A Report on Harvard Law School’s 2024 Sports Law Symposium

May 3, 2024

By Alec Winshel and Hugh Reynolds

Harvard Law School’s Committee on Sports & Entertainment Law (CSEL) hosted its 2024 Harvard Sports Law Symposium over the last two weeks. Read our coverage of the symposium’s notable events and speakers from JSEL’s Hugh Reynolds and Alec Winshel.

On Tuesday, April 9th, the 2024 Harvard Sports Law Symposium began with the presentation of the 2024 Paul C. Weiler Awards.

Students, practitioners, and professors gathered on Harvard’s campus to present this year’s distinguished award to Brandon Etheridge, Senior Vice President and General Counsel of the Baltimore Ravens.

Mr. Etheridge oversees all legal, compliance, and risk matters for the Baltimore Ravens Limited Partnership, the M&T Bank Stadium, and the Baltimore Ravens Foundation. His academic career began at Yale University, where he also played on the school’s football team. He then matriculated to Harvard Law School and earned his J.D. He has since been honored on Forbes’ “30 Under 30” list as one of the sports world’s “brightest young stars.” Professor Peter Carfagna, head of Harvard Law’s Sports Program, presented Mr. Etheridge with this year’s award at an in-person ceremony on the Harvard Law School campus. Other stars of the sports world–Jeff Pash (GC of the NFL), Jihad Beauchman (GC of the San Francisco 49ers), Mike Zarren (VP of Basketball Operations for the Boston Celtics), Megha Parekh (EVP of the Jacksonville Jaguars), and Ashwin Krishnan (Head of Legal & Business Affairs at Betr)–joined to share stories of Mr. Etheridge’s excellence as a colleague.

The presentation also included awards for outstanding students. Kellen Duggan ‘24 and Peyton Bush ‘24 received the Paul C. Weiler Scholar Award. Sam Spurrell ‘24 was honored with the Paul C. Weiler Writing Prize.

On Wednesday, April 10th, the symposium hosted a panel on the globalization of investments in sports. The panel featured Russell Benjamin Hedman, a partner at Hogan Lovells; Chuck Baker, a partner at Sidley Austin and Co-Chair of the firm’s Sports & Media Industry Group, and Theresa Smith, an associate at Proskauer Rose. The panel was moderated by Chris Deubert, Senior Counsel at Constangy, Brooks, Smith & Prophete, and former General Counsel of D.C. United.

The panelists discussed the value of sports teams as investments. Baker described that teams have traditionally been trophy assets: tremendously prestigious with a limited supply and prone to appreciation in value despite interest rates, recessions, and even global pandemics. Smith shared insights about the process of purchasing a sports team for both majority and minority owners. Baker explained that the teams are very unleveraged, as leagues have strict rules around borrowing and buyers may not use the team itself as security for borrowing. This makes teams an attractive asset class for private equity firms.

Deubert asked the panel about international investments in domestic sports leagues. Hedman noted the amount of inbound US investment in sports is sometimes overstated in the media. Hedman noted that there are challenges if foreign owners, including that if teams are losing money, leagues want assurance that the assets needed to support the team are in the U.S. Smith agreed with Hedman, though she mentioned that foreign interest has been growing.

With respect to private equity, Baker described how U.S. teams are taking lessons from Europe, where private equity and institutional capital has been permitted in team investments. In 2018, most leagues began loosening their rules in order to facilitate private equity investments and, eventually, institutional investments. The leagues did this carefully, placing restrictions around the fund structures permitted in these investments. For example, they limited the percentage of each team a private equity firm could control, and the number of teams that private equity could own a piece of. Hedman noted that the incentives for private equity firms largely align with owners’ interest: PE firms, like owners, want a thriving, competitive, successful league, and a return on their investment.

Deubert raised the question of why the NFL has yet to allow private equity investments. The panelists posited that the NFL does not need it—but perhaps it’s on the horizon. As prices continue to rise for teams, there may be a point where individuals can no longer afford them. All leagues require a controlling owner to own a threshold percentage of the team. Prices continue to go up, and at a certain point, any league may consider permitting institutional capital into the league to add liquidity to the system.

On Wednesday, April 16th, the symposium hosted another panel about the future of the NCAA. Scott Sherman and Jeffrey L. Kessler of Winston & Strawn LLP sat in conversation with Professor Carfagna to discuss their careers and the looming legal uncertainties for the NCAA in the wake of the Supreme Court’s recent pronouncements about its education-related restrictions for students.

Sherman, a litigation associate with the firm, opened the panel by describing his time at Harvard Law School and how his involvement in its sport law program led him to his current position at Winston & Strawn LLP. Kessler, the firm’s Co-Executive Chairman, shared details about his own legal journey: his early work as an antitrust attorney became increasingly intertwined with the legal matters of major sports leagues. Later, as the financial interests related to collegiate sports ballooned, Kessler’s work began to focus specifically on college athletics and the role of the NCAA. He successfully represented Division I athletes before the Supreme Court in Alston v. NCAA, the recent paradigm-shifting decision that has created long-term questions about the NCAA’s control over students that participate in their school’s athletics program. The panelists offered a rare glimpse into their preparation for the oral arguments. They described how they chose to focus narrowly on the issues presented to the court—restrictions on education-related benefits—rather than attempting to use the case as a vehicle to leverage antitrust doctrine more assertively against the NCAA’s dominance in college athletics.

Winston & Strawn LLP has now turned its attention to a new set of cases in the wake of NCAA v. Alston that will pose even sharper challenges for the NCAA’s restrictions on students. The “explosion in the NIL marketplace,” as described by the panelists, has created new litigation opportunities for the firm. They have filed claims for damages because of the missed NIL opportunities for athletes that were unable to license their likeness prior to the NCAA’s revised policy. They have also filed lawsuits against schools for providing finances to students in violation of the very same NIL policy. One of the firm’s pending cases, Carter v. NCAA, presents a frontal challenge to the NCAA’s longtime conception of amateurism that has the potential to reconfigure the very framework of college sports. Sherman describes a growing recognition among stakeholders that “change is needed” for students involved in NCAA athletics. The future for the NCAA is uncertain, but it is clear that the panelists will have a hand in shaping its next decade.

The 2024 Harvard Sports Law Symposium drew more than one hundred students from across the campus to its events and exposed them to some of the most pressing legal issues in the field. The Journal of Sports & Entertainment Law extends its thanks to the Committee of Sports & Entertainment Law and its Officers, faculty advisor Professor Peter Carfagna, the panelists who joined us, and the many others who helped make this symposium happen.

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