As part of the LexVeritas WorldConnect Series, the inaugural China Sports Law Week was held from 29 July to 3 August in Beijing, and from 5 – 7 August in Shanghai, China. A wide array of topics were discussed, spanning from football agents’ regulation to current issues in sponsorship and broadcasting rights.
The aim of China Sports Law Week is to educate people (both domestically and internationally) about the development of sports law in China, defined by the values of “inclusivity, integrity & insights”. The plan of the organiser, LexVeritas Sports and International Law Group, is to stage the China Sports Law Week as an annual event. To be inclusive, the topics in the inaugural edition looked beyond sports law issues, and enquired into the cultural, economic and legal significance of English football and the lessons that might be learned from it in China, including how football can be used to enhance youth development.
The speakers included not only sports law practitioners but also industry professionals, such as the chairperson and main coaches of Clubfootbal FC, a local grassroots football club established almost two decades ago in Beijing by Brits, Rowan Simons and his partners. Youth training personnel from a Chinese Super League Club also shared their views on young players’ sustainable development in the club.
This feature piece gives interested readers an insight into what happened during the week and the key issues that were discussed. Readers can also click the link included in each topic for more details of a specific event.
Exploring the issues in Beijing and Shanghai
The event venues were deliberately set across Beijing and Shanghai so that participants explore the cities’ hidden gems. There were three main topics that were discussed in seminar format, all held in newly refurbished WeWork spaces, traditional and modern, situated in Beijing courtyard（四合院), CBD office buildings, and former hotels:
Regulation of Football Agents (Monday 29 July)
The seminar on regulation of football agents was staged due to the interest we recently received regarding this subject. My general impression however, after consulting colleagues and friends, was that the Chinese sport market might not yet be ready to consume a detailed course on the topic similar to those popular in Europe. Therefore, when leading sports law barrister and LawInSport Editorial Board Member, Nick de Marco QC (Blackstone Chambers, London), agreed to travel to China to speak at the inaugural China Sports Law Week, we invited him to talk about the general regulatory framework for agents and the latest international developments.
Jurisprudence on agents’ regulations originating from China is scarce, so there was not much discussion from the participants. There was however a lot of interest in the cases Nick used to illustrate the practical issues in representing players. From Raheem Sterling’s transfer trajectory, the participants learnt about the new concept (for Chinese practitioners) of the “sell-on clause”. When a participant enquired about the transfer fee regarding a player who could no longer play after signing with a new club, the tragic circumstances of Emiliano Sala’s case were discussed.
After hosting the seminar it seems to us that a level of interest and enthusiasm for football agents definitely exists in China, but it needs to be properly cultivated and guided, which will probably take a few years to develop into real demands that will only grow in tandem with the Chinese sports industry, especially the professional sports market.
For more detailed report on the Seminar on Football Agent Regulations, please click here.
Sports Sponsors’ Roundtable (Tuesday 30 July)
We organised a roundtable for sports sponsors because sponsorship is by far the most common way for Chinese companies to engage in international sports. Compared to international events licensing or broadcasting rights deals, sponsorship has lower thresholds and more varieties to allow wider scope of participation. Thereof the legal issues involved are of practical concern for companies already engaged in sports sponsorship or considering a potential deal.
In the morning session, the author briefed the participants about taxation of sponsorship agreements in China (for more information on which, please see this LawInSport article1) to familiarise Chinese sponsors with the tax obligations they potentially incur when entering into a sponsorship deal with international events or stakeholders. Nick and I also led a discussion on betting companies’ dominance in sports sponsorship – the case of Huddersfield Town FC’s shirt front2 was just captivating.
In the afternoon session, we invited two parties now seeking sponsorship to make a presentation, in the hope that the Sports Law Week might give them an opportunity to find suitable sponsors. Rowan Simons, chair of ClubFootball FC and the most faithful advocate for grassroots football in China, made a personal appeal to the audience on behalf of the football club. His presentation was so moving that everyone in the room held breath to listen. It was not a business-like presentation that one would normally anticipate from sponsorship seekers – it was storytelling, a story about advocating the value of grassroots football in China, a concept that is still relatively alien in China. Following Rowan’s presentation, a representative of Beijing Youth Championship also introduced the event and its sponsorship package.
