June 11, 2019
From May 16th to 19th, the Sports Lawyers Association held its 45th annual conference, in Phoenix, Arizona, with the beautiful JW Marriott resort as its temporary home and red mountains, cacti and palm trees as its backdrop. As a first time attendee and someone who has one toe (or two) dipped into the sports law pool but who is seriously contemplating jumping in feet or bottom first, not only was this the best and only place to be but the event did not disappoint.
So much was covered and discussed these 3 days of talks and networking sessions that no review could ever be comprehensive and thorough enough to do it justice, but I still would like to share some of my biggest takeaways from this great gathering of brilliant minds and unique personalities, with some of my personal thoughts sprinkled throughout. In this first part, I cover women’s sports, technology & social media and eSports.
➤ Technology and social media
As new and innovative technologies and social media are not only taking over our everyday lives but also shaping them, they are also influencing the way sports law is practiced and the way sports are being both offered and consumed. It is crucial for sports lawyers, whether they represent athletes or professional leagues or teams, to keep up with current and future trends and to understand how to skillfully use every tool at their disposal.
Broadcasting is turning toward a more personalized viewing experience for fans (e.g., camera angles, live microphones on players, coaches and refs during games, live action shots shared by fans at the arena or stadium, live-tweets, stories shared on social media as they happen, etc.), and it is only the beginning. Leagues and individual franchises have increased their presence on social media, efficiently incorporating it into their communications and marketing strategies to create more engagement with their audience and stay current. They have also embraced the demand from the public for more and more non-game content, and it has also become a larger focus of the type of media they produce and share on social media and on their websites. Athletes of this generation grew up on social media, and for the most part, they have mastered the art of using the different platforms to their advantage, to tell their stories, build and sell their personal brands, promote brands they partner with, and have more control over the narratives that surround them and/or their teams. They also know how to use them for philanthropic purposes and even get a jumpstart on the next chapter of their life before their career ends by showcasing skills they might not otherwise be known for or even starting their own media ventures. The most outspoken athletes have also taken to social media to discuss topics they care about, are passionate about and that do not involve how high they jump, how far they throw or how fast they run, which has forced their teams (lawyers, agents, publicists, etc.), franchises and leagues to deal with the occasional slip-ups or repeated offenses in some cases, and the potential backlash from the stands they take, especially regarding topics such as race, gender, or politics, and engage in more open conversations with them. This has also created a new avenue for fans to voice their disagreement directly and often in a more aggressive, sometimes abusive, manner to players themselves, and to teams and leagues. The ease of access and use of social media comes with its own set of challenges that players, teams, and leagues can all fall victim to and from which the people who represent them have to help get them out of with timely and well-crafted PR messagings. Teams and leagues also have to constantly keep an eye on what is going on without appearing to be restricting players’ freedom of speech, to prevent mishaps and/or respond to them as quickly as possible with all the information available in hand.
Ultimately, in the age of social media, for lawyers, athletes, brands, and organizations, the key to success is using the right platform to share the right message to the right people at the right time.
➤ Women’s Sports
I know I said that the conference did not disappoint and I stand by that. However, nothing is ever perfect and some of the panels could have used more variety (yes, I am avoiding the use of the other word on purpose because it is being overused and so very little acted upon that it is losing its meaning) and have been more inclusive but it was not as much about the event itself as a reflection of what the field has looked like for way too long now and the work that still needs to be done to have more representation and inclusivity. One big thing that was definitely missing from the talks and, which ties into the lack of variety on many of the panels are women’s sports.
Except for a few mentions here and there, usually from NBA representatives who mentioned the WNBA as an extension of the men’s league, female athletes were largely absent from the conversation. As it was pointed out during the very first panel, there are specific challenges to representing female pro athletes, not the least of which is the fact that they make a lot less money than their male counterparts, which is a crucial topic that could have been the subject of an entire conference. Not to mention the difficulties women face when they become pregnant during their career, especially at the peak of it, which comes with losing benefits and protection from their sponsors, potentially facing health risks due to pregnancy and/or delivery, being unable to perform for at least a part of the pregnancy and after, the pressure to return as soon as possible – at the risk of jeopardizing their own health – and in some cases losing their income.
