakeholders have largely accepted (sometimes by way of imposition) that they are best placed to rule themselves.

As part of that, a unique quasi legal system has developed in the sports sector. Traditionally, this system has largely been a combination of regulatory law and international arbitration. Indeed, many will have heard of the Court of Arbitration for Sport (the CAS) which, in reality, is not a court at all but a private arbitral body.

However, this influential institution has undoubtedly had a significant impact on the development of what some people call a lex sportiva.

As well as the regulatory development of sport, we have seen a rapid growth across a similar period in the commercial value of the sector. Sport is no longer a question of the Corinthian values and amateurism - it is now big money all around the world.

The rapid growth in sports law in the past decade has undoubtedly been due in part to a strengthening of the principle of the autonomy of sport.

In legal terms, this means that lawyers have now become specialists in commercial matters, such as sports broadcasting, licensing, sponsorship and ticketing. I admit that when embarking on my career in sports law, I was of the opinion that the only “sports lawyers” in the purest sense were those who researched or advised in the areas of sports regulation and dispute resolution.

However, to have that attitude now would be to do a disservice to those excellent lawyers who are specialists in commercial deals which are not only the principal source of income in the sector, but drive significant value both at the elite level and grassroots of sport.

With increased media scrutiny in the commercial value and practices in the sector, there was a proliferation of practising sports lawyers coming to the fore. When coupled with the handful of individual academics who have been pioneers in this field since it began to emerge, including Professor Mark James, the impact of the law on sport came to the attention of the general public and law students.

The emergence and subsequent development of undergraduate units on sports law has given the discipline greater legitimacy. After all, although the discussion about whether sports law actually exists as a separate discipline is an interesting debate theoretically - in reality, so long as there are a critical mass of people working in the field, it is not of great importance.

Another factor in the wider offering of sports law at the undergraduate level, as well as the increasing development of both part and full time and distance learning masters programmes in the UK, has been as the changes in the sports legal practitioner market. It used to be the case that sports law would usually be a loosely organised cross-discipline team within a large law firm.

However, in the past three years or so, mid-sized firms pulling out of the sports law market (including one for which I worked), because the legal fees in the sector are often not the same as in other areas within a full practice firm. The individuals with a significant practice have then either joined the few large multi-national firms that exist in this space, or have gone out together and set up their own niche sports law practices.

So there are now more opportunities than ever for training contracts at firms that only do sports law. As students undertaking a law degree become aware of this, they will undoubtedly want to get ahead of the game and study sports law as part of their LLB.

It's all about context

From a legal education perspective, one of the things I believe should be made clear to students who have a desire to undertake either an undergraduate module or a masters degree in sports law, is ultimately much of taught law is applying traditional legal disciplines and compulsory subjects in a sporting context.

For instance, the impact of EU law when applied to the football transfer market has had an impact on sport world-wide. Sponsorship and broadcast issues in sport involve the application of contract law principles, while sporting injuries encompass elements of tort and criminal law. Some of the notable exceptions to this are so-called lex olympica and anti-doping law.

Sport is no longer a question of Corinthian values and amateurism - it is now big money all around the world.

Although starting to study sports law in an academic setting it could be seen as quite a daunting prospect, much of it - when stripped down - will not be unfamiliar with the lex sportiva subjects fascinating to learn.

So where does this leave the future for sports law in legal education?

With the increasing prevalence of sports law programs, it will undoubtedly drive innovation in the offerings available to students. Currently, the majority of programmes are designed much the same, however with the increasing sophistication of the legal issues in the sector, institutions will undoubtedly start to become more creative with their offerings to attract people to study with them.

One thing is for certain: there has never been more coverage of regulatory and legal issues in sport in the mainstream conscious. And regardless of my opinion that there is in some quarters an over-juridification in the sector, there is no sign of the pace in the growth in the sector in any way slowing down.

As a result of this, and the fact it is still a relatively new legal discipline, there will be a need for greater academic rigour and critical analysis through education.

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