UAE is a burgeoning player in field of sports law

The country is gaining worldwide exposure through prestigious sporting events such as the Abu Dhabi F1 Grand Prix and the Dubai Desert Classic. As a result, the nation is also becoming a hotbed for lawyers specialising in sport,
The start of the Formula One Etihad Airways Abu Dhabi Grand Prix at the Yas Marina Circuit in Abu Dhabi on November 3, 2013. Christopher Pike / The National
The start of the Formula One Etihad Airways Abu Dhabi Grand Prix at the Yas Marina Circuit in Abu Dhabi on November 3, 2013. Christopher Pike / The National

The role of sport in the cultural and economic life of this country is a subject that needs little introduction.

Prestigious international sporting events such as Dubai’s Desert Classic, Abu Dhabi’s Formula One Grand Prix and the Dubai Rugby Sevens serve as major showcases for the UAE on an international stage and are among the largest draws of tourists to the country.

And it is not just international sports making their mark here; the UAE is increasingly making its mark on the international sporting arena. This comes through both direct investment, such as the acquisition of Manchester City by Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed in 2008 and the extraordinary growth in international sponsorship agreements by the likes of Emirates Airline and Etihad Airways.

International sport, it goes without saying, is big business. A study by PwC estimates the total sports market in Europe, the Middle East and Africa is likely to be worth US$49.5 billion by the end of next year.

The UAE’s deepening relationship with such a booming global industry has not gone unnoticed by the local and international legal community. As legal work related to sport increases, firms have taken on extra staff and, in a few instances, have launched dedicated sports law practices in this region.

Among the highest-profile of these announcements came in November from the local firm Al Tamimi, which announced the launch of a sports law practice, led from Doha by Steve Bainbridge, the former general counsel at Yas Marina Circuit in Abu Dhabi.

So what is sports law?

“It’s actually a broad range of disciplines that come under a sporting umbrella,” says Raj Pahuja, a senior associate with Al Tamimi’s Sports Practice in the UAE.

“There’s a lot of stuff that encompasses how individual sports are regulated, including issues such as the testing of athletes and horses for substance abuses, matters that are regulated at Centre for Arbitration of Sports in Lausanne.”

“At the same time it encompasses a lot of disciplines that come into play when organising a major sporting event, such as licensing, liaising with regulatory authorities, labour issues, sponsorship and so on.”

Much of the workload of sports lawyers involves the establishment of newer sporting events, such as this year’s Dubai Tour cycling event in February, which require extensive legal groundwork.

“Once an event is established, as is the case of the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix or the Sevens, it more or less takes care of itself, barring some changes in sponsorship agreements,” Mr Pahuja says.

“A new event such as the Dubai Tour, however, brings a lot of legal work, such as agreements with outside sporting entities, new sponsors, local authorities and so on. It needs to be put together with a solid legal framework but in a way that the public can enjoy it as well.”

The UAE’s hosting of the first 20 games of the prestigious IPL T20 cricket tournament this year provides a case study for some of the legal considerations involved in putting on major sporting events in the country

“The main thing that we worked on was the original agreement between the BCCI [Board of Control for Cricket in India] and the Emirates Cricket Board [ECB] for the hosting of the event,” says Joby Beretta, a partner with Dentons in Dubai.

“The ECB took care of most of the logistics, while we helped arrange the back to back legal arrangements with the three venues – in Sharjah, Abu Dhabi and Dubai.”

“We also helped with the agreements on security, the use of intellectual property, sales of tickets and so on. We didn’t touch on the broadcast rights, that remained with the BCCI.”

Sponsorship and brand licensing agreements for sporting events and sports teams constitute the majority of legal work undertaken by sports lawyers in the UAE at present, according to Dameer Valeev, an attorney-at-law with M/Advocates of Law, a boutique firm that specialises in sporting matters.

Such work is almost exclusively focused on international events and teams, with the UAE’s local sporting scene barely getting a look in at the moment, Mr Valeev adds.

“Sponsorship is still very much driven by international events like Formula 1 or the Mubadala World Tennis Championship.

“Grass-roots sporting programmes in the UAE are currently not too developed, apart from football which is a different story.”

And the globally, the sector is getting ever more complex.

“It used to be that you would just buy the TV rights to the World Cup or the Olympics,” Mr Beretta says. “Now broadcast and sponsorship rights are being divided up, depending on whether it’s digital, whether it’s live TV, on demand or delayed TV, over-the-top advertising and so on. As the media and the technology changes the contracts have to change them and in a way they’re getting more and more complicated.”

While UAE lawyers have been tooling up in the wake of increasing sporting activity both inside and outside the country, the importance of sports law has also been recognised at by the Abu Dhabi Government as well.

In a sign of the awareness of the importance of international sports in the development of the national and regional economy, Abu Dhabi announced in 2012 it had signed an agreement to open a regional hearing centre for the Court of Arbitration for Sport, the internationally recognised disputes for sporting controversies.

The vision for the hearing centre is similar to that espoused by the DIFC Courts in Dubai, enabling any party from the wider Middle East region (or indeed beyond) to use its services for the resolution of sporting disputes, according to Mr Valeev.

“The idea is to have a centre that is physically located in the region, as arbitration is an expensive process,” he says.

“Every time there are hearings in Lausanne clubs from, say Egypt or Bahrain, would previously need to travel there, hire lawyers and so on, and the idea was to make it more user friendly to have something next door.”

The hearing centre is still finding its feet, however, and has yet to hear any arbitration proceedings so far, he says.

Still, alongside growing local awareness of sports law, it shows the country is playing in the right ball park.

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Published: June 28, 2014 04:00 AM


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