The product on the field or court is not the issue – at least for those willing to look at it objectively- but everything around women’s sports tend to be either ignored, mocked, discounted or cheapened in the general discourse. They perform so well, get paid so much less than men and have to sacrifice so much more just in order to have and keep their career. Although the fights female athletes are forced to fight every day deserve a great deal of attention and coverage (more than what they currently receive) what should also be a lot more talked about are the positive things about women’s sports: the quality of play, the extraordinaire athletes who make them what they are, the work they do in the community day in and day out, and the fans who cheer loudly and proudly for them. The WNBA has a new commissioner, a new logo, a new TV deal, and seems determined to start anew, better and stronger. That needs to be saluted and promoted. At the core, though, this is a reminder of the work that still needs to be done for us all to get to a point where talking about women’s sports becomes talking about sports.
This growing industry is being taken more seriously by brands that have historically been associated and have supported and sponsored more traditional sports, which contributes to signaling a change in the way eSports are perceived as a whole and the legitimacy they are gaining. Although the general consensus among people who are already involved in it is that eSports will continue to grow and become more and more mainstream, probably even to the level of traditional sports, there are also concerns about the future of the industry, mainly when it comes to its structure. Will the current model survive? Will eSports start functioning like the more traditional sports with a harmonized league(s) of distinctive teams owned and operated by owners and front office executives? Will this league have a set number of players on each team, with options for those who don’t make the main team to play in the equivalent of a minor league, a developmental league or a practice squad, and will it rely on a union or players association to negotiate their rights in a collective bargaining agreement worked out with the owners and their representatives? Is it a viable model for eSports? How will they be impacted by legalized betting and gambling? What about representation for players themselves? What will the eSports world look like? What type of games will be played and generate the most revenue? Who will be the face(s) of the league(s)? These are some of the questions the sports legal world is asking itself and the eSports industry.
Also at the forefront of the challenges the industry currently faces are also labor issues and issues directly related to the current structure of the industry, such as legal constraints for global leagues, the young age of the average player, the short shelf life of high-level players and the fragmented character of the industry itself. Traditional pro athletes, in my opinion, especially the younger ones, are some of the best ambassadors and promoters of eSports as they tend to consume them in large quantities in their downtime, competing against one another, fans and other gamers around the world, and are not shy about letting their followers know which games have their stamp of approval and which don’t. They could be a big reason for the continuing growth of the industry as shown by the interest drawn by the competition between players during Super Bowl week. Another reason for optimism in the future of eSports: the advances in technology will only make the games and the competition better, faster, more realistic and exponentially increase the amount and type of data generated around the game.
One thing that I haven’t heard discussed during the panel on eSports if the fact that despite its growing popularity, particularly among viewers aged 18 to 34, and the increased number of girls, women and people of color playing and watching, eSports suffer from a significant lack of representation and inclusion, and regular complaints of verbal and harassment directed toward women and people of color. Two issues that will need to be addressed very seriously and rapidly, not just on the surface, as an effort to retain the few minorities, sexual and racial, who are participating in spite of the hostile environment, but in depth to help change the perception of the industry and make it truly inclusive and safe for all. If it wants to survive, the industry will have to not only adapt certain rules it is not yet familiar with but more importantly create a much more inclusive environment for people at every level of the sport: league ownership and management, players, agents, and in the companies/brands sponsoring the leagues, teams and players.
That concludes the first half of my list of biggest takeaways from the Sports Lawyers Association’s annual conference. In my next installment, I will discuss image and likeness and compensation when it comes to student-athletes, the increasing presence and changing landscape of betting and gambling in sports, and the heavy but necessary topic of sexual abuse and assault. Stay tuned for part 2!