The Legal Playing Field: An Overview of Sports Law

Photo of Jack D. Hepburn
Jack D. Hepburn
Associate, Corporate Department
January 3, 2024

What exactly is “sports law?”

Sports law, rather than being a distinct branch of law, is an amalgamation of various legal disciplines applied in a sports-centric context. Sports law encompasses an array of legal issues related to the sports industry, drawing on principles of contract law, intellectual property law, labor law, tax law, and administrative law, among others. Sports lawyers employ these legal frameworks to advise, represent, and advocate for athletes, teams, leagues, educational institutions, and sports organizations.

Key Issues in Sports Law

While not an exhaustive list, some key issues that sports lawyers address are:

Contract Negotiations

Sports lawyers assist various stakeholders in drafting, reviewing, and negotiating contracts. These contracts may involve name, image, and likeness  (“NIL”) rights or mergers, acquisitions or formation of sports organizations. Some lawyers become player agents, representing professional athletes in contract negotiations with their team.

Intellectual Property Rights

Protecting intellectual property rights is vital in the sports industry. Sports lawyers handle matters related to trademark and copyright infringement, licensing agreements, and the use of athletes’ NIL. With the proliferation of NIL rules and regulations in recent years, this is a growth area of sports law.

Administrative Law

Sports lawyers frequently grapple with administrative law issues as they navigate the intricacies of the sports industry. These issues often relate to the regulation and governance of sports organizations and leagues, including compliance with rules and regulations set by governing bodies such as the NCAA. Administrative law issues in sports can also extend to licensing and permitting processes for sports venues. Another growth area, sports betting, typically centers on working with state regulatory agencies. Sports betting is now legal in over thirty states.

Labor Relations

Sports lawyers can also assist with employment law matters, such as determining whether student-athletes should be characterized as “employees” by their college or university, and thus be entitled to certain benefits afforded to employees.

Taxation, Financial Planning, and Investment Counseling

Additionally, sports lawyers may assist with tax and estate planning and counseling for individuals with backgrounds in sports, including athletes, members of ownership groups, and team executives. This assistance can extend to reviewing legal documents associated with investment opportunities for people from these groups in their individual capacities (real estate, startup companies, etc.).

Sports law is a dynamic and multifaceted field of law. As today’s sports industry continues to evolve, sports law will remain a vital and growing area of legal practice.