Teamwork: the IOC and the WIPO get the ball rolling on new initiatives to promote the importance of IP rights for the international sports community

There is nothing quite like live sport.  The anticipation, the tension, the euphoria and, yes, the crushing disappointment is what ensures massive audiences and interest worldwide.  And where there is interest, there is a commercial opportunity, and the sports industry has capitalised on this better than most.  In the UK alone, the sports industry is worth $39bn*, a figure which is set to increase over the coming years.  One area in particular where experts** are predicting growth of over 15% during the next 3-5 years is in women’s sports revenues – a previously untapped portion of the industry that is going from strength to strength following high-profile successes by England in the TikTok Women’s Six Nations and UEFA Women’s Euro.

Sport is therefore big business, and the global spotlight on large-scale sporting events means that athletes’ value goes beyond their sporting skills and reaches their very image and personality.  As well as team and event sponsorship deals (visually evident from the numerous logos emblazoned on football kits and Formula 1 cars), it is common for athletes to become brand ambassadors for companies across a variety of industries, but particularly in the clothing, luxury goods, food/beverage, and automotive sectors.  Leveraging the popularity of athletes such as Lewis Hamilton and Usain Bolt allows brands to benefit from the allure of their personal qualities which in turn transfer onto the product – for instance, Bose headphones may be seen as aiding focus and concentration by virtue of Hamilton wearing them prior to a race, and Puma trainers are now associated with Bolt’s reputation for speed.

In addition to sponsorship and endorsement deals, athletes are increasingly getting involved in their own commercial activities – one example being re—inc, a lifestyle brand founded by USWNT (the United States Women’s National Soccer Team) players Christen Press, Megan Rapinoe, Meghan Klingenberg, and Tobin Heath.

Therefore, sport is an area where traditional corporate brands and personal brands work alongside one another, meaning that there are a large variety of intellectual property (IP) rights and assets at play, including event names/logos (such as those developed to promote the Olympics or the Commonwealth Games), team names and club badges (such as those of football teams), as well as the individual names of athletes.  (The registration of athletes’ personal names is not always straightforward, and Dehns Partner Clare Mann has previously reported on cases involving Lewis Hamilton and Lionel Messi. Clare has vast experience in this field, and has managed the trade mark portfolio for a Premier League club for many years.)

The dark side of this abundance of IP is that the sports industry also suffers from commercial exploitation in the form of counterfeits, unauthorised usage of names/logos, and false endorsements (use of an athlete’s name or image by a business to imply endorsement, when no such agreement exists).  Ensuring that IP rights are adequately protected at all levels of the sports industry is therefore vital to ensure that teams and athletes retain the ability to take advantage of and benefit from commercial opportunities such as licencing, merchandising, and sponsorship, and also retain control of the products and brands that they are partnering with and endorsing.

Against this backdrop, it is welcome news that the International Olympic Committee (‘IOC’, a non-governmental sports organisation responsible for organising the Olympic Games) and the World Intellectual Property Organisation (‘WIPO’, the global IP forum) have come together to sign a Framework Cooperation Agreement to promote the use and management of IP in sport and to establish a legal framework for collaboration between the organisations.  This partnership between two leading bodies in the IP and sporting fields conveys a clear message that IP rights are a fundamental aspect of the global sports industry, and should be at the heart of promoting and protecting growth.

This Agreement builds on historic cooperation between the IOC and the WIPO, previously exemplified by the WIPO-administered Nairobi Treaty on the Protection of the Olympic Symbol, which was adopted in 1981 and protects use of the Olympic symbol internationally, as well as the WIPO’s choice of theme (‘Reach for Gold: IP and Sports’) for World IP Day in 2019.  As part of the latter initiative, the WIPO published information on the importance of IP for sporting goods (as well as for event organisers, teams and athletes), issues around ambush marketing at sports events, and utilising IP to promote sports tourism.

A booming sports industry is great news for economies, employment and enterprise; alongside an effective IP strategy that utilises and protects that commercial growth, you might just have a winning combination.



**(source: PwC’s Global Sports Survey (7th edition))