Ownership of Sporting Events

Darren HeitnerSenior Analyst IMay 24, 2008

English law does not recognize a proprietary right or interest in a sporting event per se. In other words, the event organizer is not automatically protected from a third party who may wish to exploit the event. In order to receive the required level of protection, the organizer will have to use various mechanisms of law in order to ensure the event is not exploited without consent.

In the US, property rights are more recognized. The organizer of a sports event owns a property right in that event that he or she is entitled to have protected from misappropriation by a third party. In short, the US system prevents a party from reaping where it has not sown – he who has fairly paid the price should have the beneficial use of the property. In my opinion this approach is more fair than the English approach.

In relation to the broadcasting of an event, it is clear that the key factor will be the organizer’s ability to control access to the venue. Where the venue is enclosed he or she will find it easier to secure exclusive broadcasting contracts. Moreover, where access to the venue is controlled rigidly, this will inevitably help the organizer to secure a better remuneration package in the broadcasting deal.

However, there will still be those who will try to exploit these situations. There was a case in England where the BBC secured the radio broadcasting rights to a soccer match. This prevented rival radio stations from entering the venue and providing coverage of the game themselves. However, with the game being televised live, one rival hired a hotel room and broadcast a commentary of the game through watching it on the television whilst adding sound effects to make it seem as though they were at the game. A very cheeky way to get around the fact that they could not enter the venue. But would this be deemed legal in the US? It was in England and this again highlights the limited security offered to those who buy up a property right such as this one.

Official sponsors cannot be guaranteed complete protection either. Ambush marketing (also known as Guerrilla marketing) is a form of marketing whereby a party advertises its product in a way that exploits an association with a sports event despite not having agreed an official sponsorship deal with the owner or rights-holder. Amongst other things, the exploiting party may be able to get away with it where the advert does not use any prohibited wording, such as "Olympics," "World Series" or "Superbowl" or use any official event logos or crests.

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It is important for an event organizer to ensure a clean stadium policy. It is necessary to remove any unofficial sponsors from advertising boards at the venue, and it is also worth buying advertising spaces in the area surrounding the venue. It is well remembered in England the way in which Nike was able to successfully ambush Adidas’ official sponsorship of the Euro 1996 soccer tournament. Nike bought advertising boards in the areas surrounding the stadium and advertised its product there much to Adidas’ fury. Adidas could do nothing despite having paid a lot of money for their exclusive sponsorship deal. Again, I wonder whether this would be a viable option for rival competitors in the US. Would they get away with it?

The US is not the only Western nation to operate a system that avoids the misappropriation by a third party. Such an approach is also followed, to a greater or lesser extent, in France, Italy, Holland, and Spain. It is clear that English law needs to catch up with the times in respect of ownership of sporting events.

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