Sports lawyer, Rhodes scholar and NLSIU grad Nandan Kamath

Having set up a flourishing sports law practice in Bangalore, Nandan Kamath is an Indian Jerry Maguire of sorts. A graduate of the National Law School of India University, Kamath has a fairly illustrious academic track record. He did his B.CL from Oxford University after receiving a Rhodes scholarship. He then went on to pursue an LL.M. from Harvard University, before returning to set up the Law Offices of Nandan Kamath in 2006. 

In this interview with Bar & Bench’s Aditya AK, Kamath talks about following his dream of being associated with sport, what it takes to be a successful sports lawyer, the Indian Premier League (IPL) and more.

Aditya AK: What challenges did you face while setting up a law firm in a niche field?

Nandan Kamath: I always knew that I wanted to do something on my own. I decided to study and then work abroad for a few years before that. After three years, in 2006, I came back here with a strong desire to work in the field of sports.

I spoke to a number of athletes and cricketers and found that they were being very unprofessionally managed, so things didn’t look very optimistic. I did a few other things initially, for example going beyond the legal aspect and doing the athletes’ commercial work, sort of like a sports agency. The groundwork that I gained during those couple of years was hugely valuable for what I do now. I understood the business side of representation, sponsorships, endorsements, etc.

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“The minute the IPL came in, the standards for documentation for sports ventures went through the roof.”

The game changer was the IPL. The minute that came in, the standards for documentation for sports ventures went through the roof.

In the first IPL, we did some IP rights protection work. It was an area where no one in the country was an expert. Setting up a sports law practice seemed like a risky decision in 2006, but by 2008-2009, you would be asking yourself, “Why wouldn’t you have done it?”

Sports law isn’t really a body of law in itself in India. It’s all about practicing commercial law with an understanding and sensitivity to sport. All your legal decisions are taken with full knowledge of sports environment. In the last 2-3 years, it has become a pretty mature area of practice.

Aditya AK: Would you say there is an increasing demand for sports lawyers in India today?

Nandan Kamath: Absolutely, especially with broadcasters getting more proactive. For example, Star Sports has a large legal team; they are called upon not just to do broadcast contracts, they are rights owners in different sports leagues.

What we are seeing now is a clash of ideologies, with sporting India meeting corporate India. You need someone to be the translator, especially because corporate India is getting to global standards of governance in terms of documentation, accountability and transparency. Sporting India is coming from a different place. Yet all the models that are taking sports forward are corporate models – franchise leagues, tournaments etc.

So we need to have translators – and lawyers are really well placed to play that role – to translate the passion of an athlete with the rigour of a corporate. Lawyers help people to talk more openly and reach levels where they are speaking the same language.

Aditya AK: What are the intricacies involved in sponsorship and endorsement deals in the IPL?

Nandan Kamath: I think it’s a very interesting model; for the first time, it decentralised selections and sponsorship sales. While the IPL can sell central sponsorships, suddenly you have eight other people actively trying to bring money in. The sport has now reached places in India it has never reached before. So you have people having to go out and build new fan bases and the franchise model has worked well in that respect.

The intricacies are in balancing rights and making sure that the rights that have been granted are what you are passing on to sponsors. A fair bit of sponsor education is required; very often it is misunderstood as to what you are buying. If a sponsor associates with a team, they sometimes think that they are associated with the league itself. A lot of our work entails drawing those boundaries and monitoring and enforcing infringements.

We do a lot of sponsor education and IP rights education. It is interesting work, because it is law in practice. You walk into a stadium and see what the hoardings are; are the right amounts of space and priority of sponsors being given? We also try to prevent ambush marketing. There is also internet monitoring, looking the way names and logos are used.

Aditya AK: Your firm had also made some inputs for the Lodha Committee report on cleaning up sport in India.

Nandan Kamath: They engaged us to understand how conflict of interest, player-agent licensing, governance etc. are dealt with by international sporting bodies.

I think there is little choice left with the BCCI. The Supreme Court has been quite clear that they want the recommendations to be implemented. The Lodha Committee’s report is a bellwether for any sports federation today. It sets standards for the separation of governance and management. What we need now is a core of professionals managing sport. Till now, it has been run by a bunch of freelancers working in federations, or by people who are also selectors or coaches. The report was appropriate for this stage of the development of the sports industry.

CJI RM Lodha
“The Lodha Committee’s report is a bellwether for any sports federation today.”

For instance, someone would be working in a public sector bank in the daytime and in the evening he was a cricket coach.

The Lodha Committee turns that on its head; it says that some people can be governors while doing other things, but if they are managers, they have to be whole-time managers, doing nothing else.

The conflict of interest rules are a step ahead of their time. They segment activities; for instance, if you are a commentator, you can’t be a coach. There are people stuck in the previous system today that are going to find these rules unfair, but if anyone is going to recommend reforms, there is no point in recommending something incremental to dealing with the people who are stuck in the system.

They might seem radical, but were so obviously needed.

Aditya AK: The Committee also recommends legalisation of betting. 

Nandan Kamath: I understand the principle on which that suggestion was made, that it is happening anyway, so better to regulate than to prohibit. The second reason is a matter of revenue; it is a huge opportunity for the state to tax it. The most convincing argument is the impact it will have on match fixing. If you have a licensed betting industry, you will find triggers to show if any unusual betting activity is taking place.

Aditya AK: Do you think doping occurs as a result of awareness on the part of the athlete?

Nandan Kamath: I don’t think it is an awareness issue any longer. There’s a huge moral relativism issue that has come into doping. So the question was if you are in a corrupt system, are you being corrupt? Unfortunately, there’s so much cynicism about sport today; in terms of credibility, we are at our lowest point.

Doping is just one of the issues in sport today. We tend to elevate the athlete to a pedestal and say, ‘You need to be absolutely clean’, while the entire atmosphere around him is decrepit. Everyone is outraged by match fixing in the IPL, but what is happening around you in the environment?

Another huge issue is age fraud; people change their dates of birth to participate in under-19 tournaments. This is usually facilitated by parents and coaches. You are being told that cheating is an essential part of winning.

So for me, it is not about education, but about ethics. I think every athlete knows what substances are banned. The question is whether after knowing, you are making the right decision.

Aditya AK: What is the legality of fantasy sports leagues online?

Nandan Kamath: The issue there is whether games are games of skill or games of chance, and what are the standards used in determining that. A lot of our work is looking at the dynamics of the rules of the game to increase the skill element over the chance element. We also back up the analysis to show that the most skilled person wins all the time. So we try to build the actual game architecture, which is quite unusual for lawyers.

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“The issue is whether games are games of skill or games of chance.”

Essentially what you are doing is translating a physical game to a digital version. The question is whether you are keeping all the dynamics of the real game alive.

There has been a little judicial confusion on this lately. One court said that the moment it turns digital, it is not about skill at all, which I think is missing the point. The argument we make is functional equivalence; if the same function is being replicated digitally, there is no reason for the law to treat it differently.

Aditya AK: What do you think of sports law being taught in law school as a subject?

Nandan Kamath: We worked with the Sports Authority of India on a Sports Law course at NLSIU Bangalore, and I taught a few of those modules. There is no shortage of interest in the subject; the issues you engage with are very different and very real.

All our team members are encouraged to go back to their law schools and talk about sports law, maybe even teach courses and build curricula over time. It will never be a core subject, but I think anything that encourages people to engage with the law at an applied level will pique interest.

People love sport, and the minute you relate to something, it gets you excited, it’s not just book learning. I think sports law has that element of engagement that any student or professional is going to enjoy.

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