Last Updated on February 5, 2022
Interview with Professor John Grady
Bryan Haggerty of Sports Degrees Online interviewed Professor John Grady, who is just putting the finishing touches on the latest edition of his textbook, Law in Sport: Concepts and Cases. They discuss his journey into Sports Law at the University of South Carolina, his research interests, and advice he has for young people who are just charting their journey into Sports Law.
About Professor John Grady
Professor John Grady earned a Law degree and a PhD in Sport Management from Florida State University before beginning his career in academia at the University of South Carolina. He is a professor of Sport and Entertainment Management, teaching courses in business law and risk management, sport law, and risk and security management.
Bryan Haggerty: Professor Grady, your academic journey has taken you from management to earning a Law degree and Ph.D.
Professor John Grady: I started in management at Penn State in the business school, and then ironically, I ended up teaching the management of sport business as my career. This was never my intention. Sport management then wasn’t taught in a business school. Now, of course, its embraced because of the dollars around it and the sport business aspect.
But Management education at that time was focused more on big retailers like Walmart, and businesses like that. It was looking at supply chain, logistics, and those kinds of issues. Now, the sport industry is finding itself facing some of those same issues with the pandemic and interrupted supply chains, as well as labor shortages. So all the issues I learned about in mainstream business are now affecting sport business at a critical time. The point is sport business is not immune or isolated from the everyday issues that affect management, business, and decision-making.
After studying management at Penn State, I knew I wanted to go to law school. That was clear. But the sport aspect didn’t really come in until midway into law school when I met a sport law professor who was already at FSU but was not in the law school. My training was mostly in intellectual property so that’s where our interests matched up. I met the sport law professor named Dr. Annie Clement, and her background was in aquatics and then law. So again she came from sport first and then law, I kind of did the reverse. I did law first and then came into sport and learned sport at the graduate level with a Ph.D. Her request when she spoke to our sport law class was, “If there’s any of you that ever want to consider staying around doing a Ph.D., I always love to have a law-trained person who then I can teach to become a researcher.” That would be more like sport management research, academic research, not legal research. So I went up and talked to her, and the rest is history.
Currently, I describe my research focus as legal issues and sponsorship, but a lot of that focus is heavily grounded in intellectual property law, especially trademarks. Lately, my research has examined Olympic ambush marketing, and exploring the trademark and brand protection issues, especially on social media.
As far as career path advice, especially for those seeking a law path in sport management, it really speaks to finding a good and trusted mentor and recognizing how that person can really, really, truly change your career trajectory in one conversation. I promise you I had no intentions of doing a Ph.D. (in Sport Management) in the first or even second year of law school until I spoke with Dr. Clement that night. I’d always – especially from Penn State – seen professors and enjoyed hearing about their research and seeing them enjoying an academic life. So I think there was always a spark there for me. I just didn’t quite see how the law degree would lead to any other path than being a practicing lawyer. Where (Dr. Clement) mentioned the research idea, “I can teach you, I can train a lawyer to be a researcher,” was kind of her promise to me, and that’s what she did!
BH: Wow, that’s very cool.
Professor John Grady: One person can change your path. It’s really true.
BH: So at what point did you decide that you wanted to go into academia then?
Professor John Grady: Once I started pursuing a Ph.D., and I took the Florida bar and passed, and started leaning towards an academic route. But I [didn’t have] any desire to go start practicing law. It was pretty much an academic career and research and teaching focused. Again that was sort of a departure career-wise and planning-wise because you were planning for a career. I mean a lot of degrees, a professional degree trains you to be a practicing lawyer. It’s not to train you to be smart. It’s not to train you to be an academic. The academics in law school go to Yale and Harvard and those kinds of places. I was more going to be an industry-aligned discipline like sport management.
So I think for your athlete students, they have skills and interests and really experiences that I think can be shaped into something unique. It’s just finding which path in sport management might lead them. But the coaching contracts, the endorsement deals, the N.I.L. rights – that’s all leading down a legal path these days.
