Once in a while an issue becomes so significant that it dominates the attention of players, clubs, sponsors and governing bodies across the whole sports industry. For the Bosman ruling in the 1990's read the ubiquitous 'image rights' (the term used to describe the commercial rights of a player in relation to the use of his name, likeness and other distinguishing characteristics) in the new millennium. In Cricket the much vaunted and much awaited ECB central contracts have been delayed by the desire of players to gain more control of the use of their image for promotional purposes, the football community has continually explored the opportunity for players to benefit from the sale of replica shirts and other merchandise bearing their own name while rugby players have regularly questioned the use by their governing bodies of their name and likeness for advertisements and sponsorship. Up until now there has been an uneasy stalemate with players often ceding to their clubs or federations some of their commercial rights, just to keep the peace. However, recent developments have emphasised the fact that players remain committed to gaining greater control of their commercial rights and with the technological landscape ever developing a number of opportunities are likely to present themselves in the future.
Recent discussions have centred around footballers' desire to register their memorable goals as their own intellectual property and receive compensation each time a broadcaster wants to show a piece of footage depicting their performance in the same way that television actors are paid when their programmes are repeated. Indeed, the demand for popular incidents to be replayed time after time ensures that certain sportsmen and women are remembered long after their professional careers are finished. The most famous example is Geoff Hurst's clinching goal in the 1966 World Cup Final, but Henry Cooper's felling of Muhammed Ali, Shane Warne's first ball in an Ashes series and Jeremy Guscott's winning drop goal for the Lions in South Africa have remained abiding and much repeated memories of their respective sporting encounters. Yet players' do not want merely to rely on the indirect benefits of their moments of glory, such as increased media exposure and a place in the nations sporting conscience, but to benefit directly from the exploitation of the use of these rights. Legal opinion is divided about whether players' could benefit theoretically from performance rights but the clubs are likely to have little sympathy and would argue that the salaries they pay their players already includes sufficient compensation to cover any inability under law to fully exploit this area. However, the principle at issue for the players' is more one regarding control than immediate financial gain.
The academic debate regarding the scope of UK copyright protection is unlikely to interest many sportsmen but the surrender of potential revenue streams will not be welcomed nor will the fact that the current state of affairs leaves them potentially unable to exploit the potent profits the development of new technology promises. However, while clubs, sponsors and governing bodies see new technology as an opportunity to expand their consumer base and develop commercial potential it may be that the web becomes the catalyst for players to benefit further from their own commercial rights. Moreover, while the growth of the internet continues to open up a host of new commercial possibilities for sportsmen the arrival of Internet TV is likely to have the greatest impact of all as players' recognise that they have an opportunity to set the ground rules in this new arena.
The key to a successful website is content and when the technology becomes available to support Internet TV, sports programming will be the "must have" or "killer" content that will be used to drive the roll out of new broadcast websites in the same way that it has been the driver for selling subscription to pay TV and for set top box sales. Clubs, in particular, are likely to strive to preserve internet broadcasting rights for their own websites recognising that providing the opportunity for a fan to view a goal he may have missed at the weekend is likely to have an enormous positive impact on the success of the site. Equally a sportsmen's website would be greatly enhanced by a page devoted to his greatest goals, tries or wickets. Nevertheless as the current sporting landscape stands such an offering is not possible - although the players may have the opportunity to license the rights from the copyright holder under the arrangements for 'clips' they do not own the rights and potentially they could be refused the opportunity to acquire the rights particularly if they are seen as a competing platform. The crucial issue for the player is whether the clubs are able to secure footage for their own sites. Should this happen it would be commercially prudent for the players to ensure that any contractual arrangements they have with the clubs provide for full use of any footage for their own sites. Ultimately this may set off a chain of events which will see the players' opportunities developing under their own control.
Although the players are unlikely to be paid directly for their own goals once they have the opportunity to post them on their own sites then the financial benefits should be substantial. Indeed, whether in the future there is a move to centralise image rights by creating a players' library that can be accessed rather like a film library or whether players' continue to adopt a more individualistic approach by striking their own deals, the new platforms on offer are likely to produce a number of opportunities for players to gain greater control of the exploitation of their commercial rights.
First published in Sports Marketing in April 2000.