Professional Team Counsel Discuss Important Legal Issues in Their Practice
By Drew Berube
The University of Miami School of Law recently hosted its annual Global Entertainment and Sports Law + Industry Conference, presented by the law school’s Entertainment & Sports Law Society. The conference hosted speakers and attendees from across the professional sports and entertainment industries. One panel of note was the Hot Topics Facing In-House Team Counsels. Moderating the panel was John Ruzich, Chief Administration Officer and Chief Legal Officer at Legends. The panelists included Todd Davis, Vice President/Legal Affairs for the Los Angeles Rams; Steve Weinreich, Vice President and General Counsel for the Minnesota Wild; and Marcus Bach-Armas, Senior Director of Legal and Government Affairs for the Miami Dolphins and Hard Rock Stadium. The panel’s focus was on the myriad of legal issues In-House Team Counsels face throughout professional sports.
Each of the panelists first discussed their background and what led them to their current positions.
Todd Davis, Vice President, Legal Affairs, Los Angeles Rams
Todd Davis attended the University of Southern California (USC) where he received three degrees. Two undergraduate degrees in accounting and political science, and his J.D. from USC’s Gould School of Law. His goal, “[was] always to stay on the West Coast and hopefully work for a team [out there].” When the Rams moved from LA to St. Louis, Davis was, “fortunate enough to be able to live primarily in Los Angeles and fly out one week a month…I was very, very happy when the team came home.”
Davis has been with the Rams organization for 28 years, however, his initial introduction to the team was not as seamless as it may appear. When he was originally offered the position, he was offered “essentially a glorified internship.” He remembers the Rams’ president telling him, “You will be here for six months. That does not mean six months and one day.” Little did he know, Davis would not only outlast him, but also endure three ownership changes. “I’m…one very rare anomaly…. Usually when ownership changes…they pretty much gut the senior executives. Either they don’t know I’m still there or I’ve managed to do a pretty good job of not making too many messes.”
Steve Weinreich, Vice President and General Counsel, Minnesota Wild
Steven Weinreich attended the University of Michigan, obtaining his degree in sport management and communication before attending law school at Washington University in St. Louis. He made his way to Chicago where he clerked for a judge and worked for two large law firms. “[H]onestly I can say that I hated every minute of [working in a firm]. It just wasn’t my thing.” Weinreich said he was at the firm for about three weeks and can distinctly remember receiving a phone call at 1:00 a.m. “[M]y immediate thought was, I don’t have a job.” The call was, “You’re going to read about it in the morning; we’ve been acquired by GE Capital. Your job is safe and we wanted to let you know that you’re going to be a part of our family moving forward.” Within a week or two, they told him, “You’re a part of the family and you’re going to move to Dover, Delaware.” However, Weinreich had no interest in going to Delaware, so he respectfully declined the job. The next day, he packed his things and began his transition into sports.
Weinreich did a ton of networking trying to figure out how to break into sports and get where he wanted to be. He started at SportsLoop, a startup sports agency doing mostly NFL representation. Unfortunately, the agency folded, but Weinreich networked enough to get an opportunity with the Arizona Coyotes, as vice president and general counsel.
“My seven years [with the Coyotes] were probably about thirty years in any other sports organization”. Weinreich went through building a new arena, two ownership changes, a work stoppage, and relocating a lacrosse team to Phoenix, which eventually folded in bankruptcy. Through all of it, he became friends with the owner of the Minnesota Wild, who acted as his mentor. “Every time the Coyotes flew to Minnesota, I’d jump on the plane. After about four trips, I was fortunate enough to get an offer from the Wild and I’ve been there [for] about nine years now.”
Marcus Bach-Armas, Senior Director of Legal and Government Affairs for the Miami Dolphins and Hard Rock Stadium
Marcus Bach-Armas was born and raised in Miami and was always a diehard Dolphins fan and season ticketholder. For many years, he would send his cover letter and resume to the Dolphins and the other 31 NFL teams, never receiving a response.
Bach-Armas attended Wesley University in Connecticut before pursuing a J.D. and Masters in the sport management dual degree program at the University of Michigan. While at Michigan, he had the chance to meet professional swimmers who trained there. “Mike Phelps and a few of his friends.” What he realized by befriending these athletes was, “agents don’t really care about the guys who only make them money every four years, so [Olympic athletes are] neglected and fall by the wayside.”
