Women’s sport in lockdown: The W Series

In a pre-lockdown world, momentum was the watch-word for women’s sport.  2019 was a year to remember.  The FIFA Women’s World Cup in France saw a shift in perception of women’s football, with the level of skill and entertainment on the pitch gaining new levels of respect and interest.  In turn, the sponsorship, prize money and viewing figures were all record-breaking.

Other sports have taken the opportunity to ride on this wave of popularity.  Governing bodies have become more active in promoting women’s sport both at the grass roots and elite level.  There has been a notable increase in broadcasters and commercial sponsors investing in women’s sport.

The ICC Women’s T20 World Cup 2020 was one of the last major events before Covid-19 put a halt to world sport.  The viewing and attendance figures were the highest ever enjoyed by women’s cricket and the 86,174-strong crowd for the final between Australia and India, taking place in Melbourne on International Women’s Day, holds the attendance record for a women’s sport match in Australia and is the second highest ever attendance for a women’s sport match globally.

The direction of travel for women’s sport was clear and stakeholders will be keen to prevent the global pandemic slowing the momentum in the long term.

Here we focus on the W Series and take a look at where the fledgling Series stands and how it is coping with the Coronavirus crisis.

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Are Digital Health Passports the Key to Unlocking UK Stadiums? The data privacy perspective

The ban on mass gatherings in order to combat the spread of COVID-19 resulted in the cancellation or postponement of sporting fixtures and live events globally. This includes the English Premier League that had to postpone all fixtures following the lockdown.

On 10 May 2020, Boris Johnson announced that, as part of the UK government’s three-stage strategy to lift the lockdown, sporting fixtures would be able to resume no earlier than 1 June 2020.  The outcome of the Premier League’s recent ‘Project Restart’ discussions is that (in line with many other sports) games will resume behind closed doors for the foreseeable future.

With sports clubs and other live event venues desperate to re-open the doors to stadiums in order to restore much needed revenue and with fans keen to return, the key question is how can they orchestrate a staged return to some form of normality, whilst maintaining safety for fans and the wider community? As with many other parts of the economy, technology is likely to play a key part in the solution to re-invigorate the sports and entertainment industry.

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K-League 1 strikes record broadcasting rights deals following league restart

Last week, Sports Shorts reported on how the top European football leagues were dealing with the completion of their 2019/2020 seasons as a result of Covid-19. Since then we have seen the much anticipated return of Germany’s Bundesliga (over the weekend just passed), which benefited from record viewership.

The K-League 1 (the “K-League”), South Korea’s top men’s professional football division, has also benefited from surging international interest. The K-League was the first professional football league to resume following a countrywide lock-down, with action resuming on 8 May 2020. Given that it was some of the only top flight football being played, it garnered significant and new interest from international broadcasters.

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How the top European football leagues are dealing with their 2019/20 seasons

Over the course of the last two months professional football across Europe has ground to a halt. In an attempt to lend some shape and certainty to the European football landscape, UEFA announced in April that all its European members had until 25 May to make a decision about their respective leagues. Some leagues have already called time on their seasons, while others are aiming for a restart in the near future.

This article looks at the path followed by some of Europe’s top football leagues to date.

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Opportunities and challenges faced by the NBA

On 12 March, the NBA announced its decision to suspend the current season. The COVID-19 crisis was escalating in the USA and a number of NBA stars had tested positive for the virus. It came at an unfortunate time, perhaps the most interesting period of the regular season, as teams battled for top spots and began increasing the intensity in anticipation for the playoffs. A certain Los Angeles Laker was activating “playoff mode” as the Lakers logged impressive consecutive wins over the 76ers, Bucks and Clippers.basketball

The NBA is no stranger to seasons being suspended ad cut short. As noted in previous Sports Shorts blogs, the league enters into Collective Bargaining Agreements (CBA) with its athletes. Continue Reading

Esports & the global pandemic

Esports arenaAs the world of traditional sports has ground to halt, esports has garnered much media attention, certainly in respect of those esports that operate within the purview of traditional sports. The esports industry was already thriving before the pandemic, attracting billions of pounds in revenues and huge viewing audiences. With the world on lockdown and most of us staying at home, many have turned to online gaming as a way to pass the time.

It is not entirely correct to say that simply because esports can be conducted online it is unaffected by the pandemic. While it is true that some competitions have found new life, and more people are themselves playing online, live events also form a big part of the professional esports sector and, in this way, esports is not immune from the effects of COVID-19.

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Partial Summary Judgment Granted to U.S Soccer

On Friday, May 1, 2020, Judge Gary Klausner of the United States District Court for the Central District of California granted partial summary judgment to U.S. Soccer in a pay equity class action lawsuit brought by members of the U.S. women’s national soccer team. In his ruling, Judge Klausner dismissed the U.S. women’s argument that U.S. Soccer systematically underpaid the women in relation to the earnings of the U.S. men’s national soccer team. This decision vitiated nearly $66 million in claimed damages on behalf of the women. Judge Klausner also dismissed a claim sounding in unsafe play as a result of training and playing on artificial turf. The women’s remaining claims include: (1) assorted personnel and support services issues (i.e. medical and training support), and (2) discriminatory working conditions based on travel accommodations (i.e. transportation via charter plane and lodging). The remaining claims will be tried in front of a jury, with a court date tentatively set for June 16, 2020. Although Klausner’s findings are a blow to the women’s soccer team, the players still have a right to appeal the decision to the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

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FIFA issues guidelines on dealing with COVID-19 related regulatory issues

On Tuesday, FIFA published a set of guidelines to address some of the practical issues that have arisen as a consequence of the COVID-19 crisis. The key areas of focus were: (1) expiring agreements; (2) frustrated agreements; and (3) registration periods. A number of other issues were also considered in brief.  

