General counsel panelists David Kelly of the Golden State Warriors, Ed Goines ’92 of the Seattle Seahawks, John Yow ’09 of the Oakland Raiders, Woodie Dixon of the Pac-12 Conference, and moderator Rich Brand of Arent Fox.
By Andrew Cohen
Sports law giants at the top of their game—including player agents, league presidents, and NBA general managers—tackled hot-button issues April 3 during a spirited conference hosted by Berkeley Law.
Six months in the making, the event fittingly took place in the University Club high atop Memorial Stadium. The all-star lineup included iconic football agent Leigh Steinberg ’73, Major League Soccer President Mark Abbott ’89, former National Basketball Players Association Executive Director Billy Hunter ’71, general managers Bob Myers and Pete D’Alessandro of the Golden State Warriors and Sacramento Kings, and former Warriors player Adonal Foyle.
Leaders of the Berkeley Journal of Entertainment and Sports Law organized the conference along with the law school’s Alumni Center. The journal hosted a smaller conference in 2014, planting the seed for a more robust event this year.
“We wanted to provide a medium for students interested in the law and business of sports and a platform for them to engage with people in the business,” said Nick Brokaw ’15, the journal’s editor-in-chief. “It’s very rewarding to play a role in solidifying Berkeley Law’s spot as a go-to school for sports and entertainment law.”
The first panel examined the increasingly blurred lines between athlete and entertainment representation—as well as the benefits and hazards social media poses to branding goals. Reed Smith partner Miles Cooley ’99 has represented music industry giants Rhianna, 50 Cent, and Jay-Z, and watched the latter branch out to represent athletes and become part owner of the NBA’s Brooklyn Nets.
“Jay-Z embodies this confluence of different cultural aspects like sports and entertainment,” Cooley said. “Sports are part of the nomenclature of hip-hop, which has helped him excel on different platforms.”
While acknowledging social media’s potential minefields, Cooley touted its surging importance in marketing athletes. Today, athletes that endorse products are routinely obligated to plug them on social media a negotiated number of times per month.
“Our clients want to use Twitter, Instagram, and similar vehicles to promote their brand,” Cooley said. “I think social media is the best thing to happen to marketing entertainers and athletes. It’s a direct pipeline and a fantastic opportunity to connect with their fans.”
As for evaluating an athlete’s endorsement potential, veteran sports marketing executive Mike Rielly—now an assistant dean at UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business—offered four simple criteria: “Ability to win, character, attractiveness, and an established platform,” he said.
Playing traffic cop
Over lunch, the general counsels from the Warriors (David Kelly), Pac-12 Conference (Woodie Dixon), and Seattle Seahakws (Ed Goines ’92) formed a panel with Oakland Raiders associate counsel John Yow ’09.
Goines described the role of team general counsel as a “traffic cop. You get hit with everything and anything.” Yow concurred, saying “day to day you could be dealing with sponsorship agreements, human resources, salary cap issues … you never know what’s coming.”
Success, panelists noted, hinges on seeing the forest from the trees. “As general counsel, you’re always thinking of the long-term cost-benefit analysis,” said Goines, who raised the example of a longstanding Seattle nail shop that was illegally selling a Seahawks-trademarked item. “We could have sent a cease and desist letter that said, ‘Stop using our logo,’” he explained. “But that would show we’re being hard-liners with a small shop that’s entrenched in our community. It wouldn’t be a strategically sound decision.”
Dixon discussed the balancing act between revenue generation and brand protection. He often plays referee, soothing tensions between the Pac-12’s advertising and marketing teams. “To sell at all costs doesn’t serve our conference’s brand or the interest of our 12 universities,” he said. “Can we sell ads for Hooters or Viagra, and if so when and how? As general counsel, you need buy-in from all your internal groups.”
Later, the conference took aim at stadium development issues, with a focus on Northern California sports organizations. Myers and D’Alessandro, both lawyers, then described the rigors of running an NBA team as general manager.
The closing session probed the rise of disciplinary issues in the major sports leagues. Its star-studded panel included Berkeley Law alums Steinberg (who revolutionized the sports agency industry and inspired the 1996 hit movie Jerry Maguire, Hunter (a former NFL wide receiver who headed the NBA players’ union from 1996 to 2013), and Greg Genske ’98 (a top baseball agent who also represents former Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston, the No. 1 pick in this year’s NFL draft).
“This law school has a rich and storied tradition in the sports industry,” Brokaw said. “We have a huge number of alums who are top agents, prominent lawyers, in-house counsel for teams, or serving as outside counsel and leaders at their respective firms. People know this school produces leaders in fields like social justice, politics, and environmental law, but they’re now starting to realize it also produces leaders in sports.”