He knew Michael Phelps was well taken care of, but some of the, “less prominent swimmers, who were elite athletes and gold medalists” were not. Bach-Armas saw an opportunity. As he became closer with these athletes, Bach-Armas asked what their agents took as a share of their deals, and he agreed to do it for half. Bach-Armas became the agent for Peter Vanderkaay, a freestyle swimmer who also competed in relays, winning gold medals in 2004 and 2008. Vanderkaay had asthma and Bach-Armas was trying to figure out how he could get Vanderkaay a decent deal. Vanderkaay’s asthma medication was a Merck product. Bach-Armas called someone at Merck and asked if they knew about the Olympic gold medalist who had asthma and used its product. Merck had no idea. The company ended up signing Vanderkaay to a six-figure deal. “[It] was a big deal for a swimmer not named Michael Phelps at the time.”
“I wasn’t able to find a full-time job in sports coming out of law school, so I ended up doing what my mentors told me, which was, ‘Go become the best lawyer you can be doing what you like in law, wait for the right opportunity to arise, and when it does, take it.’”
Bach-Armas ended up at Holland & Knight in Miami, and then pursued a federal clerkship with Alan Gold. A year later, he received a call from the Miami Dolphins. When he arrived, the Dolphins told him they wanted somebody that was local who could give them political advice on a stadium project. “Check your law degree at the door. We want nothing to do with lawyers. We just want you to be a political operative for us.”
He took the job and ended up becoming the “de facto Chief of Staff” for the CEO. Bach-Armas finished up the stadium project, and was fortunate enough to survive the transition to the Dolphins new CEO, who moved Bach-Armas to a full-time position in the legal department. Bach-Armas has been with the Dolphins for five years.
The discussion then moved to each of the panelists’ day-to-day duties and responsibilities, giving the audience a better understanding of their roles within their respective organizations.
Weinreich: No Two Days Are the Same
“Any of us will tell you, no two days are the same. It’s anything and everything,” Weinrich explained. “The biggest challenge I have is that the people at the bottom-level think their stuff is as important as my owner’s things. It’s working anything from NHL matters, ownership issues, intellectual property, [to] managing litigation. They call me any time, any hour of the day, with something new…. Everyone at the table would say sports teams are very thinly staffed. [In] our organization…there is myself and a paralegal. There is usually nowhere to hide and if it gets too much, I call Steve Silton…our outside counsel.”
Marcus Bach-Armas continued the conversation. “Since I’ve moved to the legal department, I kept my government affairs responsibilities…. We just did a deal with Miami-Dade County to relocate our practice facility from Broward County to Miami Gardens. We also have a really diverse portfolio of businesses. It’s not just about the stadium and the Dolphins. We just bought 80-acres of land in Loxahatchee, Florida and started a sod farm business because our owner wasn’t happy with the quality of grass we were getting from our current vendors. I’m now the lawyer for a sod farm. Which I never thought I would be doing.”
“Personally, I was a litigator when I was at the law firm so that [along with politics are] my strengths. People tend to gravitate towards what they’re good at and I still manage our litigation portfolio. Our general counsel, Myles Pistorius, came from the NBA and he is an exceptional transactional lawyer. We play off each other’s strengths and help each other be better lawyers. We’re a three-person legal department. Our general counsel, myself, and…an associate counsel, Brandon Briggs, who is a [University of Miami School of Law] alum. Between the three of us, we have pretty much in-sourced almost all of the legal work that used to be outsourced.”
From yet another perspective, Todd Davis weighed in on the similarities and differences of his department. “For us [at] the Rams, our entire legal department is sitting in front of you. While I’m sitting here, there is nobody in-house for the Rams doing any legal work or reviewing anything. You can imagine what my days are like. They’re a lot of fun.”
“People ask me all the time, ‘what’s my job’ and without being inappropriate, my job is to dive in front of the fan before the you-know-what hits it. It doesn’t matter how big of a problem it is. [As Steve said earlier] …everybody thinks their problem is the most important one. Basically, you have to become a knowledgeable generalist. You become an expert on a whole lot of different areas.”
While the first couple of questions provided an understanding of each individuals’ background and the general role of an in-house counsel, John Ruzich summed up the key takeaways from the first portion of the panel nicely.