Sports insurance and broadcasting rights (Thursday 1 August)
We picked the issue of sports insurance because it was critical for athletes but strikingly underdeveloped (especially with respect to professional sports) in China. However, it is positive to note that there have been developments recently, as the Chinese Basketball Association announced in April this year the first ever loss-of-value insurance plan (in association with China Life Company) for professional basketball players. Currently there have been a rich selection of insurance providers for amateur sports, such as Baozhunniu, whose representative made a presentation on its insurance plans designed for amateur sports players on Thursday 1 August.
The afternoon session was dedicated to broadcasting rights issues now hotly debated not only in China but worldwide. The author led the discussion based on an article “Why Sports Broadcasters in China Cannot Currently Rely on Copyright Law to Protect against Unauthorised Livestreams and Possible Solutions” she published earlier this year with LawInSport (available to view here3). The author advocated that the most effective way to protect broadcasting rightsholders against unauthorised live sports, under the current legislative framework in China, was to frame the right as an economic right to benefit from its exclusivity based on contract rather than a “broadcasting right” under the current PRC Copyright law. Broadcasters might consider rephrasing their licensing agreement from the events’ organisers (or the end rightsholders) to clarify that the “broadcasting right” in the English language should cover more extensive scope (i.e., encompassing online streaming) than the ambit of “broadcasting right（转播权）” as defined under the PRC Copyright Law.
We also hosted a number of more informal events. The “GREAT Grassroots Football Day” (Wednesday 31 July) was set at a café adjacent to the training ground owned by the Chinese Super League club Beijing Sinobo Guoan FC, where Coach Alex Arnold from Liverpool, now Director of Football at ClubFootball FC, elaborated on the English football system right in front of the pitch. A former Academy coach at Liverpool FC, now working in China as a foreign coach for more than six years, Coach Alex eloquently expressed his “outsider’s view from the inside”, on China’s new football direction. For more detailed report on the GREAT Grassroots Football Day, please click here.
On the evening of 31 July, a Dinner Book Talk on Football and the Law was hosted at Insight Books, Beijing, a creative space run by an interior designer, which could be quickly turned from a bookstore to a theatre like forum for events like this. The owner of Insights Book also invited Nick de Marco QC to recommend a list of books to be shared with other readers. It is expected that Insight Books will soon pioneer the bookstores in China to have a selection of books dedicated to sport related subjects. Insight Books also expects to host more sport themed events in the near future.
On Saturday 3 August 2019, we hosted a Summer Soccer Family Fun event at Shenglu Heligan Garden, a joint initiative by the Heligan Garden in Cornwell, England and a local winery (Shenglu). The Lost Gardens of Heligan was understood to have provided project consultancy to Shenglu, to develop an authentic English garden in the city of Beijing.
Rob Skupien, an experienced football coach and Assistant Director of Coaching from ClubFootball FC, hosted a sharing session to parents (all Chinese) of about 20 children on how football could support child development. Conducted in an interactive way, he introduced the “Four Corner Approach” and “SMILES” teaching rules he adopted to teach football. In addition, he quoted the book Mindset by Carol Dweck to illustrate how to communicate with kids for their sporting activities. Assistant Coach Michael Zhan facilitated the translation work for both the sharing session and a subsequent try-out session where boys and girls (ranging from 3-year old to 12-year old) were having fun and experiencing the English style of playing football with Coaches Rob, Sam and Michael.
The objective of the Family Fun event was to showcase to Chinese parents that – contrary to many Chinese parents’ belief, sports, like football, can actually enhance rather than hold back child education and development. Sports should not be sacrificed for schoolwork; rather, sports and schoolwork complement each other. More importantly, sport should be integral part of the education. Some parents found the event refreshing, which inspired them to reflect and re-consider how they would like to schedule their children’s afterschool time. For more detailed report on Summer Soccer Family Fun event, please click here.
Cultural nuances and an open floor to encourage exchange of ideas
The events during the week took a diverse range of forms, so as to facilitate active participation by audience from different professions and age groups. In order to encourage open discussion and exchange of ideas, the majority of the events took a casual format where the floor was opened up following the main speakers’ session, so that members of the audience with relevant experience could share their own experiences and give feedback.