BH: Professor, I understand that you have just put the finishing touches on the latest edition of your sport law textbook which will be published I assume next year. First, congratulations. That’s quite an achievement. Can you tell us a bit about the book and what the scope is?
Professor John Grady: Sure. It’s the fifth edition of Law in Sports Cases and Concepts, and it basically looks at sport management and legal issues from the sport manager’s perspective. So it’s not trying to train the undergraduate or graduate student to be a lawyer. It’s training them to spot legal issues that might come up in the course of their work life and to know how to resolve those – whether it’s to call a lawyer or whether it’s to become better educated such as in risk management. But the idea is basically to teach them to be aware of legal issues and how they uniquely impact the sport industry.
BH: In reviewing your published research, you’re interested in the wide range of topics ranging from ADA implementations in sport, sport ambush marketing, and intellectual property, as you mentioned before. Can you tell us how you decide where to focus your research energy? And discuss some projects you’ve been involved with recently that you’re particularly passionate about.
Professor John Grady: I think [it’s important to finding a research passion that you like] – [for me] doing a lot of research around the Olympics makes it fresh and unique because each Olympics provides a new sort of case study of athlete issues, endorsement, and sponsorship issues and how the law will kind of be the umbrella over all those three topics. So each one provides kind of a new snapshot of how the Olympic event organizers are basically handling the legal issues that they face. So that keeps me kind of interested.
Turning back to the Olympics and ambush marketing, with social media it keeps the regulations changing often enough (with each Games), that it keeps me busy from a research perspective. My more applied research stream is my ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) research in stadiums, focused on stadium accessibility compliance issues. That’s really where more of my legal background that I brought to the Sport Management degree can be used. My research looks at how do you make stadiums and their programs and events truly accessible to people with disabilities? Now, that concept is really starting to broaden to be less about the physical accessibility of the facility – meaning ramps and wheelchairs for example- to now much more about inclusivity.
Specifically, how can you design your events to be inclusive to wider audiences such as people with disabilities, older people, children with autism, for example? So you’re starting to see the events try to reach out and be more ‘inclusive’ rather than using the term ‘accessible’ [to account for the fact that disabilities are not always physical in nature.]
BH: Thanks for explaining that, Professor.
Professor John Grady: For example, a venue could design a special low sensory experience such as breakfast with Santa but it would be a low stimulus event to make these customers feel comfortable. They could design or designate one game, event, or a session for people with special needs where they wanted a low sensory environment to enjoy the event with their family and friends.
BH: That makes sense. You had mentioned at the start of our talk about ambush marketing. Can you talk a bit about that and what aspect of that interests you?
Professor John Grady: Ambush marketing is typically where a non-official sponsor – meaning another brand that is not an official sponsor of the Olympics the event itself – tries to come in and “ambush” the official sponsors and tries to get some brand presence or exposure around the event They did not pay for the official sponsorship rights yet still try to gain some of the benefits that official sponsors get. A lot of my research has been around the legal aspects, the enforcement side, but also has looked at what’s unique in terms of the creativity that brands will use and that marketers and advertisers will use to obtain that brand presence without paying the exorbitant rights fees. So it’s really a perfect law and marketing blend.
Social media has really added an additional layer of complexity, but it’s also given marketers a lot of creativity and space to do things that are definitely within the bounds of the law, yet still get the message across that there’s an Olympic connection when in fact, they may have not paid for official sponsorship rights at all. It’s legally a bit complex yet ultimately often involves being a savvy marketer on social media.
BH: I can imagine that there’s tons of gray area these days, like you said with social media.
Professor John Grady: My colleague Professor McKelvey at UMASS often uses is “the gray areas of a law.” Ambush marketers thrive in the gray areas of the law, meaning not quite over the line, but somewhere near to the line, without going over it!
BH: Do you feel like those ambush marketers employ lawyers in order to know exactly where they might be able to get away? Or do they just assume that they’re going to freestyle it and get away with it?
Professor John Grady: I think their in-house counsel guides their efforts and kind of signs off on different campaigns. But I think the marketers now know where the line is, and they know just how to get right up to it without going over.
