Gulf legal firm sets up region’s first dedicated sports practice in Doha
With the Europe, Middle East and Africa (EMEA) sports business market recently valued at more than USD40 billion (QAR120 billion), there is massive potential for such a specialty legal entity in the Arab world, Steve Bainbridge, regional head of sports law practice, Al Tamimi and head of its Doha office, tells The Edge’s Miles Masterson.
On the back of the phenomenal growth of sporting events, sports tourism and sports business in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), at the Aspire4Sport exhibition and conference held in Doha in November 2013, regional law firm Al Tamimi launched the Middle East’s first dedicated sports law practice, which is to be based in the Qatari capital.
As the head of Al Tamimi’s new Doha-based operation, what is your background and what lead to the opening of this specialised office here?
I was an associate at Al Tamimi a number of years ago [and] I have spent the last three years at Yas Marina Circuit in the United Arab Emirates as their general counsel. Al Tamimi approached me about the concept of opening and launching a dedicated sports law practice. It was a fantastic challenge and comes at a very poignant time, so it was something that I could not turn down.
One thing that was noticed and identified by the management sometime ago is that a lot of clients because of the increase in sport-related business have been asking for greater specialities. We have a large regional client base within both public and with private sector clients and international companies coming into the region, there is so much going on in this sphere [with the] 2022 World Cup as the flagship event. That is exciting and there is a lot of work to be done between now and then. However, if you take a quick glance around Aspire4Sport, there is so much more going on and we are seeing this as very sustainable.
Do you see Doha, which was recently voted the number one sports tourism destination in the world, as having more long-term potential for this practice than other regional capitals?
Dubai, even Abu Dhabi, have a lot of more established sporting events, but I think that this signifies a trend that we are seeing in the market. Some of the very best global sporting events are being hosted and managed here within the GCC region. With the right people, the right commitment to doing it and the goals that are there, the passion, it can happen. I have absolutely no reason to expect the 2022 World Cup is not going to be the very best one yet, I am very confident that it is going to do very well, so I think that we do have that long-term potential. In addition to the group of professionals that we have got, we are generating enough work [to create] a great training ground for young local lawyers. Here, there are massive global events happening and smaller ones over and over again. It is a skill set that is transferable with anything in the sports area, so it is an exciting time for us with the young lawyers who are getting their first exposure here.
So obviously for many reasons there was a clear need for this type of practice not just in Qatar but the region?
There is more sophisticated work going on, there is greater deal flow and even if you take something as simple as a sponsorship agreement, this is something that clients have realised that if they have a lawyer who has dealt with 50, 60 or a 100 of these kind of agreements they are going to spot certain issues that…corporate commercial counsel has not and probably will not. So we are trying to start things in that side of the market, in terms of bringing in greater speciality, because at the end of the day there is greater complexity there and we have to deal with it whether we like it or not, and the clients will benefit.
Are there similar practices in the world from which you have taken your lead?
What we are doing is new to the region but it is absolutely not new. In North America, they have many, from boutique to large firms and they all almost have sports and event management practice groups specialised in these types of agreements.
In Western Europe, it is a similar case. It is true that in certain firms and certain times and places, they will be considered part of the broader commercial group [but] if you were to pick three of the top 10 law firms in the world, I am certain they would have a sports law tab on their website. It is really new in this region, largely because of vast quick growth that has come, that is really playing a little bit of catch up in global terms.
“Some of the very best global sporting events are being hosted and managed here within the GCC.”
The deals are more complex and clients want to know about the return on investment. They want to know where that return is, there are various matrixes for capturing those numbers and finding out what they are, this is all part of it. The way that you target that is by having your initial investment done through a vehicle, whether it is contract or a suite of agreements or whatever your documentation is going to be, you do it and you make your investment count, you get the best from it that you can and you work through it as you can. So each time you do it, hopefully you get better and better at it and that is what we are trying to do for the clients.
Where does the line lie between sports law, normal law and commercial law?
It is a very grey area, it is a blurred line and for us we think that is an advantage because we do employ a number of lawyers here. We are a GCC-based firm, we are not in the region for a short term, we do not come and go so we have that critical mass and specialists in all of these areas and the experience. Particularly when an international company comes in and they want a regional solution.
There are non-sports issues that will spin out of that so if someone comes to me with a sponsorship agreement, we build a relationship, they will get me on the phone a couple weeks later and say we have a construction issue here, or we have an intellectual property…because we are a large local regional firm, we can do that.
Would you be dealing with both sides of the sponsorship equation, a big brand such as Nike sponsoring the Qatar National Football team, for example, then representing the football teams themselves, so both sides?
Absolutely. That is something that we gave a lot of thought to when developing the practice. We have a broad range of private and public clients, so you do need to be cautious because it is a relatively small market. In some respects, you do not want to conflict yourself. Every lawyer will tell you that conflicts of interest are strict; there are certain protocols you have to follow internally and externally, so you want to be cautious about taking one large client that will mean you are disqualified from taking dozens of others.
Especially with so many diversified conglomerates and government-owned entities in the GCC?
There is no question that there is a concern about conflicts, and that is one of the reasons why we are quietly confident that we can work for both, but we are going to have to be careful by a project-by-project basis.
How would you fit into the overall legal environment in Qatar?
In terms of sports, the dispute mechanisms tend to be a little bit different. Al Tamimi company practices in association with Mohamed Al Mari who is our first Qatari partner, so we have full rights of audience. However, I think that it is important to note that in some of the sports-related matters, the Court of Arbitration for Sports, tends to have a lot of established rules, so some of the mechanisms go through prefabricated arbitration scenarios and we have litigators capable of handling that and it is a discrete area. But in answer to your question, absolutely, we fit within that space and there will be no restriction across those areas.
Obviously you are going to deal with private clients and private firms, but when the government or government related entities come into it, how does that work?
Obviously we have a duty of confidentiality concerning our clients, but in general…when there is an issue regarding conflict or who is or who should be working for, we deal with those along very strict guidelines…all of our clients get the benefit of the high standards that we set.