Sports Ticker (23 December 2021) - Women's Rugby Association, 2022 Winter Olympics boycotts and F1's thrilling finale - a speed-read of commercial updates from the sports world

Published on 23 December 2021

With Christmas only round the corner, the past fortnight has been particularly busy for the world of sport.

With Premier League and EFL clubs choosing to fulfil festive fixtures despite ongoing COVID-19 disruption, this final Sports Ticker for 2021 features the controversial finale in the F1 season, World Rugby's NFT launch, and the formation of the Women's Rugby Association. We also take a look at a potential legal loophole on pitch invaders in women's football, diplomatic boycotts of the 2022 Winter Olympics, as well as Arctos Sports' private equity investment in the NHL.

As always, if there are any issues on which you'd like more information (or if you have any questions or feedback), please do let us know or get in touch with your usual contact at RPC. The RPC Sports group wishes you a very merry Christmas and a happy New Year!

Mercedes hits the brakes over appeal of controversial season finale

The F1 season ended with drama in Abu Dhabi, as Red Bull Racing's Max Verstappen snatched victory from Mercedes AMG Petronas' Lewis Hamilton on the final lap. The two drivers had been level on points going into the winner-takes-all race. However, the result was marred by controversy surrounding decisions of race director Michael Masi, particularly in relation to whether Masi complied with the FIA's Sporting Regulations. Despite Mercedes' frustrations with the outcome of the race and the subsequent decision of the stewards to reject Mercedes' protests, Hamilton's team ultimately decided not to appeal to the FIA's International Court of Appeal. This was apparently, in large part, a result of the governing body promising to perform a detailed analysis of the events and undertake a review. It was particularly interesting to see how tooled up Mercedes were for a possible dispute, having flown out a sports QC – who was ultimately needed in the most pressurised of environments.

New Women's Rugby Association formed

The first players' union in women's rugby has been formed to support players in the Allianz Premier 15s. One apparent catalyst for the new association was Wales and Bristol flanker Alisha Butchers having to crowdfund for an operation to repair ankle ligament damage earlier this year. The Women's Rugby Association (WRA) has been established with the stated aim of providing a collective voice and support for Premier 15s players. In supporting players, the WRA intends to offer guidance in negotiating player contracts and commercial agreements, and will advocate for the implementation of increased and consistent medical and welfare provisions across the league. Co-founding the association, former England full-back and World Cup winner Danielle "Nolli" Waterman has been appointed as CEO, which will also be governed by a Players’ Board consisting of one player from each Premier 15s club.

Technicality allows pitch invader to avoid repercussions

Chelsea Women's Champions League game against Juventus took an unsightly turn as a spectator invaded the pitch in stoppage time. The pitch invader, who was wandering around the pitch attempting to take selfies with players, was knocked to the ground by Chelsea star Sam Kerr. Whilst Kerr was subsequently booked, the incident revealed what seems to be a worrying loophole in the law, which left the Chelsea invader without punishment under existing legislation (the spectator has been suspended by the club). Under section 4 of the Football (Offences) Act 1991, it is an arrestable offence if a fan enters the playing area alongside a fine of up to £1,000. However, the law only applies to "designated matches" - the definition of which surprisingly still does not include any women's matches. A group of MPs, including Tracey Crouch, has subsequently written to the Under-Secretary of State for Sport in an attempt to close the lacunae.

 World Rugby tries NFT launch

Non-fungible tokens (NFTs) are obviously on everybody's lips as we head into 2022, and World Rugby has not wanted to miss the boat - announcing a 'Request for Information process' for interested parties to join its Digital Collectibles initiative and co-develop NFTs. The digital collectibles and experiences will be underpinned by the blockchain network and will prospectively allow existing and new fans to buy collectibles, fan tokens, trading cards and select moments from both the men's and women's World Cups. The initiative is set to try and cultivate a more digital native fan base, growing the sport of rugby beyond its more traditional fan-base and enable fans to participate and stake their ownership in unique digital assets.

2022 Winter Olympics diplomatic boycotts

The Beijing Winter Olympics are just around the corner; however, the games are already facing high profile challenges – with many major countries announcing diplomatic boycotts. Both the UK and Canada have recently announced that they will join the boycott, which was started by the US and Australia last week reportedly due to alleged human rights issues involving China's Uyghur population. It means that the boycotting countries' diplomatic representatives will not attend, but does not prevent athletes competing for their respective nations. The Olympic boycotts are also adding fuel to the sporting fire with the Women's Tennis Association also suspending all tournaments in China due the concerns raised over the safety of Peng Shuai, who brought forward allegations of sexual abuse by Chinese political leaders.

Extra time...

…and finally, private equity investment in sport has been a constant theme in 2021. We have featured PE investments in the IPL (Ticker 50), professional tennis (Ticker 40) and the Six Nations (Ticker 34). The NHL looks to be the latest professional sports association to welcome private equity investment with the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Minnesota Wild reportedly selling minority stakes to Arctos Sports Partners. The NFL is the only major US male professional sports competition without provisions for institutional ownership with the NBA, MLB and MLS all amending their ownership rules to allow for such investment. Could 2022 be the year…?