CIArb Features

Fair play off the field

16 Jan 2024

Arun Shibu explores the growth and development of international arbitration in the resolution of sports contract disputes.

In the dynamic realm of sports, where competition, reputation, and commercial interests intertwine, the sanctity of contractual relationships stands as an unyielding pillar. However, as the sports industry expands and evolves, so do the complexities of contractual disputes, necessitating a specialised dispute resolution mechanism that can transcend national boundaries and uphold the principles of fair play and equity. International arbitration has emerged as the pre-eminent instrument for addressing sports contract disputes. It provides a level playing field where athletes, sports organisations, and governing bodies can seek redress for grievances.

The historical context of sports contract disputes

Before the ascendency of international arbitration, sports contract disputes were primarily adjudicated within the confines of national courts. However, this approach faced several inherent challenges. Courts often needed more specialised expertise in sports law and the nuanced understanding of the industry's intricacies required to resolve these disputes effectively. Additionally, national court proceedings tended to become protracted and costly, particularly when involving parties from multiple jurisdictions. The establishment of the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) in 1984 marked a pivotal moment in the evolution of sports dispute resolution. CAS emerged as a specialised arbitral tribunal dedicated exclusively to addressing sports-related disputes, with a panel of arbitrators drawn from diverse legal and sports backgrounds. This specialisation enabled CAS to develop a body of jurisprudence tailored to the unique characteristics of sports disputes, further enhancing its authority and legitimacy in the sports world.

The rise of specialised expertise and codification of arbitration clauses

The growth of international arbitration in sports has been accompanied by the cultivation of specialised expertise among arbitrators. These individuals possess a profound understanding of sports law, doping regulations, contract intricacies, and the broader dynamics of the sports ecosystem. Their specialised knowledge ensures that disputes are adjudicated by experts who grasp the nuances of their industry, fostering trust and confidence among disputing parties. Another significant development has been the codification of arbitration clauses within sports contracts. These clauses stipulate that any disputes arising from the contract must be resolved through arbitration, providing clarity on the chosen dispute resolution mechanism. This has streamlined the dispute resolution process and allowed parties to select arbitration institutions such as CAS with expertise in sports disputes.

The global enforceability of arbitral awards

The global enforceability of arbitral awards has been a critical factor in bolstering international arbitration's role in the sports industry. The New York Convention on the Recognition and Enforcement of Foreign Arbitral Awards facilitates the enforcement of arbitration awards in over 160 countries, providing parties with a reliable mechanism for enforcing decisions globally. This cross-border enforceability enhances the uniformity and consistency of dispute resolution outcomes, promoting legal certainty and reducing the risk of disputes being relitigated in multiple jurisdictions.

The importance of confidentiality and reputation management

Confidentiality has emerged as a paramount consideration in an era where athletes' reputations and commercial interests are as valuable as their on-field performance. Arbitration proceedings, characterised by their private nature, shield sensitive information from public scrutiny. This confidentiality aligns seamlessly with the sports industry's need to manage reputational risks effectively and avoid public spectacle during disputes. It allows athletes, clubs, and governing bodies to address contractual issues discreetly, preserving their public image.

The publication of arbitral awards and the development of jurisprudence

The publication of arbitral awards and the establishment of legal precedents within the realm of sports arbitration have contributed to the growth of this mechanism. A body of jurisprudence has emerged as more sports-related cases are arbitrated, and their outcomes made public. This jurisprudential development enhances predictability and consistency in the resolution of sports contract disputes, providing legal guidance for future cases.

The globalisation of sports and transnational considerations

The globalisation of sports, with athletes, clubs, and governing bodies traversing borders and continents, has been a driving force behind the adoption of international arbitration. International arbitration naturally accommodates the transnational nature of the sports industry. Athletes and clubs frequently hail from diverse nations, and international arbitration provides a forum that transcends domestic jurisdictions, ensuring equitable and impartial dispute resolution.


The growth of international arbitration in the sports industry represents a triumph of jurisprudence and equity in an arena where competition, reputation, and commercial interests are paramount. This evolution is a testament to the sports industry's commitment to fairness, transparency, and the efficient resolution of contractual disputes. By embracing international arbitration, athletes, clubs, and governing bodies can compete on a global stage with the confidence that their contractual relationships will be subject to a just, specialised, and internationally recognised adjudicatory process. This complex trajectory underscores that, even in sports, principles of equity and justice can prevail off the field, fostering a harmonious and fair playing environment for all stakeholders.

About the author:  Arun Shibu BBA LLB (Hons), is a practising advocate in India. Arun has extensive experience in a variety of legal matters, having worked with organisations such as Jus Laureate, the Reserve Bank of India, and the Office of Assistant Solicitor General of India.