Wenshi, an amateur snooker player and licensed referee who made the trip from Wuhan, Hubei province, shared at the Seminar on Broadcasting Rights his observations on the "snooker culture" in China, and how it interacted with the quality of the sport’s broadcasting and future development of snooker in China. He concluded that it was the lack of "snooker culture" that prevented the further developments of snooker in China. In order to develop the sport in the Chinese market, priority should be given to education. The general public and potential participants of the sport needs to be better educated about the tradition and culture that form the foundations of the sport. Starting from education, snooker in China could develop more informed fans and only informed crowds interested in snooker might realise any commercialisation ambitions.
Clearly the discussion that day refreshed in him his memories about snooker, and how difficult it was, as a young Chinese man, to pursue sports as a career (see also Michael Zhan’s story below). Wenshi was so motivated that after returning from the Sports Law Week he even registered a media platform on Wechat dedicated to snooker (the Chinese counterpart of WhatsApp) where anyone can use the platform to circulate articles. Inspired by the discussion he led at the Seminar on Broadcasting Rights, he wrote the first article to critically reflect on the culture of snooker in China. The article was widely circulated and positively received.
The Sports Law Week deliberately arranged abundance of social opportunities in the forms of tea breaks, social lunch, dinner and drinks to encourage networking. From a cultural perspective, it is interesting to note that Chinese people are less inclined to join evening social events such as drinks or book talks. Most Chinese, especially professionals, are still accustomed to traditional, or formal settings for networking, such as lectures or conferences scheduled during work hours. Also, the Chinese care more about food, rather than drinks. When we staged a beautifully arranged Chinese style lunch (served hot) and desert by a local boutique kitchen, the Chinese guests were all attracted to the lunch/tea-break area where they happily networked just as actively as their western colleagues in drink events!
We also experimented some interesting sponsorship work by winning food sponsorship from local cafes such as Paddy O’Shea’S (drink sponsor), Joe’s Bar and Kitchen (sandwich sponsor), and A Corner Studio (dessert sponsor). It is worth noting that Paddy O’Shea’S and Joe’s are probably the most popular sports bars in Beijing city, both enjoying iconic status in expat sports fan community. A Corner Studio was once football fans’ beloved gathering spot in the town. One thing the author is exceptionally proud about is that all our sponsors, including WeWork (venue sponsor for three events), Insight Books (venue sponsor for Football and the Law Book Talk), WordsTalk (a translation agency who sponsored the tea break for the Beijing Arbitration Commission Sports Dispute Resolution Forum), Rebrew (venue sponsor for the GREAT Grassroots Football Day), in addition to the bars and cafes mentioned above, were all very happy with their sponsor experience. Through their respective sponsorship we formed long lasting, supportive friendship and I am sure all of them will be with us in the years to come.
Transcending the law and engaging the wider sports industry
It might be surprising that most participants of the “Sports Law Week” were non-lawyers, consisting of sports professionals (such as football club personnel, sports business professional, sports journalists, or people involved or interested in football agent work).
This is in fact an encouraging sign, as industry engagement was exactly the motivation and indeed the objective of initiating the China Sports Law Week. It was intended and planned as an awareness raising project (rather than a marketing activity), to educate the sports stakeholders in China that law matters to the industry. The seminars with a leading sports law expert from the UK, Mr. Nick de Marco QC, demonstrates that critical legal issues in the more mature UK sports sector are now starting to emerge in the Chinese market. It would be thus worthwhile to start looking into these issues, learning from relevant foreign experiences, and finding suitable local solutions.
The Sports Dispute Resolution Forum
Lawyers tended to be most interested in the sessions on sports insurance, broadcasting rights and in particular, the Sports Dispute Resolution Forum held at the Beijing Arbitration Commission (BAC or Beijing International Arbitration Center) as part of the BAC Forum for Selected Professionals. This event was mainly attended by legal professionals. Notably, the sports channel of Beijing Television Station (BTV) made a TV coverage of the Sports Dispute Resolution that was broadcasted across China on 3 August. For BTV coverage of the Dispute Resolution Forum, please click here.
