Landmark Ruling for Soccer Clubs and Players vs. Bookies

18 December 2006

Real Madrid, P.S.V. Eindhoven, Imari, FC Porto and some of their players (Zidane, Beckham, Raul, Ronaldo and Luis Figo) recently lodged claims in France and Belgium against a group of major online bookmakers that includes bwin, Betfair, Ladbrokes, Miapuesta, Unibet, VC Bet and William Hill.

The basis of the legal actions was the control of the gambling business between soccer clubs and online bookmakers.

The claims assert that the betting companies have exploited the names and images of the football clubs and their star players for commercial purposes without the appropriate licenses and legal authorizations. Moreover, they ask that the companies be made to stop using the images and forced to "repair the harm caused."

On Nov. 24, 2006, the commercial court of Liège ruled in favor of the bookmakers.

"The court held that the use of players' images taken during soccer matches only served the purpose of illustrating a coming match (with these players) on the result of which one can bet. It did not pursue any advertising or promotion purpose," explained Belgian attorney Paul Van den Bulck, an attorney for the bookmakers and a partner of the Ulys law firm. "The court similarly held that players' name was only used as an element of information related to the object of betting."

Van den Bulck added, "Contrary to players' opinion, the use of their names can not be separated from the one of a commercial product when the bet is about the player himself. According to the court, it would be stupid to offer a bet under anonymous form. Such a bet would present no interest at all for any potential player."

The court also dismissed all claims related the use of the clubs' trademarks.

Van den Bulck explained, "Soccer clubs opposed to the use, in economic intercourse, of their marks (including soccer club names, players shirts and symbols) by online bookmakers. Referring to the Benelux Convention concerning trademarks, the court held online bookmakers had a valid reason for using, in economic intercourse, the marks of soccer clubs. The Liège court again stressed the fact it would be impossible for online gambling sites to offer betting on soccer clubs’ score without referring to their names."

The Liège case was the second victory for the bookmakers; The first level court of Paris in July 2005 dismissed an interlocutory claim lodged by the Real Madrid football club and some of its players against the same online bookmakers. According to Van den Bulck , the plaintiffs' arguments were dismissed because:

(1) The players' images, obviously coming from a football match picture, were not directly associated with the promotion of betting services.
(2) The players' images served only the purpose of presenting matches where the score is open for bet.
(3) The players' names were not directly associated with the promotion of betting services.
(4) The players' names were used only to remind potential gamblers of who was playing in the next match.

Van den Bulck said the similarity between the French and Belgian verdicts is striking.

"The rising importance of IP management among soccer clubs' financing sources," he said, "inclines some of them to get a grip on the huge incomes coming from the soccer and online gambling."

Rob van der Gaast has a background in sports journalism. He worked for over seven years as the head of sports for Dutch National Radio and has developed new concepts for the TV and the gambling industry. Now he operates from Istanbul as an independent gambling research analyst. He specializes in European gambling matters and in privatizations of gambling operators. Rob has contributed to IGN since Jul 09, 2001.