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The Lawyer in the Corner: ‘It’s an unfortunate imbalance between boxers and the businessmen in the sport’

Sean O’Toole discusses his experiences representing fighters in the boxing world.

Photo courtesy Sean O’Toole

An interview with Sean O’Toole, legal advisor to a host of British boxers, including WBA super middleweight champion Callum Smith.

Getting into The Fight Game

“I took a conventional legal route out of university, qualifying as a dispute resolution solicitor at a good international firm. General contract disputes were my bag. “Right place, right time” saw me get involved in disputes in sports. I acted for Paul Di Resta when he was sued by Lewis Hamilton’s dad, a very hostile dispute involving allegations of secret profit. Around the same time, I started getting involved in a few boxing disputes, on the side of boxers having contract issues with promoters and managers.

“I am a sports fanatic; I competed internationally in Tae Kwon Do and had already begun white collar boxing. So I jumped at the chance to get involved in ‘sports law’.

“Then Joe Gallagher approached me and asked if I would be part of Callum Smith’s team. He explained that he didn’t want to see Callum make the same mistakes that some other boxers have made and he saw that having a lawyer in the team would help prevent these. More and more boxers are recognising the benefits of having a lawyer in their team.”

The Imbalance and Where Boxers Go Wrong

“Boxers and managers are often good at negotiating the financials but they can lack the expertise to interpret contracts and spot the risks. It is especially bad with boxers starting off their careers; they rarely seek legal advice and will sign contracts which tie them in for three years or more. They will just look at the numbers and think, ‘Yep, numbers look good and I’m grateful for the opportunity, where do I sign?’ But these long contracts contain a lot more than just the numbers. It’s very similar to other sports and a gripe that most athlete-focused lawyers have!

“It’s an unfortunate imbalance between boxers and the businessmen in the sport. You can always tell when a contract hasn’t been properly negotiated. It makes for a frustrating read when you’re handed a signed contract and a boxer says that he is now unhappy with the relationship and wants out.

“A typical scenario is when a boxer falls out with their promoter and wants to be released from the contract. If the contract is heavily favourable to the promoter, who no doubt had a lawyer draft it with the promoter’s position in mind, then the boxer faces an uphill battle. The contract should be sufficiently clear, cover off any ‘greys’ and contain all the promises that were made. The boxer is left either having to continue to work with the promoter despite the breakdown in their relationship, taking the legal route (costly and with risk), reaching a settlement or leaving the sport (if the contract even allows the boxer to retire on his own terms…).

“It’s this imbalance in power which led to me moving towards advising boxers on the contracts before they are signed – I focus on prevention rather than reaction.”

Making a Living as a Boxer

“The most surprising thing for me when I started working in the industry was how difficult it is for boxers to make a good living. The pay-per-view money is hot and there are some great opportunities in the US but the money doesn’t trickle down to the bottom. I was even shocked to see that British-level boxers make modest purses; incomparable to the amount a similar level footballer earns.

“But if you don’t get the opportunity to feature regularly on televised shows, then you’re left fighting on local shows. Those shows are unable to generate enough revenue to pay purses for boxers to live comfortably off. I am sure so many great prospects slip through the net. It’s not the same as football, where there is a huge scouting network picking up the best talent at early ages.

“There are plenty of very promising boxers that have not been able to get their break, especially if they struggle to sell tickets and are working full time jobs to pay the bills. A lot of it comes down to whether you get the break at the right time. Some of that is down to having the right team around you, some of that is luck.”

Taking a Gamble on the World Boxing Super Series

“I represented Jamie Cox and Callum Smith during Season One of the World Boxing Super Series. Their circumstances going into the tournament were very different. For Jamie, it was a great opportunity that came out of nowhere; a chance to fight for a world title and earn big purses, despite his profile and rankings not being at that level. In contrast, Callum was ranked No. 1 for the vacant WBC title and was considered one of the best prospects in the division. He went through a period of deciding whether to fight Anthony Dirrell for the vacant WBC title or challenge James DeGale for the IBF title. The tournament then complicated matters further.

“As a team, we look back with delight on the decision to enter but it was a gamble. He was a guinea pig for this new idea and we knew there was a risk the tournament wouldn’t last past the quarter finals. But we also knew that if it was a success, Callum would be part of something special.

“I have always had enormous respect for George Groves for being the only super-middleweight champion willing to put his title on the line. All the world champions were invited to join and the money on offer was much better than what was on offer outside the tournament. But there is a risk for the boxers: you lose control of when you box, where you box and who you box. It was funny because the champions that didn’t take part just sat on the outside calling out the winner.

“What the World Boxing Super Series did for the cruiserweights was sensational. It was a nothing division before the tournament. Few casual fans knew about Usyk despite him being a brilliant boxer. Four world champions in an eight man tournament.

“We look back with no regrets and despite some unpopular decisions being made by the organisers, I think they did a fantastic job. Now I’m looking forward to the Season 2 semi-finals, as a fan this time.”

Some Advice to Aspiring Sports Lawyers

“I frequently have aspiring sports lawyers asking for advice. I always say the same: get the basics right by becoming a good lawyer. It is not necessary to focus on sport at the start. Build those foundation skills, attend sports law events and keep reading up on law in sport.

“I don’t believe ‘sports law’ is a separate area of law. A contract in boxing is still subject to the laws of England and Wales, not the laws of the British Boxing Board of Control. The Board are required to apply the laws of England and Wales according to the same principles as in other types of cases. The key though is understanding the nuances of the sport, just like any lawyer needs to understand the sector they’re in.”

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