GATELEY LEGAL. Navigating the legal side of sport

For many professionals in sport, navigating the legal world is like finding yourself stranded in a very deep, very dark jungle at night. There are loads of gnarly roots at your feet just waiting to trip you up, branches are sticking out at odd angles to poke you in the head and there always seems to be something breathing just behind you.

Before entering jungles like this, it makes sense to have a guide. Someone who comes prepared with a map, a flashlight and the experience of navigating the more treacherous areas…

Gateley Legal started in 1974, under the name Gateley Waring and Co and it began with just twelve employees and now has over one thousand. Best known recently as the first UK law firm to float on the London Stock Exchange. Meaning that as compared to a traditional law firm, employees can own shares, allowing them to share in the success of the business.

This sort of forward-thinking approach is one of the mainstay characteristics of the legal and professional services group according to John Burns. John, who is a partner in the business, has 20 years’ experience in the sector.

His career working within the legal landscape of sport began when he started working with Everton Football Club. Since then, John has broadened his sporting horizon and grown the practice at Gateley acting for wide-ranging sports clients, including six major premiership football clubs and rugby teams and large and small International and National Governing Bodies, .

“We cover every type of sports organisation,” he says, “And have been growing strength to strength because we keep up to date not only with what is happening in the legal world but also in the sporting arena. This allows us to see what is coming on the horizon today to prepare for how it can affect our clients tomorrow.”

Around forty lawyers are actively involved in the sporting sector of the Gateley Legal business and they do a range of work within the sports tech space, with most of their work being with sport organisations.  Some of these areas in the tech space include apps, healthcare systems for athletes, booking systems and sponsorship valuation technology to name just a small selection.

“This includes working with athletes and players regarding endorsement and image rights exploitation,” John says, “And everything from buying and selling sports businesses, intellectual property rights management  and the contractual work that is involved in stadium build and design.”


Gateley work with a number of their sports clients to help them embrace “good governance”.   Exploiting commercial opportunities, putting together a diverse and “fit for purpose board” are all skills that have to be learned and  not simply assumed. This is where John and his team can shed light and, where necessary, take a client by the hand and guide them through. 

“Good governance” is key to accessing both public and private funding so a number of NGBs have engaged Gateley to help them bring their governance documents up to the mark, upskill their boards and advise generally as to what constitutes good governance. 

“We are very much involved in ensuring that NGBs adopt good governance,” John says, “And futureproof themselves. Many of our clients are consistently in the public eye and so this kind of preparation is important.”


Across the board from small and local clubs to international organisations there is a growing need for businesses in this field to generate their own revenue. As part of what Gateley offers and an area that John is quite involved with is looking at ways to achieve maximum revenue, finding opportunities to “work” a sports organisation’s assets.

“Today more than ever everything that you do electronically can potentially be seen by everyone,” John says, “Nothing escapes social media, nothing goes unreported and everything can potentially end up under a microscope.”

While the thought of our emails and private phone messages being hacked is not something any of us really want to think about. It is John’s job to outline the potential damage of such a thing to his clients.

“Just because it shouldn’t happen doesn’t mean that it won’t,” he says.


The question does pop up however, with so many potential threats lingering around and waiting for us to slip up, are we as people truly able to cope? With such a real threat there are companies investing millions into creating tech solutions to prevent hacking but there is also the need to educate people on how to protect themselves.

“It is a habit that we all need to adopt,” he says, “And we need to be able to consider the impact of what an email, text or status update could have if it were broadcasted to the world. How would it feel and what it would mean for our careers and livelihood.”

In the sporting industry this requires sports bodies to adopt the same approach to training their mouthpieces as what to say and what not to say. They also have to take measures to prevent leaking… and to know what their options are should something private get out. For someone in the public eye, like a star athlete, they need to keep this all in mind and be vigilant against it.


This year is an exciting one thanks to the Olympics and the work opportunities that arise during this period. New developments and technology will no doubt spring out and there will also be disputes and allegations and urgent issues that need to be worked on. John is particularly interested to see how this year’s host country Japan are going to handle this massive event. Especially as they’ve taken on two of them this year, the Rugby World Cup and then the Olympics.

“They’ve brought the attention of the world on them,” he says, “Through two of the biggest events in sport, for a country us innovative as Japan,  it’s going to be very interesting to see what they bring to the table as regards the legacy opportunities that these two great sporting spectaculars will create.”


Economists always enjoy discussing the benefits and hazards of countries that host big sporting events like the Olympics. While big sporting events are incredibly pricey, John believes that it is an important investment in the minds of millions of people worldwide looking to participate in sport.

“A big push today is targeted to getting people involved,” he says, “Who knows where the next big name in sport will come from but without big events like these to inspire them, they may never be found.”

In the future he sees more sports businesses getting involved in the participation equation. More organisations are looking at finding investors wanting not only a return on their investment but also a strong benefit to society. These sorts of funds have grown and they’re gaining a lot of traction and value.

The benefit of participation in sport cannot be understated he says, “If you look at the alternative remedies GPs are now frequently recommending sporting activities to increase physical and mental wellbeing – a low cost way of improving public health will benefit us all.”

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