Liz Ellen is a Partner and Head of the Sports Group. Her practice is solely focused on sport, and has a particular focus on the Far Eastern sport industry. She is often consulted by Chinese football clubs, Asian investors looking at European opportunities, and by clubs, players and agents seeking to do business in the Far East. Liz is a director of Women In Football (WIF), a member of the Beyond Sport Advisory Board, a founding member of Women In Sports Law (WISLaw), and a member of the British Association of Sport and Law (BASL). Since 2014, Liz has run the Mishcon Sports Law Academy – an educational course where aspiring lawyers can learn about a wide range of sports law issues from the lawyers who manage those cases.
I always wanted to work in sport. At the age of 16 I wanted to be a sports lawyer, sports journalist or a sports doctor, and ultimately chose the law as it seemed to be the broadest option of the three.
I did my degree at SOAS (School of Oriental & African Studies), University of London, where the students and subjects were particularly diverse, and often with a Far Eastern focus. My Mum is Chinese so the culture and language has always been an interest. Having that cultural understanding from my family and upbringing has meant I’m often well-placed to help bridge the gap between East and West.
China’s influence in the sports space has grown pretty quickly. In the space of a few years, there is a lot of interest in what’s happening in the sports industry in China, and brands are actively considering their China strategy. The Chinese Super League has taken most of the headlines because of the jaw-dropping deals that have been offered to some of the most famous names in football. There is pressure and a desire from the President Xi to develop football in China, and that has led to some of the biggest construction companies in China to invest in the industry – both at home and abroad.
The Chinese government have also spoken about the need to get more women and girls involved in football as they see the value of team sport for the development of future female leaders in business. A deal I really enjoyed work on was arranging for the Chinese National Girls’ Under 14 team to come and play a football tour in England. They played Chelsea, Arsenal, Tottenham and Birmingham, and even spent time training at the official England base, St George’s Park. It was special for the young English teams to observe and interact with the Chinese team – I remember the Chelsea girls squealing with surprise and delight when the Chinese girls lined up and bowed to them, to the referee and then to their coach at the end of a match.
Another project I have loved being involved in is Football Dream – a reality TV programme in China. Teenagers competed in a football talent show judged by football legends from the likes of Ajax, Inter Milan, Everton and Tottenham. The boys who made it to the final 20 players got to spend two weeks training with a European football club, and touring the city.
Something I respect about the Chinese approach to sports administration is the speed with which they act when they see something that isn’t working. For example, the Chinese FA stopped Chinese football clubs hiring foreign goalkeepers because it was stopping the development of homegrown keepers. When the Chinese FA realised that wealthy Chinese clubs were spending significantly over market rate to bring in top foreign talent, they introduced a tax that would require clubs to spend the same amount on grassroots development – to either deter excessive spending, or to ensure a domestic benefit.
A sport that has particularly flourished in China is the very English sport of snooker. The World Snooker Championships is watched by over 300 million people in China alone. They are developing some great young Chinese players too, so expect to see China dominate this sport in years to come.
I love going out to China. Culturally it is so different to Europe, but once you understand the importance of relationships and earning trust, then it is a great place to work. People are loyal and generous when they see you are committed. That’s one of my favourite aspects of working in China; you can build up strong relationships that will last a long time.
I don’t go out as often as I would like – maybe a couple of times a year. I studied at the prestigious Tsinghua University in Beijing last summer, living on campus. It allowed me to see the city from a different perspective. The Confucius Institute took 25 young professionals from London on a scholarship programme to China, to build a network, to study the language, and to learn more about Chinese business culture. I would recommend it to anyone wanting to do more in China, and you don’t have to speak the language to participate as they cater to all skill levels.
My favourite places are Dalian, Beijing and Taiwan. I was fortunate enough to visit Dalian for work, and found it was a beautiful city in the North. Beijing is the centre of everything in China, and has the benefit of being a place I visit for business and pleasure. But for family, food and amazing night markets, you can’t beat Taiwan.