Stephen Lownsbrough was one of the first true sports lawyers. As he embarks on his retirement, he recalls a journey that has seen him work with the likes of Nike
For as long as he can remember, Stephen Lownsbrough was always going to retire when he was 60.
“My father retired when he was 65 and was dead by the time he was 68,” says the former head of sports at Blacks. “So I’ve always had a plan to step down at this time.”
Some professionals get sucked into working longer, whether it be for considerable financial gain, or just for the sheer buzz of it all. For Lownsbrough, nothing has made him change his mind, or question his timing. If anything, the changing face of the legal profession, and the untimely deaths of some former colleagues, have strengthened his resolve to step away.
“As time has progressed I’ve realised it was the right thing to do and I’m perfectly comfortable with why I set that plan in motion,” he says.
“You look through your career path and remember people who suffered serious illnesses and early deaths. A lot of them worked every hour that God sends effectively, and for what?
“Also, the legal profession has really changed over the years. As I often say to the students who I mentor at the University of Law, when I started out, you didn’t have computers on your desk, or ipads and iphones. You would have to have good technical skills. Whereas now, when you think about it, all that some lawyers do is go on the internet, print off a form and fill in the blanks. It’s all very IT-orientated.
“As you get older you perhaps realise that it wasn’t what you originally trained to do.”
Early career change
Lownsbrough’s career path hasn’t always been so carefully mapped out, however.
For starters, he didn’t even set out to become a lawyer. He opted to go into teaching sports and geography after university in 1977.
However, after a year in the job, Lownsbrough decided that teaching wasn’t for him. He took six months out to try and decide what he really wanted to do before applying to be an assistant to a partner at Last Suddards which later became Hammond Suddards.
After a few months at the firm he was asked if he had thought about a career in the law.
Enjoying the work he was doing at the time in the conveyancing team, he jumped at the chance to qualify.
Once qualified he became a commercial property lawyer, but he was soon to begin working in the area that would define his career – sports law.
When Bradford City went bust in 1982, many of its players were looking to renegotiate their contracts in a more professional manner. Grant Thornton, the accountancy firm dealing with the fallout from administration said that their contracts had effectively been written on the back of an A4 piece of paper. Someone was needed to knock them into shape.
Roger Suddards, the senior partner at Last Suddards recommended Lownsbrough. He started advising the players and started to become closely involved in some of their lives. He helped players such as John Hendrie and Stuart McCall in every aspect of their personal lives, including buying houses and sponsorships.
He built a rapport with the players he worked with, many of whom would turn to him for help when they were being transferred to a new club. After a while he also crossed paths with former Scottish international footballer Jim Pearson, who went on to become the head of Nike in the UK. Their meeting led to Lownsbrough working in conjunction with the American sports giant when it came to putting contracts together with their ambassadors, one of whom was a certain Eric Cantona.
Lownsbrough recalls how he was involved with the sports manufacturing company in the UK.
“People see Nike as it is today and its synonymous with football and the world of sport,” says Lownsbrough. “But Nike UK started above a baker’s shop in Durham.”
“In the late 1970s, some Nike executives came over to see Jim Pearson and Brendan Foster [the former athlete] and said, ‘we want to get into the British market, we’re an athletics company, how do we do it?’
“Jim Pearson suggested, if you want to get into the British market you need to get into football.
“The view was that it would never work. Pearson said, ‘trust me it will work’. He took them to a Liverpool Everton derby and they were blown away by the atmosphere. The following day they sat down with Jim and said, ‘here’s your agenda, show us how we can get into football’…. The agenda was a blank piece of paper!”
A real sports lawyer
His work has not been confined to the football or player contract arena, however.
In 2005 he acted in connection with Stan James, the betting company on the largest sponsorship deal in horse racing history at the time. And as recently as 2013, he advised in Marathon Bet’s sponsorship deal with Fulham FC, in another record-breaking deal.
A former advisor to the Monte Carlo Tennis Academy, he has also acted for tennis players, golfers and rugby players during his time.
“I suppose I was one of the first to develop sports law in its true sense,” he says. “I was doing sports law before it was ‘sexy’ and was ever known as sports law.”
“A lot of people say they’re sports lawyers, and often it’s because they support their local football team or they say they’ve acted for someone on a PI claim because they broke their leg on a Sunday morning playing football. Well, that’s not being a sports lawyer.
“And a lot of the big firms are very good acting for organisations and football associations and that’s fine, but essentially it’s corporate work.
“But I feel it’s about acting for the individual. Yes, I’ve acted for clubs before, but essentially I prefer to be acting for the individual. It’s a cradle to grave situation.”
He points to Robbie Savage, the football player, as an example. Lownsbrough acted for Savage when he first moved from Manchester United to Crewe Alexandra as a youngster. He now still helps him negotiate contracts for his work as a pundit with the BBC and BT sport.
“A sports lawyer is not something you automatically train for. You need to know a certain amount of the law, yes, but what you need is also common sense, knowhow, industry knowledge and a panoramic view.”
“That’s why I’ve always built my sports departments on industry knowledge. Because that is the one thing that lawyers don’t have. If you can tie industry knowledge to a legal framework, then you’ve got something quite unique.”
Packing the suitcase
Talking of unique, five years ago, Lownsbrough set up a sports professional services consultancy with Jim Pearson and former client John Hendrie.
The service, called CHOIX (and pronounced ‘choice’), is an association of specialists who work together, collectively and individually, to help organisations and individuals with their business requirements. Now boasting nine partners, it also offers professional mentoring, PR and brand management and media skills training to companies, partnerships, individuals and organisations.
Although this means that Lownsbrough won’t be hanging up his suit completely just yet, he and his wife have already planned to fit in a lot more travel into their lives, particularly as their two sons are rarely in the UK these days.
On of them lives in Copenhagen with his young family, working as a teacher, while the other travels the world as a tennis coach to one of the top women players on the WTA tour.
“We used to meet in Lanzarote for Christmas and New Year otherwise we’d never get to see each other,” says Lownsbrough.
“Now we’ll be doing a lot more travelling as my son’s on the WTA tour for 40 weeks of the year. We have plans to go to some of the major tournaments, as well as to see our grandchild in Denmark.”
“I may do some part-time consultancy once a week to pass on my grey matter knowledge from over 35 years in the law and the sport sector, but I don’t want to do more than that.
“I’ve been there and done it.”
This article is an amended version of an original feature that appeared in Leeds & Yorkshire Lawyer (Issue 138)