A Roadmap for Athletes in dealing with the COVID-19 Pandemic

A Roadmap for Athletes in dealing with the COVID-19 Pandemic

By Panagiota Betty Angelis Tufariello, Esq. & Marios Christos Sfantos, Esq.

The COVID-19 pandemic. Unprecedented, unexpected and presenting unique challenges, obstacles, and vicissitudes that no one has ever faced before and – as is evident from looking at contracts of every kind across all industries – clearly few had the good sense to anticipate. Every facet of life has been massively affected – health, travel, education, social life, business and entertainment – and though we always expected that sports would be there in good times and bad to play, cheer and work for, athletics at all levels have been hit mercilessly hard, impacting untold millions.

A plethora of articles have been published over the last few weeks regarding the effect of the pandemic on sports entertainment. All have agreed that “every part of the sporting value chain has been affected, from athletes, teams and leagues to the media that broadcast and cover games.” www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/04/sports-covid19-coronavirus-exercise-specators-media-coverage/. Professional leagues have suspended their activities. Programming schedules have been upended. Traditional television sports bundles are in danger of disintegrating under the onslaught of the coronavirus. All stakeholders have been forced to rethink spending and revenue-stream assumptions. Sport-reliant businesses threaten to shut their doors, and clubs face bankruptcy and even threaten disbandment.  If there is a silver lining to be found in this turbulent time, it is that the crisis is inspiring thrilling innovation.

The sports industry is forced to adopt new strategies in response to the disruption caused by the pandemic. Broadcasters are providing classic games, archived content, documentaries, esports and niche competitions in a bit to satisfy and capitalize on consumers’ media consumption. They host quarantine parties on social media. They provide flexible and even free plans to consumers who wish to access sports content. All sports stakeholders are working together to find mutual solutions to “force majeure” clauses that work for both sides. Leagues are paying broadcasters compensation, granting them additional rights and extending agreements. Id.

There is no question that sports leagues, broadcasters and sponsors are all working together to explore and establish more diverse income streams during these trying times. But what about the individual players?  What new strategies do they have to adopt, on an individual basis, to be able to survive not only the present crisis but any future crisis like the one the world is currently facing? 

First of all, every player has a contract with their club or their league. Now is the time to read and review that contract. They should learn what their rights are under the contract. What are the terms of payment. Is there a clause under the contract that provides for situations like the one that is presently happening. The contract will determine what a player can and cannot do under the present circumstances. Perhaps there is a players’ handbook. Players must read it. They should educate themselves about their rights under the contract. They should determine what, if anything, is in the contract that players can leverage to insure that their income is not reduced.

Players must understand that any changes that management might seek to impose upon their remuneration, must happen in accordance with the players’ contract.

As with other sports industry professionals, players often fear the law, avoid reading upon it, and leave it to others. A basic understanding of legal principles and a greater comfort with the area of sport law will not only empower players but also provide them with a competitive advantage. Naturally this is a good time to talk to people who have expertise in such matters, though many right now are navigating through uncharted territory. Reaching out to the agents and legal professionals who demonstrate a solid reputation and good experience can be invaluable. Importantly, this may be the best time to turn toward players’ associations.

Whether international players’ associations like the World Players Association (www.uniglobalunion.org), sport-specific associations like FIFPro in soccer (www.fifpro.org ), or the players associations specific to each country, league or locality (NWSLPA, NWBPA, etc.), these associations will not only have resources dedicated to the challenges of COVID-19, and numerous labor and employment issues, but also could help guide players to someone they could speak with about their specific situation. These associations are actively communicating with players around the country or the world, and also with all stakeholders associated with their industry. Therefore they may be able to provide information and solutions to problems that players may be facing, help players anticipate issues, and plan for the future.

