Sports rights - what's the big deal?

23 October 2014

Sports rights are a big-money game. The Middle East is one of the largest spenders and investors in international sports rights. Reportedly, Al Jazeera paid around US$ 1 billion for the rights to broadcast the FIFA World Cup in 2010 and 2014 and Etihad Airways paid over US$ 400 million for its 10 year sponsorship deal with Manchester City FC. 

Regional sports content is also popular and lucrative, with the UAE Arabian Gulf League recently reporting that sponsorship, advertising and broadcast revenues for the 2013/2014 football season reached an impressive AED 177 million.

But what are “sports rights”?

There are two main categories of “sports rights” – sponsorship rights and broadcast rights. 

Sponsors of sporting events usually contribute money or goods in exchange for marketing rights to promote their image and products in connection with the event.  The event may have several sponsors, such as the Olympics, where different rights packages offer different prominence of the sponsor’s brand and/or products. 

The sponsor may opt to pay for “naming rights” in relation to the event itself (such as the Barclays Premier League) or perhaps the venue (for example, Emirates Airline reportedly paid around AED 900 million to extend their naming rights deal with Arsenal Football Club, who will continue to play at the “Emirates Stadium” until 2028).

Due to the potential high value of these sponsorship deals, it is important for all parties to seek appropriate legal advice to ensure that the various legal issues (such as exclusivity, use of intellectual property, advertising and filming rights) have been fully addressed.

In relation to broadcasting rights, the event organizer may license the right to broadcast the event to a production company that will then enter into separate sub-licensing deals with broadcasters.  Alternatively, the event organizer may itself commission a production company to film the event and then license the content directly to the broadcasters.

Again, due to the complex nature of these deals, it is essential that all parties seek specific legal advice to ensure clarity over what rights are being bought and sold and what are protected.

No drama

In legal terms, what in fact are the rights being licensed in relation to the sporting event itself?

Performances of a dramatic nature, such as a musical or a ballet, are protected under copyright law in many jurisdictions (including the UAE) as original creative works, capable of being performed repeatedly in front of an audience.  

A sporting event, however (perhaps with the exception of a choreographed sport such as ice skating or gymnastics), would not be considered to be a dramatic work protectable by copyright because it is effectively a random series of un-choreographed, unpredictable events.  This is despite the arguably high degree of planning that goes into a sporting event, such as the choice of players, positions and team strategy.

Protectable elements

That said, there are certain elements in a sporting event that are protected by law, such as the trade marks of the team and sponsors, and the sporting event’s theme song or anthem.   

The broadcast of the sporting event is itself protectable by copyright.  This means that once the broadcaster has broadcast the event, any subsequent use of that broadcast (for example, clips of the match) must be properly authorised.   

Not all fun and games

Unsurprisingly, considering the large amounts of money paid for sports broadcast rights, we are seeing increased enforcement of alleged infringement of such rights. 

For example, in July, beIN Sports (exclusive licensee of the MENA broadcast rights for the FIFA World Cup) filed proceedings against Lebanon’s state-sponsored television broadcaster, Tele Liban, who rejected beIN Sport’s allegations of making unauthorized broadcasts of the FIFA World Cup matches.  The case was later dismissed by the Lebanese courts for lack of jurisdiction.

Further, last month, the Premier League warned fans not to post clips of matches on Vine, the video sharing service owned by Twitter, as it considers this to be an illegal use of the sports broadcasts. 

With the high value of sports rights, and the increasing focus on enforcement, it is essential to ensure legal advice is obtained on all aspects of sports productions.

This article was originally featured on page 18 of the October edition of Digital Studio magazine, which focuses on TV and film production in the Middle East.