UK soccer stars may sue betting companies over player data profits

But the prevailing wisdom doesn't look good.

Craig Mercer/MB Media via Getty Images

The business of elite sports is awash with cash, with pro athletes having specific deals to cover every aspect of their lives. Now, a group of British-based footballers are raising the question as to who owns, and profits from, the data generated when they play. A report at The Athletic by well-connected journalist David Ornstein says that more than 400 current and former players have signed up to “Project Red Card.”

The project is being spearheaded by a company called Global Sports Data and Technology Group, co-founded by lower-league football manager Russell Slade. According to the company website, it’s offering “smart contracts” for professional athletes using blockchain, as well as gathering “fan engagement” data for sports clubs.

Rounding out the list of services is Sports Data Governance, with the company saying it is at the head of the charge to help people make money from athletic information. Project Red Card is part of this, and is looking to sue betting, gaming and data-processing companies for six years worth of lost money. It appears as if the players believe that their stats are being used without consent and without any sort of fee.

Naturally, we have some questions, including what data is included, where it’s being generated and who has ownership. If betting companies hire a third-party analyst to record things like sprints, goals, assists etc, there’s very little that the project can do. Only if the information has been collected inappropriately, would there seem to be any viable claim for compensation.

More importantly, it’s a long held principle of IP law that you can’t trademark or copyright a fact, which is in the public domain. You can’t, for instance, copyright the notion that Franklin D. Roosevelt was 32nd President, because that would be silly. There’s copyright in the words used, so you’d be breaking the law if you copy-pasted it and passed it off as your own work, but that’s nearly impossible to prove.

Project Red Card is based in the UK, but it’s likely that the courts would find similarly to the 2006 US case between Major League Baseball and CBC Distribution. CBC operated a fantasy league that took player names and stats from baseball games. MLB sued, saying that player names and the facts of each game were copyrighted, but lost. A federal court found that these statistics were true events that happened, and as such, were in the public domain.

Similarly, a UK case between the UK Football League’s data company, Dataco, and Yahoo UK, found that a fixture list was not copyrightable. The justification in that case was different, but such precedents might have a detrimental impact on any courtroom battles that unfold from this challenge.