Second, this is an important time to form new connections. Unity is more important than ever. We see that in women’s sports especially. Already handicapped by decades of short-sighted underinvestment, blatant discrimination, and a shameful dearth of broadcasting exposure, women’s athletics face profound dangers. In soccer, for example, FIFPro has warned that “the current situation is likely to present an almost existential threat to the women’s game if no specific considerations are given to protect the women’s football industry” (FIFPro Report – “COVID-19: Implications For Professional Women’s Football” https://fifpro.org/media/zp3izxhc/fifpro-wf-covid19-new.pdf). We are already witnessing how the massive economic damage and endless uncertainties, which clubs everywhere are experiencing, might be used to justify the reduced funding of women’s sport (or outright dissolution, such as with AFC Fylde) despite public declarations of continued support.

In response to the these dangers, however, people have been remarkably vocal, and the real and feared risks of the “new normal” are bringing people together in the forging of exciting new collaborations and the development of an unparalleled, dynamic unity across all layers of the game, and even between different sports.

Players should use this time to make the connections they have put off and to discover new collaborations within and without the playing field.

Third, players should take advantage of this downtime to access social media, make a name for themselves, and grow their Brand. They should seriously consider donating their time and their name. They should do so because now is the best time to build their brand by helping and going beyond themselves. They should not forget they have a career which needs tending to, and a future after sport too that they should be building now, making their personal and professional brand a top priority. Many players actually do that already. With the caveat, of course, that they don’t violate any of their contracts. Many contracts oftentimes have clauses that prevent players from engaging in certain activities. Players don’t want to lose any leverage because they violated some term in their contract.

Players’ branding is not only important to the players’ value and their personal intellectual property but also the value of the team, club, league, and sport. By engaging with their audience on social media, players maintain the fans’ interest in the game even though the game is suspended, while at the same time players increase their own value in their own publicity rights, thereby maintaining their leverage to negotiate with the club, league and sponsors not only in connection with any contracts currently in effect, but for future ones as well.

Look at the great current and former players out there. What are they doing? Community-first clubs like Sky Blue FC (www.skybluefc.com) in the NWSL have their players engaged with fans through weekly webinars and zoom meetups. Members of the US Womens’ National Team have formed a clothing line, re-inc (re—inc | “a lifestyle brand built to challenge the status quo“: www.re-website.com), which promotes the values of their sport while providing them with additional revenue streams, and allows them greater freedom and control. A fantastic example of branding by a retired player is the legendary Gilberto Silva, who not only serves as an Arsenal and FIFA Ambassador but also uses webinars and socially conscious videos to contribute see for example bit.ly/gsiwpodcast. Each and every player should be using this downtime to figure out how they can become a brand ambassador for themselves and for the values they support.

The value of the players’ brand and the good will associated with it are manifested through trademarks that are associated with that brand and registered in as many different jurisdictions as possible. The trademarks could be words, phrases, symbols, images and designs that help define the players’ personal brand. Thus, any steps players take to build up their brand should include filings for the registration of their trademarks, in as many jurisdictions as possible. 

A number of athletes and coaches have registered trademarks over the years. Such registered trademarks have proven extremely lucrative in the long run. In 1993 great NBA coach Pat Riley made an estimated $300,000 in royalties when the NBA used his registered trademark “three-peat” and “3-peat” on Chicago Bulls championship merchandise. In 1998, 2000, and 2002 he once again profited from each of the Bulls, New York Yankees, and Lakers for their use of “three-peat” respectively. https://www.inventorsdigest.com/articles/athletes-and-trademarks/   Other athletes who have capitalized on their trademark portfolios include Jared Allen, Lance Armstrong, Usain Bolt, Robert Griffin III, LeBron James, Jeremy Lin (he even won a trademark infringement battle to secure rights to the name Linsanity! for merchandizing purposes), Shaquille O’Neal, Danica Patrick, Michael Phelps, Darelle Revis, Michael Strahan (now a national morning TV co-host), Tim Tebow, Serena Williams, John Elway, (Id.) and of course, Michael Jordan.

Finally, players should educate themselves, retain a financial planner, and plan for the future.  There is much to be learned from many resources including the present one and MONEY SMART ATHLETE. Prepare for the future while best positioning themselves to navigate the current crisis. Connect with others. There is no better time for unity and collaboration.

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