UK Sport Selling Olympic Athlete IP? Not On

Times are tough, and the lead-up to the London Games, UK Sport is short on cash – reportedly £50 million short.

What to do, what to do? Apparently, the answer is to package up all of the British athletes, call it “Team 2012”, and sell it to sponsors. The issue is whether UK Sport has a right to sell the images of athletes who want to retain control of their own “brands”.

There is a good rundown on the situation by the Guardian.

They are requiring athletes to sign the Team 2012 agreement, assigning their rights to UK Sport. Unfortunately for UK Sport, the country’s marquee sportspeople are loathe to sign, as they believe it undercuts their ability to profit from their own marketability. And frankly, I think they’re right. If they sign, they are essentially setting themselves up for ambush marketing by sponsors of Team 2012, using their own images!

On one hand, there is the argument that not signing the athlete agreement is biting the hand that feeds them – literally. Athletes are paid a tax-free stipend by UK Sport, ranging from £12,000-26,000 per annum, an amount that phases out as an athlete’s sponsorship income increases.

On the other, it’s not like this investment is just some altruistic gift to the athletes. The UK spends money to create a medal-winning machine. It supports the national psyche, promotes exercise and sport for adults and children, and underpins revenue streams from the team’s participation in the Olympics and World Cups and selection trials, yada yada yada.

And, frankly, what is UK Sport going to do about it? They are not going to prohibit selection of those athletes for the team, because everything from public expectations to television rights fees ride on the anticipation of a high medal count for the UK.

My two cents worth? I think that signing away IP rights should be required only if an athlete is accepting a stipend from UK Sport. If an athlete is making, or anticipates making, enough money from corporate sponsorship that they don’t need the stipend, then they don’t have to allow the UK Sport to sell their image.

Yes, that may reduce the value of Team 2012, but it really depends on how they frame it. If UK Sport promotes Team 2012 as a one-stop shop to get access to images of the top athletes, then the premise is faulty from the start. If, on the other hand, UK Sport promotes sponsorship of Team 2012 as being about the development of homegrown athletes into a team that proudly represents the UK, that in and of itself has enormous marketing value, whether it is fronted by big names or not.

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