Lifelong Seattle Sounders Fan Mendoza-Exstrom in Dream Job as Club’s General Counsel

Oct 11, 2019

It’s not often that an attorney gets to find his or her perfect job in the place they most want to live.
Maya Mendoza-Exstrom
But it can happen. Just ask Maya Mendoza-Exstrom.
Mendoza-Exstrom is entering her fourth season as Seattle Sounders FC General Counsel in 2019, where she oversees and advises on the legal aspects of all club operations and strategic planning.
Born and raised a Seattle Sounders fan, she grew up watching Sounders FC in all previous iterations in the NASL, A-League and USL. Mendoza-Exstrom received her Juris Doctor from the University of Washington. Mendoza-Exstrom serves as board member for the RAVE Foundation, the official charitable arm of Sounders FC, working to build small and innovative soccer fields dedicated for free play in communities in Seattle. She also serves on the board for the Seattle Parks Foundation and regularly works with the Seattle Sports Commission.
Prior to joining the club, Mendoza-Exstrom was in private practice for seven years at Mendoza Law Center, dealing in all manner of business transactions, serving as outside general counsel and providing assistance with corporate formation and governance, real estate transactions, intellectual property licensing, employment matters, contract negotiation and commercial litigation.
But the former All-America soccer player at the University of Puget Sound, who also holds a USSF “B” Coaching License, was drawn to the Sounders. Similarly, we were drawn to her as a great candidate for out interview feature in this issue.
Question: What was your big break in becoming a sports lawyer?
Answer: I never set out to work in “sports law” but have worked in soccer as a player, coach, volunteer, and administrator my entire life. In 1994 the Seattle Sounders (an original NASL franchise between 1974-1983) were resurrected as an “A-League” franchise. The owners were clients of my father’s and my father served as outside general counsel, pro bono from 1994 through the transition to MLS. I worked in my dad’s firm on the MLS transition documents, and helped the majority owner start our official charitable arm, the RAVE Foundation. Then when the Sounders separated business operations from the Seahawks in 2014, Adrian Hanauer asked me to “do a little legal work” too. There was more than a little legal work.
Q: What is the most challenging aspect of the job?
A: The challenge is in hours of the day. I genuinely enjoy the breadth and scope of practice but there are days where the close attention and focus required of an attorney for multiple hours is not conducive to managing 7 to 10 to 25 projects or subjects. The reality is that whatever you thought you were going to do is not what you actually do with your day every day. Managing everyone’s expectations from ownership, to leadership, business office and team side is a constant juggling act and requires very clear communication which in and of itself can be challenging.
Q: What is the most rewarding?
A: Sports as an off shoot of entertainment is inherently creative and in its best form, nimble and flexible to capitalize on opportunities to do the next big thing. We live in Tweets, YouTube videos, “did you see that?” moments and consumption metrics. In house counsel offices in sports franchises are small. In that world, there is no way for us to be everywhere at once. The most rewarding part of my job is where I have seen the work we’ve done in compliance, internal processes and education so that a junior member of our corporate partnership marketing team or brand marketing team is flagging a potential legal issue for a rights clearance, or preparing terms and conditions for a final review that only require two changes, and the like. Training everyone in our organization to think like a lawyer around certain issues helps the entire organization be better AND its wonderful when someone walks into my office with a new and creative idea having already issue spotted for me.
Q: Has there been a guiding principle or two that have helped you build a successful sports law career?
A: Visibility, humility and joy. There are two truths about the sports business. While sometimes it’s a grind, and you get beat up like I’m Wreck-It-Ralph standing in the “comments room” of the internet, we are not saving the world—sports is FUN. You have to approach your job with a great sense of humor and a recognition that our product, what we should be selling is joy—at Sounders we say—Create Moments, Enrich Lives and Unify Through Soccer. Attorney and joy are not exactly synonymous—but the job can be fun sharing in the fun with colleagues is important—putting yourself in the rooms where the creative ideas are coalescing is important. In pure practical terms it gives you daylight on the big ideas and if you are in the room where the big fun ideas are developed you can help guide their development so that you don’t have to be the person saying “no” when it’s fully baked. The second truth is that everyone who works in sports is pretty young—there are a lot of entry level employees. They have no clue how to use or interact with an attorney. They might be intimidated to walk into your office. The more I put myself out there, make myself visible at the coffee stand, get to know them as people and share my life the more likely they are to darken my door when they have a question about something. Often these folks are on the front lines of communication with our customers and fans and sometimes those somethings are customer service inquiries that could reveal potential liability to the company. Being seen as approachable and accessible helps me mitigate risk for the organization in the long run.
Q: What areas of law are you less inclined to rely on an outside law firm and why?
A: I don’t think there are any areas where under the circumstances we wouldn’t retain outside counsel. I can say that Washington state has some peculiar areas of law—byzantine liquor laws, really progressive and open Sunshine laws, and changing progressive employment law, all of which requires at times a well-practiced and expert hand. Given the breadth and scope of substantive legal areas GC for sports teams intersect with, expertise is sometimes very necessary. I have a strong background in working in and on behalf of youth sports organizations so the technical side of our club and including an understanding of US Soccer and FIFA rules and processes is something I enjoy immensely.
Q: What takes up most of your time these days and why?
A: I think most of my colleagues in MLS especially, since we are a growing and expanding sport and league, understand that adjacent to our titles as General Counsel is a small asterisk that at the bottom reads “VP of Other Projects As Assigned.” Those projects right now include supporting our efforts to bring the World Cup to Seattle in 2026 and 2027, a public-private development project for a new soccer specific stadium for our USL franchise the Tacoma Defiance, and internal strategic planning activities with our ownership and senior management. All of those have legal implications but most of them are major business initiatives.
Q: What advice would you give someone who wants to be a team GC?
A: There are hundreds if not thousands of law students who played sports or love sports and say hey “I want to do sports law.” To which, I always reply, there is no such thing as sports law. Sports is intellectual property, licensing, employer law, advertising, consumer protection, food safety, SAFE Sport Act, landlord-tenant, tort law, international law, and a whole host of others. Work in any of those well and you can transition to sports. As far as a GC goes, ditto, but also any business litigation experience is extremely helpful. GCs are often in the room as business advisors on risk–understanding what makes business deals fall apart and what gets fought about in litigation makes you a better contract drafter in the beginning and a better risk management advisor for the decision makers in your organization. Finally, sports are passion projects. Even though I have been around the franchise of the Sounders my whole life, I got to know our majority owner through non-profit work and sharing a passion for building small unrentable soccer fields for free play in communities that do not have those safe spaces. Getting involved in organizations that are aligned with sports team philanthropy where you have a passion allows you to get to know folks and share that passion, especially leadership at sports teams and keeps you front of mind when business opportunities come up. The sports business in its best form is about the best of humanity—sharing yours speaks volumes more and can separate you from the pile of resumes. 


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