Ojonoka Agudah. Head of Legal and Women's Sport at Integral
Intellectual Property and Innovation, LLM Class of 2016

Breaking Barriers and Championing Women's Sport

Meet Ojonoka, a legal expert and advocate for women's sport. As Head of Legal and Women’s Sport at Integral, she's making waves in the industry. Discover her inspiring journey since graduating from Swansea in 2016.

How did you end up at Swansea University?

I had already done my Law degree in Nigeria and I knew I wanted to do a Masters in intellectual property law. I was looking at Universities in the UK. I liked the fact that Swansea was campus based. I knew it rained a lot in Swansea but the beach was beautiful and that helped to make my decision.

Can you tell us a little bit about your time in Swansea?

I lived in Ty Beck House which was great because a lot of my course mates where there. I enjoyed my Intellectual Property classes with Andrew Beale OBE very much. I consider my learning with Andrew to have been very influential in my career and he encouraged me towards this path of IP in sports.

I got to meet people from different cultures and backgrounds, and I hung out with friends. I’m still in touch with lots of them and while in Paris a couple of years ago, I visited one of my Uni friends. Being post-grads we spent a lot of time in the library, a lot of my best memories of Swansea are from the library as that is where a lot of my classmates were, and looking back, there were lots of fun moments in between writing our dissertations, but if weren’t in the library we were on the beach or having a get together in someone’s flat!

I also got to take part in an exchange programme with 3 of my classmates in the University of Nanjing in China. That was a fantastic experience that I enjoyed greatly. I was also awarded the IP Wales Prize for being the best student in intellectual assets management & transactions module and on course to finishing with a distinction and the prize came with a work placement program being a research assistant with Andrew Beale. That was amazing and came out of nowhere.

The annual Law Dinner is also a fantastic memory. It was a wonderful opportunity to talk to the lecturers and professors in a relaxed and friendly environment.

What inspired you to pursue a career in Sports Law?

I always wanted to be a Lawyer. I grew up watching law programmes like Ally McBeal so I thought I wanted to be a litigation lawyer. In all the programmes you would see lawyers in courts and I thought that was it. I never thought I would do anything in sports. Sports lawyers were not particularly visible at the time and I didn’t see any that looked like me so I didn’t give it much thought. Interestingly, it was my lecturer, Andrew Beale who got me thinking about sports law. He knew I was fascinated by IP Law and he put that in the context of the knowledge economy, the role of innovation and licensing and especially how it all related to sports. His lectures helped me see where I could have an impact in sports, even though sports law is a broad area and I’ve had to carve my niche.

How would you explain your job to someone who knows nothing about Law?

Sports lawyers are usually the people behind the scenes. You don’t see them, but nothing can happen without them. Everything you see is based on contracts. When you see the Fly Emirates Logo on an Arsenal shirt for instance, it’s the lawyers that pull all that together to ensure each party gets mutually beneficial rights, that each party gets its contracted rights delivered Or when you watch a match on TV, it’s lawyers that have ensured that the broadcaster you are watching the match on, has the necessary rights to bring that match to you in your home. For instance, we had the free-to-air media rights for the Premier League in Nigeria a couple of seasons ago and I was responsible for making sure firstly, that the terms of the contracts were favourable, we were using the Premier League IP correctly in any communication put out, the number of matches agreed to were delivered and more. In a sense the Lawyer is the glue that holds the business structure together.

What are some of the biggest challenges you have faced as a lawyer in Women’s Sport and Sports generally, how have you overcome them?

Women’s sports in Nigeria, is still developing. There are a lot of professionals coming into the sports space but it is still a young market. People still don’t understand the role of Lawyers in this space or see the value that Lawyers bring to sport. Also, being a woman in a male dominated industry is in itself a challenge, because often I'm the only woman in a room full of men. Getting people to understand the value I bring is a challenge when they don’t see or understand sports as a business.

I grew up loving sports and my love of sports trumps everything, it’s a passion of mine so even if I wasn’t working in a sports related field, I would still be watching and taking part somehow, So my passion for sport and love for what I do keeps me going. I’m also seeing the things that are possible, the role I can play in the industry. You also get to a point where you realise it’s not just about you. I know there are lots of young girls who love sports that might get told that sport is for men. But, for them to see there is someone like me or other women in this space then it is possible for them to dream of working in sports and natural for them to be in this space. There is nothing wrong with women loving, playing and working in sports.

How do you see the field of sports law evolving over the next 5 -10 years. Especially with regard to women’s sport?

As women’s sport continues to grow, I think it’s good that lawyers are involved from the beginning with a chance to play a part in organically growing that space. Men’s sport is huge and lawyers are working more in what is an established space. However, in women’s sport, I think lawyers have an opportunity to grow with them, to help put structures in place and avoid mistakes made in men’s sport.

