Stephen Townley is a lawyer, businessman and seasoned ADR professional with dozens of years of experience in the sports law sector. He has been attending SportAccord since the inception of this event and was even personally involved in the set up of LawAccord.
LawAccord is quite unique when you compare SportAccord conferences with other sports conferences, because very few conferences with a general focus on the sports industry and sports business position law as one of their key topics. Therefore, what were the strategic thoughts behind setting up LawAccord and how has LawAccord helped with the sports community?
As Beijing gears up to host SportAccord 2020, how would LawAccord help with the Chinese sports community and what role will it play next year?
With these questions in mind, Yutang Sports talked with Mr. Townley during SportAccord 2019 in Gold Coast and listened to his sharings on relevant legal matters in the sports world.
Yutang Sports: LawAccord was established in 2003 at the very beginning of SportAccord. Is it because you consider law as very important?
Stephen Townley: I think I see it as increasingly important. The vision behind LawAccord was to find a way for the sport industry and lawyers to get together to share knowledge, so if the lawyers can understand the issues that are evolving in sport, whether it’s match fixing, or gaming, or doping, or whatever, if they can understand how these issues are evolving, then they are at a much better place to help.
Sport itself develops and grows. Because I had a law firm that specialized in the sport industry, I could see how these issues were growing and developing. Therefore, when SportAccord was started, I clearly wanted to look at how I could create an environment to share that knowledge about the legal issues with the sports community.
What’s happened is when I set up as a lawyer in the business, the legal issues were that big (gesturing small), and now they are that big (gesturing big). It’s become very much more complex.
Yutang Sports: Why is it more complex?
Stephen Townley: It’s more complex because sport has evolved and generated income money. At the same time, it’s faced as any situation where large amounts of money come into a business or sport in particular. Sport wasn’t used to receiving so much money, outside perhaps the USA. Sport traditionally has been run by people who volunteer. So as money started to come in to sport, the ability of those people who were in charge of a sport, there was a gap. It’s a result really of that gap these complexities began to arise and all sorts of industries were growing up. Services were growing up because of that gap in the market. In which the law is certainly one of them.
Yutang Sports: How did you get involved in the sports law sector?
Stephen Townley: I got into the sports industry as a lawyer in 1979. It has been 40 years this year. And I worked with a company that was one of the first companies to create these opportunities in sport. The company said to people like FIFA, ‘you have valuable commercial rights that you are sitting on, but no one’s helping you understand them and use them.’ My job when I joined that company as a lawyer was to see how you could create value as a legal asset from these particular entities.
We worked with FIFA, the International Olympic Committee, the IWF and the world championships. We helped in a sense these governing bodies understand how they could user their commercial rights, media rights, sponsorship rights, how they could develop value from those particular opportunities.
Yutang Sports: How do you compare Europe and the USA in terms of sports law service sector?
Stephen Townley: If you take the last 20 years, there’s been much more growth of lawyers in Europe dealing with sports issues, exponentially than there has been in the States. I was on the board of an organization called the SLA which is the US’s Sports Law Association. It’s a large organization, but it’s got a real history. Lawyers have been dealing with sport in the US for many years. When I set up my first professional firm in Europe in 1983, I was one of maybe 4 or 5 people who were lawyers practicing in sport in Europe. But now it’s changed. Now there are a lot of law firms in Europe who have sport departments. There’s a lot of really good expertise of lawyers who can help. That’s developed in a relatively short period of time. In the States it has not gone down, but it’s just not growing as quickly.
Yutang Sports: How do you think LawAccord has played a helpful role in the development of sports?
Stephen Townley: I think it’s played a helpful role because it’s helped anticipate some of the issues that have arisen and enabled the sports federations to plan for them. In the earlier conferences, we talked about risks arising from betting, gaming, match fixing, from all these sorts of issues which have begun to be problems that now organizations are beginning to address. It has very much helped to see how the market has moved in the legal challenges that sport has faced and will face.
Yutang Sports: Next year, SportAccord is going to be held in Beijing, China. What do you think of China’s environment for sports law?
Stephen Townley: I think it’s a very exciting opportunity. I’ve lived in Singapore for a while, and I would travel to China. It’s an amazing country. We’ve all got lots of lessons to learn from each other, which is the great thing about sport. I did some work for the International Olympic Committee in advance of the Beijing Olympic Games, where I looked at what the legal regime was in China and how in a sense sponsorship right or media right could be protected.
China has grown so quickly in terms of its influence in sport. When the event goes back to Beijing, it’ll be very good timing. I don’t know how advanced the legal community there will be, but China is very quick to learn and see. I think it’s a good opportunity to share knowledge.
Chinese culture is quite different in many ways than Western culture, particularly as it deals with conflicts and disputes. I take that as an example. The US market is very confrontational, and very focused on the individual. Therefore, if you are an athlete in that environment, you are more likely to litigate and to get into conflict. My experience of dealing in Asia with Asian sport is less confrontational. People are very keen to always find a solution to a problem. From a different point of view, I think that is quite interesting. I think we’ll have to see.
Yutang Sports: What is your expectation and hope for next year’s LawAccord in Beijing?
Stephen Townley: My hope will be that we can bring knowledge to share from the international legal community in sport, but I really hope that we’ll get some participation of Chinese lawyers, in a sense to tell their side of the story because it is different. This is the key. SportAccord is about knowledge sharing, LawAccord particularly. I’ve got to find people in China who are willing to explain and talk, who have expertise. There are some international firms where probably that pocket of expertise is bound to exist. It’s just very exciting to see.
LawAccord have a steering committee. We’ll need to look at the composition of that steering committee for next year. I hope we can reach out and find some Chinese lawyers who would be part of that steering committee and therefore help with integration of knowledge sharing.