TO PLAY OR NOT TO PLAY? THAT WAS THE QUESTION...

In the immediate aftermath of the announcement at 18:30 hours on 8 September 2022 of the death of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, UK sports governing bodies, their stakeholders, and national broadcasters had to hurriedly consider how best to reflect the solemn national mood and properly mark their respect. The England v South Africa Test Match had started (albeit typically rained-off for the day) and a packed program of football, horse racing, both codes of rugby, and boxing was due to follow on Saturday 10 September into Sunday 11 September. Scheduled to take place was a full diary of: Premier League, EFL & Scottish football; the St. Leger - the final ‘classic’ of the horseracing flat season and, on 10 September, the historic first-ever all-women’s boxing card to be broadcast on TV at a sold-out o2 Arena in London promoted by Ben Shalom’s Boxxer Limited. It all boiled down to one simple question: to play or not to play? Simon Pentol KC acts as external principal legal counsel to the Sky-exclusive boxing promoter Ben Shalom and Boxxer Limited. Being central to the decision-making process, he now gives an insight into the real-time dilemma faced by his professional client in unprecedented circumstances.

It had all started so well

Ours was a truly historic sporting occasion – never before had an all-female boxing card been put together to be broadcast live on TV. It was to be shown by Sky and had been syndicated to over 100 territories worldwide. The main event and chief support features multi-belt holders of the highest renown in exciting contests of longstanding and bitter rivalry. The remainder of the card includes three former GB Olympians and some of the most talented female fighters available who were to contest equally matched bouts.
 
The main event: Claressa Shields (USA) v Savannah Marshall (England) for the undisputed middleweight championship of the world. Self-proclaimed as the “Greatest Woman of All Time (GWOAT)”, Claressa holds the WBC, WBA & IBF middleweight belts. She is the only boxer in history, male or female, to hold all four major world titles simultaneously in two weight divisions and is a double Olympic champion. She is undefeated as a professional and her only defeat in a highly decorated amateur career was to Savannah Marshall. Savannah holds the WBO middleweight title, is also undefeated as a professional and as an amateur became the first British female world champion.
 
The chief support: Mikaela Mayer (USA) v Alycia Baumgardner (USA) to unify the WBC, WBO, and IBF super-featherweight world titles. A distinguished amateur, Mikaela holds the WBO & IBF world titles and is undefeated in an illustrious professional career. Alycia holds the remaining belt.
 
The two headline events presented an immense logistical and legal challenge with each of the four named fighters being individually promoted by separate and competing organisations.
 
That each promoter agreed to co-operate and co-promote with my client as the lead promoter for the entire operation, and personally attend fight night in this capacity, is a testament to the magnitude of the entire event. Even the legendary 90 year old Bob Arum, head of the giant US promoter (of Mikaela Mayer) Top Rank, had made the journey across the Atlantic.
 
Despite the status of the protagonist on view, this was no ordinary boxing promotion – it was history in the making.
 
Respective teams had made their way to London for the week.
 
Respective fighters had been in camp for weeks in training.
 
All the fighters had followed demanding regimes to maintain fitness and make weight in their respective divisions at the optimum time.
 
Hotel rooms had been booked, and all fighters and their teams were present and correct from the beginning of the week.
 
All but a few remaining cheapest tickets of the 20,000 available had been sold by midweek.
 
Spectators from throughout the UK and around the world had booked their accommodation and made travel arrangements to attend at significant financial and logistical costs.
 
After much planning, Sky programming, mainstream, and social media had kicked in to launch the event.
 
7 September witnessed a successful media day with the fighters on a boat trip along the Thames.
 
On the morning of 8 September, the world’s media was in attendance at the pre-fight press conference when simultaneously the sad news broke of the Queen’s extreme ill health . . . and everything was suddenly put on hold.
 
At 18:30 hours on the same day, the official announcement was made of the death of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II . . .
 
What to do for the best?
 
In short, no one knew.
 
The situation was unprecedented in our lifetime.
 
Would the event go ahead?
 
It was clear, however, that it would not be ‘business as usual'.
 
Firstly, the planned, open weigh-in scheduled for 9 September, complete with a firework display and attendant razzmatazz, had to be cancelled in favour of a closed, stripped-down operation.
 
Overnight, no decision had been made on whether the fight(s) would go ahead.
 
Force majeure terms were speedily re-read. Whereas we understood that contractual obligations were powerful & determinative in the overall scheme of things, we also understood our duty to mitigate losses.
 
Accordingly, negotiations were hurriedly commenced with the venue to secure the earliest available return date that would coincide with the fighters’ availability.
 