Also, I believe Sport is in a space where they need lawyers more than ever and not always strictly in the legal sense, but they can help with the commercial and legal structures to maintain transparency which will be crucial to governance and commercial growth over the next 5-10 years. In most international sports organizations and even federations for instance, you seem to find that the people at the helm of the commercial or media rights are often times lawyers by training and it is in positions such as these I think, that understanding the commercial & business side of sports alongside legal knowledge is really essential.

What is a typical week like in your job?

No two days are the same, it can be unpredictable and fast-paced. There are a lot of contract reviews or drafting of contracts. I could be in negotiations with clients and being a full-service sports marketing and management company, I could also be dealing with athletes on contract negotiations or activations for brands all at the same time. I could also be away from my desk quite a bit working with colleagues on client activations or even scouting players.

An example of a memorable project might be when we worked on the FIFA Women’s World Cup in France in 2019. We were appointed as exclusive sales agent of Match Hospitality in Nigeria for the FIFA Women’s World Cup France 2019 Official Hospitality Programme. This was the first time there was an appointed agent in Nigeria for the FIFA Women’s World Cup Official Hospitality Programme and it felt good to be playing our own little part in promoting women’s football in Nigeria. Taking some fans from Nigeria to watch and cheer on the Nigeria Super Falcons’ in France and enjoy a great fan experience was a wonderful moment. More people watched the Women’s World cup in France in 2019 than the Superbowl so it was great to be able to contribute to the growth of the women’s game on a global scale. It was great to see people from Nigeria and across the world travelling outside their own country to watch women’s sport.

What in your opinion is the most pressing issue in women’s sport today and what role can law play in addressing that?

For me, I would say lack of investment driven by the perception that nobody watches women’s sport. However, look at the 2023 March Madness women’s basketball in the US. It drew in viewing figures averaging 9.9 million viewers per game. That is on a par with the NBA games, and this is just women’s college basketball. Also, women’s champions league attendance is consistently growing, 2023 Australian Open women’s final was the most viewed match etc. So really, it’s not that nobody watches women’s sport, they do, especially when it is made accessible to watch and attend, but it’s a perception that it won’t bring in as much ROI. But to get an ROI there needs to be an investment and of course, firstly, the product needs to be marketable which is the responsibility of the rights holder.

The role lawyers can play in this instance, and it's similar to what I do generally in terms of intellectual property law in actively helping build a commercial property so from registering the IP rights (trademarks, copyrights etc), to packaging and managing the commercial rights -media rights, sponsorships, licensing, etc that can help to make women sports a marketable property and then developing the women athletes’ brands, making them household names as much as their male counterparts. These all require involvement from every stakeholder in the business to be honest. I love what Nike did with their Dream Crazier campaign. They put women front and centre and challenged stereotypes. The Guardian and BBC now are dedicating time to women’s sport, they are making it accessible, so people are watching it and are seeing it when they open their newspaper. These things are helping to re-frame women’s sport. With the games being more accessible and the media playing their part in ensuring visibility, investment will follow and if we all work together, we can make a change.

"I love what Nike did with their Dream Crazier campaign. They put women front and centre and challenged stereotypes."

How do you approach advocating for women's rights and gender equality in your work as a lawyer?

Yes, it’s a bit of a balance. But at the end of the day, even just being myself as a woman, being in the space with the men, being in a space where you are able to give that diverse view you can make a difference.

When you're a woman that understands that this is what I go through as a woman, so this is what the women athletes are going through, it’s easier to be able to advocate for those rights. It's easier to be able to see those maternity rights for instance, are important to create an enabling culture for women athletes to thrive. Are we making it easy for women to come back after childbirth. We all saw Serena Williams come back and win a Grand Slam after giving birth and this is what we should be enabling. So as women, sometimes it’s not even necessarily being an intentional advocate, but to be able to give that diverse view in spaces that are largely male dominated. Sometimes, being able to just bring to the forefront or highlight an inequality, problems women face can make a difference.

What advice do you have for young women who are interested in pursuing a career in law or in sports law?

First of all, just know that it's perfectly okay to want to work in sports. And personally, for me, I think what has helped me overcome the challenges of being in a male dominated space, Is that you need to fully understand the area that you are working in. You need to be up-to-date with what’s going on in your space, make sure you are knowledgeable and build your expertise.

Make sure you're working hard, so when you come into the space, even if you are the only woman, If you know what you're doing, know what you're speaking about, people will listen. So, it's important to be knowledgeable. It's important to read wide so that you're able to be on top of what's going on in the industry, and truly understand the industry and business you are in, especially when you are an in-house counsel.
In terms of advocating for gender and equality in the space is to always remember, as long as you're in that space, you are a representation, not just for young girls. For me, I think the representation is even more for young boys to see that it's normal to have a lawyer who is a woman. It's normal to have a coach who is a woman. Also, representation doesn't mean that you're putting any pressure on yourself to do something extraordinary, but just being in that space each day means you are representing for equality.

2023 March Madness