It is important to note that the guidelines in respect of (1) and (2) are “non-binding” and simply assist interpretation of the FIFA Regulations on the Status and Transfer of Players (“RSTP”). As such, stakeholders should not take any precipitous action based on these guidelines, but should keep them in mind when taking essential decisions related to the COVID-19 crisis. In particular  clubs unable to satisfy contractual obligations should pay close attention to what is suggested will be considered as ‘reasonable’ by FIFA tribunals where contractual amendments are made without the agreement of employees, including players and coaching staff.

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A Season in Flux Due to COVID-19: Major League Baseball Players and Owners Reach Agreement on Player Service-Time and Salary Terms.

Like every other professional sports league, Major League Baseball has been forced to postpone its games due to COVID-19.  Rather than beginning the season as scheduled on March 26, MLB franchise owners and the MLB Players Association were busy negotiating player service-time and salary issues, as well as a framework for a hopeful return to play this year. The deal finalized on March 27 carries important implications for players, teams and fans alike.

On the service-time front, the players and owners agreed that even if the season were abbreviated or altogether cancelled because of the virus, the 2020 season will still count for purposes of calculating players’ service time. By way of background, service-time determines when players are eligible for salary arbitration and free agency.  Basically, each day on an MLB roster earns a player one day of service time.  A player on a roster (or a team’s injured list) for at least 172 days in a given year is entitled to a year of service time.  After six years of Major League service, a player becomes eligible for free agency, which means that he can be signed by any team in the league for any amount of money.  During the first six years, salaries are largely regulated by the Collective Bargaining Agreement, subject to potential salary increases through arbitration after Year 3 or re-negotiation of player contracts at the discretion of the team and the player.   In the case of young star players, the CBA minimum salaries based on seniority are well-below what they would make on the open market, so there is every incentive to hit free agency as soon as possible.  As smaller market teams are frequently unable to afford a star player that hits free agency, they often keep a player in the minor leagues for a year or two longer just to postpone the triggering of the service-time clock.

The deal that was just reached means that players will not lose a year of service time, meaning they will still be eligible for free agency on the same timeline.  While a lost or shortened season will impact all teams with young players who have yet to hit free agency, smaller market teams may be particularly impacted based on the economic realities outlined above.

As for the deal’s salary provisions, the players agreed to forego any potential suit against the league for full salaries in the event that the 2020 season does not take place.  Instead, MLB will advance players $170 million over the next two months, which the Players Association will divide among its members.  MLB salaries are paid on a per game basis, so to the extent that games are missed due to COVID-19, there is a legitimate argument that players would not be owed their contractually-agreed upon salaries.  Perhaps recognizing the uncertain legal landscape at play here and the bad optics of litigating over millions in salaries at this time of mass unemployment, it would appear that both sides determined that a swift resolution to the matter was in everyone’s best interests.

Finally, as far as actually getting back on the field, owners and players both want to play as many games as possible, subject to various conditions.  These conditions include no travel restrictions throughout the U.S. and Canada, no bans on mass gatherings that would limit the ability to hold games, and medical experts’ determination that there would be no health risks for players, staff or fans.  In the event that the season does go forward, it will be unlike any that has ever occurred.  If games were to somehow start by mid-Summer, the regular season would need to be cut down to a much shorter amount of games than the standard 162-game schedule, and many doubleheaders will likely be played to fit in as many games as possible.  Additionally, the Playoffs would likely occur in November instead of the traditional October.  This could also entail playing some or all of the Playoffs at warm weather neutral-sites to avoid inclement conditions in East Coast and Midwest cities.

At this point though, with most of North America on lock-down, any baseball that can be played this year will undoubtedly be met with great enthusiasm by fans, players and franchises alike.

Victory for Opponents of the Pro/Rel Model: the Court of Arbitration for Sport Determines There is No Obligation to Implement Pro/Rel in the United States   

Last month, the Court of Arbitration for Sport (“CAS”) handed down a decision in a case of significant import for professional soccer in the United States.[1]  At issue was whether FIFA’s rules and regulations require the implementation of promotion and relegation in the United States’ soccer hierarchy.

After a protracted dispute that involved numerous briefs, hearings, and documents, the CAS panel issued its decision and determined that neither the rules and regulations of FIFA, nor those of the Confederation of North, Central America and Caribbean Association Football (“CONCACAF”) and the United States Soccer Federation (“USSF”), require the implementation of promotion and relegation in the United States, and that the United States’ “closed league” system does not violate said rules or any governing law.

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