Following the welcome address by Mr. Chen Fuyong, Deputy Secretary of BAC, and Dr. Jiang Tao, Professor and Deputy Director of the Sports Law Institute, China University of Political Science and Law, Nick de Marco QC addressed the audience about the two main types of sports dispute, namely regulatory disputes and sports commercial disputes. He also directed the audience’s attention to the major challenge now faced with sports dispute resolution – the issue of fairness and its significance to individual rights. Finally, Nick laid out his thoughts on the future improvement of sports dispute resolution mechanism, and made a brief introduction to Sport Resolutions, a dispute resolution organisation in the UK dedicated solely to the sports sector.
The author mainly discussed the issue of the applicable jurisdiction in sports dispute resolution. Taking the Olympic Games, FIFA World Cup and other international sports events as examples, the author explained that the jurisdiction of the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) found its basis from the Olympic Charter, FIFA Statutes, charter documents of other international sports organizations or athletes' entry forms for participating in a specific sporting event. Taking into consideration that many Chinese clients struggled to understand why foreign law mattered in contracts that expressly opted for PRC law, she addressed the applicable law issues in disputes heard in international sports organisations (such as FIFA) that might be further appealed to CAS.
Based on well-established CAS jurisprudence, the author explained to the audience that Article 58 of the CAS Arbitration Rules (pointing to applicable FIFA regulations) would take precedence over the law chosen by the parties. In accordance with Article 57 (2) of the FIFA Statutes, Swiss law will guide and supplement the interpretation of FIFA rules. Therefore, when negotiating and drafting relevant agreements or handling relevant disputes, Chinese parties should fully consider the impact of international rules and foreign laws (such as the laws of Switzerland) on the case, and pay attention to the differences between Chinese and Western cultures so as to defend their legitimate rights and interests.
Two quick anecdotes to end
Among all the participants, from a variety of background, a 17-year old high school student Sam was exceptionally impressive. He made the trip from Tianjin (a city nearby Beijing) especially for the Sports Law Week, managed to self-fund the travel and accommodation costs independently from part-time job (rather than relying on family support), and attended almost all the events with high level of attention. He made his objective clear – to learn as much as possible from the Sports Law Week and realise his dream to study the Sports Management BSc Degree at Loughborough University.
Michael Zhan, the young assistant coach at ClubFootball FC, also impressed. He was expected to graduate from a reputable Beijing University majored in software engineering. However, his passion for career seems to connect with football, and he aspires to become a football coach, or even club manager someday. So, the postgraduate student at Beijing University of Posts and Telecommunication works as part-time coach at ClubFootball FC with the plan to learn practical coaching skills from the club’s British coaches. Because of his serious working attitude and dedication, he soon became an essential member of the coaching team.
Michael has been fighting against the odds in pursuit of his caching career. Studying abroad seems to be an inevitable option (if any young coach aspires to make some changes to the current status quo) but too costly. As a local growing up in China, this author also well understands how he has to struggle against the expectation from his family, and perhaps himself. A career as football coach, after all, is not yet well accepted by Chinese families so he must be extraordinarily brave to persist.
I could see that a bright and promising career unfolding ahead of Sam, the 17-year old who made up his mind to pursue a sports management degree at Loughborough University. Michael the young Chinese coach might still take pains to pursue his football coaching career in the current environment. Wenshi, the amateur snooker player and licensed referee, might need to write many pieces of articles before working out a solution for him to work in snooker. All three young persons embody something in common for younger generation of Chinese, ambitious, motivated, sometimes a bit hesitant (understandably) when they embark on a path less taken, but they are definitely persistent and wiling to take risks. It is not easy for someone to become a sports professional in China at this moment. But the author is confident there will be breakthrough not before too long, in the context of the Chinese state policy to professionalise the sports industry and encourage sports talent exchange. The inaugural China Sports Law Week is far from being perfect, but as an organiser the author is especially proud of its power of uniting an emerging sports professional community (not limited to lawyers), and how it engaged and inspired future generation of industry pioneers.
For photo collections, conference manuals and flyers from the China Sports Law Week, please click here. All detailed reports of the Sports Law Week events are published on LexVeritas Sports Law Bulletin, a collection of sports law articles focused on the Chinese sports industry by LexVeritas Sports and International law Group, Jin Mao Law Firm, People’s Republic of China.
- Agents Regulations Athlete Welfare Broadcasting China China Sports Law Week Dispute Resolution Education Football Governance Insurance Regulation Snooker Sponsorship Sports Law