“You don’t have to be great at any one thing, but you [have] to be really good at everything. Part of the law school [and firm] experience, is to say, ‘Here is the issue. Let me analyze it. Let me give you some advice.’ We [as in-house team counsels] don’t have that luxury. The minute that you tell an ownership group ‘No’, [you’re] gone. Failure is not an option. You can say, ‘Yes, but,’ or [provide a workaround]. Ultimately, you have to provide a solution. [I]t’s not [only about] having the legal acumen, but also understanding the business acumen.”
Davis: Stadium “Most Transformative Project in Los Angeles”
Setting the stage for a discussion on the recent trends in sports, Ruzich talked about the development of new stadiums, renovation of existing facilities, and the different ways teams try to introduce new revenue sources. This topic is at the forefront for Todd Davis as he and the Rams are working on a new stadium in Inglewood. Both the Los Angeles Rams and Chargers plan to call this stadium home in 2020.
“This is probably the most transformative project in Los Angeles. We are in the process of developing approximately 350-acres of flat acreage and building a stadium that was originally slated for about $3.3 billion. The last public figure I heard is somewhere well north of $5 billion. It involves a seventy-thousand person covered, open-air stadium, which will also house a five-to-seven thousand person amphitheater. [A]s of today, we should be ready for the season opener in 2020.”
In addition, “we’re very close to the LA International Airport and we had to [contact]…an expert in airport law because an issue came up as to how big our stadium was and how vertical it would be, as opposed to approaching flights into LAX. [We had to move] seven million cubic feet of dirt in order to…have a safe zone for the planes to fly over.”
Ruzich put Davis’ work into perspective. “My friend here is being very modest…this is a one-person legal show for an NFL franchise. He didn’t talk about his day job. That’s literally an entire other project from running the day-to-day aspects of the team. It’s amazing how much he does.”
The question was then posed to Steve Weinreich, who discussed the Minnesota Wild’s new practice facility in St. Paul.
“We have been trying to get a practice facility for a number of years, [in order] to be competitive in free agency. There was a building in downtown St. Paul, Minnesota…[that] closed and they were having a hard time selling [the space] because it was a [Macy’s]. It doesn’t have much serviceable space in it. The group that was going to buy it wanted to rehabilitate sex offenders…and it became a political nightmare. All of a sudden, this great deal fell on our lap.”
“We turned it into a mixed-use project where we built … an ice sheet on the roof…with 2,000 seats on each side. The bottom two levels…we made [into] the players’ man cave. [T]heir locker room, training facility, everything is underground and they have private elevators. We got it for basically nothing, but there were many, many days and nights where I thought this was never going to happen…but it’s been a good win.”
Bach-Armas Talks About Marquee Event Grant Agreement
Next, Marcus Bach-Armas talked about the renovations to Hard Rock Stadium and the trials and tribulations that took place to make it to this point. “The challenge for us was to come up with a model that was different…[and] creative enough to distinguish ourselves from the Marlins’ deal, but also beneficial enough [to the community] that it would justify the investment of…$350 million. It ended up being $550 plus. We [came] up with a unique deal structure. The idea was a stadium to deliver economic activity to a community. We knew that if we brought our stadium up to par…we were very confident in our ability to deliver [big events like the Super Bowl] to Miami-Dade County.”
“We came up with a Marquee Event Grant Agreement and created different tiers of events. Super Bowls and World Cup games are the highest tier, all the way down to soccer matches with 55-thousand plus attendees which were the lowest tier. There’s a different grant value assigned to each of those events. We only get paid by the county if and when we deliver those events.”
“Because of…the county’s desire to put some money away in reserves to pay off the Marlins’ debt, we agreed to defer our first payments until 2024. [W]e invested $550 million in private funding and a hundred percent revenue funded out of Steve Ross’ pocket…. [We] have not…seen a dollar from the county [yet], but we know that we’re going to deliver the events.”
“Once the stadium was built, Steve Ross realized he had to generate additional revenue to be able to pay down that debt. IMG, at the time, needed to either renovate the Crandon Park Tennis Center on Key Biscayne or they needed to move. Because of some very complicated deed restrictions that exist from the conveyance of the land back in the 1940s, there is a family that exercises total control over what happens on Key Biscayne. The family refused to approve a $72 million privately funded renovation that IMG wanted to do at the tennis center, even though the voters overwhelmingly approved it.”