The legal side is that ambush marketing is rarely ever litigated because the brand that does the ambushing – or so-called ambushing – might be the one that gets ambushed next time. They’re not often willing to litigate because they don’t want to get an adverse ruling that says, “What you did was illegal under trademark law” or whatever other kind of unfair competition law. Instead, they want to keep thriving in that gray area of the law because it allows for some creativity and clever marketing to take over instead of paying, again, that heavy official rights fees.
BH: Professor, looking to the near future here, why do you feel that sports entertainment business law as a professional degree, as a professional field, could be a wise choice for young people out there looking to follow in your footsteps?
Professor John Grady: I think the technology changes are probably what’s guiding law to be a popular career and one [factor] that will really be changing a lot in the near future in sports. For example, NFTs, gambling legalization, different kinds of social media, and cryptocurrency. So you’re seeing technology really push and advance the law in other areas, those [areas] will eventually trickle into sports and have an impact on sports. So trying to figure out the NFT’s of players such as trading cards or different video compilations, it really is a wide-open legal sphere right now, and I think new younger minds who are more tech-savvy will be needed to sort of educate the lawyers on how these issues might be impacted when they affect sport.
BH: Looking at the evolution of technology, we always see all kinds of apps updating their terms and conditions, for example. Would you say that issues related to sport and tracking fan activity and that kind of data will continue to be an important issue?
Professor John Grady: I think the data privacy and collecting data on users, for example, having 5G in the stadiums is a good thing for fans and the fan experience, but it also starts to collect data about your customers. So there are some data privacy and data security concerns perhaps that are similar to other businesses. It’s just that sports has uniquely found that they can tap into a good customer demographic that other brands want to associate with. So if you are a season ticket holder of an NBA team you likely have enough disposable income to be a luxury car owner or a high-end watch consumer. Those customer profiles start to mesh together pretty nicely. So having that user data is quite valuable in sport.
BH: That’s a good insight. Shifting gears a little bit, at the University of South Carolina, you offer sport and entertainment management at the bachelor’s, master’s, and Ph.D. levels. Can you talk a bit about some of the strengths or highlights of your program in Sport and Entertainment Management at the University of South Carolina?
Professor John Grady: Sure. Our undergraduate program is highly ranked, and we attract a national student profile. We have the largest sport management program in the country and have among the most faculty at around 24 full-time faculty right now. The strength from the program at South Carolina is that we combine teaching from a business-based perspective, with a focus on both sport and entertainment business or sport and entertainment management. So we look at live events, sporting events, entertainment events, and ticketed live events as a kind of culminating experience for a fan whether it’s a concert-goer or a sports fan. That allows us to look at different business principles like marketing, finance, law, or organizational behavior within the context of sport and entertainment.
At the master’s level, we’ve also done a similar focus with sport and entertainment and also utilized faculty from industry which gives students a real-world perspective on how these issues are being deliberated in the sport industry in real-time.
And at the Ph.D. level the focus is, as you can imagine, a bit more on research, but it’s trying to figure out where the current knowledge base is and trying to promote critical thinking about where issues will impact sport and entertainment in the near future.
BH: What about future trends in the industry? Is there any advice that you have for students who would like to stay ahead of the curve in the field? Say, areas to focus in for students who are considering a master’s or a PhD?
Professor John Grady: Sure. As I mentioned, the technology issues and having a really strong working knowledge of the technology and social media platforms and how they can be used by sport enterprises – which would be teams or leagues or events is the future. It’s also an area that older professionals in the industry now don’t understand as well as their younger new employees. So becoming an expert in something like cryptocurrency or NFTs and how they might impact sport teams or endorsement opportunities would be a marketable skill that I think young talent can basically capitalize on as they enter this dynamic industry in sport and entertainment.
BH: My last question for you professor – are there any books or podcasts that you’d recommend for students and professionals who are trying to stay up on the latest in sports law?
Professor John Grady: Here are three podcasts that I recommend:
BH: Perfect. Thanks so much for your time, Professor Grady. I know you’re a busy man and I appreciate you.
Professor John Grady: I always have time for you, Bryan! Thank you