The British Boxing Board of Control ('BBBoC'), under whose auspices all UK boxing takes place, had not yet finalised its position.
 
Determinative guidance was awaited from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media, and Sport (‘DCMS’).
 
Guidance was forthcoming. Determinative it was not. Despite the long-term plans in place for the Queen’s eventual demise, this had not extended to what to do about sporting events that would have inevitably been arranged to coincide with the national mourning to be followed when the sad day arrived.
 
Unhelpfully, all the DCMS could tell us at 09:30 on 9 September was “there is no obligation” to postpone sporting fixtures and any decision to cancel was left “at the discretion of individual organisations”.
 
With that:
 
  • The FA which has long enjoyed Royal patronage decided to cancel all football at all competitive levels throughout the Kingdom throughout the weekend;
  • The British Horseracing Association which to has enjoyed centuries of Royal patronage, postponed the running of the St. Leger by 24 hours to Sunday 11 September;
  • The Test Match was rescheduled to commence on Saturday 10 September as a three day contest at which the first public rendition of “God Save the King” took place since 1952; and
  • Games of rugby (both codes) took place.

Competing Interests in our decision-making process

First and foremost, we recognised the overriding importance of observing all due solemnity and the sense of national mourning.
 
However, boxing is unlike any other sporting contest – the health of the fighters remains paramount. Fighters are finely-tuned and adhere to strict diets to ‘make weight’ at the official weigh-in that must take place at least 24 hours before fight time so as to allow for a sufficient period of re-hydration.
 
Postponement by 24 hours (like the St. Leger and Test Match) was not therefore an option.
 
Mindful of our contractual obligations and the inconvenience to which the fighters, their teams, and thousands of paying spectators would be put by cancellation, we had to look to the BBBoC.
 
The BBBoC was at all times minded to follow football’s decision and cancel as a fait accompli but risked legal suit for any losses incurred.
 
They and we looked therefore to our broadcast partner Sky.
 
Sky had already made the decision to suspend its coverage of sports news in favour of its coverage of the death of the Queen and if they were to broadcast our event, it would be solemn rather than the celebration we had always rightly intended.
 
By contrast, we were also aware of the European football matches that took place in the UK on Thursday night 8 September when it was far too late to cancel. In particular, we were minded of events at the London Stadium at which (my beloved) West Ham hosted FCSB of Bucharest in front of circa 50,000 fans within an hour or so of the announcement of the death of the Queen. Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II has long held a special place in the heart of the East End of London from her continued residence in London throughout the Blitz and visiting East London in 1944 by which she won the hearts of local people who lost loved ones and had their homes and businesses bombed to destruction in WW2. The Queen famously presented England & West Ham captain Bobby Moore with the Jules Rimet trophy in 1966 (now an iconic image) when he, together with his West Ham teammates Geoff Hurst and Martin Peters, were part of the England team that won the World Cup. And in May 2002, Her Majesty, together with Prince Philip, visited the then Wet Ham stadium at the Boleyn Ground to formally open the new West Stand as part of her Golden Jubilee celebrations.
 
At the game on Thursday night, giant screens displayed a portrait of the Queen “in memoriam”, there was an impeccably observed minute’s silence before kick-off together with an impromptu rendition of the national anthem and the mood before, during, and after the game was adequately sombre and reverential. The right balance was struck and the game took place. Should boxing and boxing fans be denied the opportunity to honour the memory of the Queen on the same terms at such a historic event?
 
All these conflicting considerations fell to be reconciled.
 
In the final analysis and in a situation pressured by time, we were left with no option but to adhere to the decision of the BBBoC to cancel.
 
Whether it was the right decision or a decision made out of fear of making the wrong decision will remain forever moot.
 
The venue, the fighters, their respective promoters, and teams were remarkably understanding, receptive, and supportive throughout.
 
The event has been rescheduled for 15 October 2022 and all accommodations will be made to the participants and ticket-holders that have been inconvenienced. The logistical upheaval and any cost will be borne by my client company and our broadcast partner Sky but rest assured the decision was not taken lightly.
 
As my client Ben Shalom put it, “sometimes other things are more important than sport” – the late legendary Liverpool FC manager Bill Shankly by his famous quote to the effect that “football is more serious than a matter of life and death” might have disagreed but maybe, for once, he was wrong?
 
About the Author
 
Simon Pentol KC is a Tier1 ranked Silk in Fraud (Crime) by the Legal 500 (2023). He has long advised individuals and organisations in all sports and sports-related matters especially football and boxing. He continues to act as external principal legal counsel to the Sky-exclusive boxing promoter Ben Shalom and Boxxer Limited. He is a long-term director of the British Association of Sport and Law (BASL).