“It looked like IMG was going to take the tournament out of state, so Steve Ross picked up the phone and called the president of IMG, saying, ‘Before you make any decisions, give me a couple weeks to put together a plan. I think I can build you a world class tennis complex on my property.’ Steve Ross, being the visionary that he is…put together a beautiful set of renderings and presented them to IMG. Suddenly IMG was less skeptical and more interested.”
“A year later, we had the tennis venue. We knew we weren’t going to get any additional public funding for the tennis tournament, but the county agreed, if we delivered by keeping the Miami Open in Miami, they would move the existing expenditure up to the stadium. So, we did and the tournament was a success. It was the first year of a huge event in a new home…[and] it’s going to be really exciting for the community going forward because we’re going to have this tournament here for another 25 plus years.”
Looking at the new stadium in Inglewood, Todd Davis explained that the “target” is to have “approximately 200 events a year.” “Everything from World Wrestling type events, the Olympics, closing or opening ceremonies or both…. We are planning to host the Super Bowl, the College Football Playoff…[and] the Final Four. Basically, if it entertains, we’re going to be one of the primary venues…. We’re [also] a potential World Cup venue. You’ve never seen anything until you’ve seen the World Cup [agreement].
Marcus Bach-Armas interjected, “You basically had to do whatever FIFA wants you to do and they tell you, ‘You can take it or leave it but we’re the World Cup and you will either agree to this or you won’t have your World Cup matches.’”
“I’m a big fan of being aggressive and I’m a big fan of writing an aggressive document,” Davis explained, “[but] I was actually, for the first time, offended by somebody’s ask because I’m usually the one asking those types of things and even I would not go that far. There was that fine line of what’s acceptable and what I would normally put in a document to ask and they basically took a running start and leaped as far over it as they could…that was a fascinating document….”
Bach-Armas joked, “Yes, and we look forward to the World Cup coming to not Hard Rock Stadium but to ‘Miami World Cup Stadium’ now.”
“Exactly…whatever our naming rights [at the new LA Stadium] are, it’ll be whatever [FIFA] decide[s] to call it for that particular event.”
Davis then turned the conversation to discuss a unique “never been done before” feature that the Rams and Chargers will bring to season ticketholders and their Stadium Seat Licenses (SSLs) in 2020.
With the new stadium, the Rams will have a third-party entity, called FanFare. SSL holders buy their $10,000 – $100,000 SSL and FanFare [then] helps the holder acquire the rights to buy the seats. At the end of 50 years, the SSL holder gets one hundred percent of the money back. It’s an interest-free loan, therefore, there are taxable benefits. “All of this was vetted and approved by the IRS…. [I]t’s a first-time event which also helps create a value to your SSL, knowing that in 50 years from now, your children and grandchildren will receive $10, $50 or $100,000 back. It’s a structure that’s new and different and will probably be the model going forward for future stadiums.”
Bach-Armas began, “as lawyers, you can’t just say no to your clients if you want to keep your job in sports, you need to come up with creative solutions. There are other ways to get the municipalities and state agencies to support you. And maybe it’s not the traditional model, but maybe it is to help with roads…[or] infrastructure. Be creative and don’t give up….”
Ruzich concluded, “it’s important to be creative and think three-dimensionally so when something comes up…[ownership and the executives] look to you as a part of the solution….”
There is no one way to break into sports and obtain your dream job. As an in-house counsel, you want to provide creative, yes solutions and never say no. Strive to be a part of the solution, understanding not only the legal acumen, but the business acumen. You may face issues you never thought you would (i.e. airport law, sod farming, etc.) but, it is important to be a “knowledgeable generalist.” You don’t have to be great at any one thing, but you have to be really good at everything.
Finally, I will end with this. To give you an idea of how busy and hectic the life of an in-house counsel is, as soon as Todd Davis left the stage, he received a phone call from the Los Angeles Rams. As the one-man show in LA, I’m sure his days are filled and he never knows what might come across his desk, but I thought it was very telling to see that not five minutes after the panel session was over, he was receiving a call and providing the next solution.
Drew Berube is a rising third-year law student at the University of Miami School of Law. He obtained his undergraduate degree in sport management from the University of Michigan. Drew has a strong background in professional and collegiate sports, including prior experiences with the NFL Players Association, the Denver Broncos, NFL Network, the Charlotte Hornets, and the University of Michigan athletic department.