The Main Event: General Counsels Discuss Legal Issues With Sporting Events at SLA Conference in Baltimore

Jun 14, 2024

By Gina McKlveen, Esq.

When you are sitting in a crowded stadium for a sporting event, your first thought probably isn’t what legal considerations were made in planning the game, race, or match, unless, of course, you are general counsel for the NFL, Grand Prix, Inc., or FIFA like the panelists at this year’s annual Sports Lawyers Association conference in Baltimore. Taking center stage to discuss “Big Event, Big Legal Issues: Legal Considerations when Executing Major Sporting Events” was Alison Wagner, Senior Counsel for the National Football League (“NFL”), Craig Toyer, General Counsel for Las Vegas Grand Prix, Inc. and Deputy General Counsel for Liberty Media Corporation, and Curtis Franks, General Counsel for FIFA World Cup.

Patrick Reilly, Partner of Faegre Drinker Biddle & Reath, LLP, who moderated the panel, kicked off the discussion by asking each of the panelists, how they got into the sports industry. While Toyer, like Reilly, spent a portion of his career at a law firm, the other two panelists opted for a different path.

Franks said that he did not want to go to a law firm after law school and refused to do so. Instead, he pursued internship experiences and eventually landed a Senior Business Affairs Manager position with Coco-Cola. From there, Franks also worked at NBC Sports and NCAA before taking on his current role at FIFA. With the NCAA, Franks oversaw all legal matters related to the NCAA’s Championship, including the Final Four, which laid the legal groundwork for executing and planning the FIFA Club World Cup 2025 and 2026 across North America.

Similarly, Wagner said that she avoided the law firm track, but nevertheless realized the importance of a legal education given that many league commissioners were also lawyers. Wagner began her career working in the Arena Football League (“AFL”) where she recalled an experience of placing cushions on the seats before the AFL Cup, forming her early understanding of what it takes to plan a successful sporting event. She then became the Vice President of the National Hockey League and was intrinsically involved when the Winter Classic Series started, which again informed her expertise in sports event planning. Now, as Senior Counsel for the NFL she brings 13 years of domestic and international broadcasting experience to some of the most-watched events like the NFL Draft and Super Bowl.

Wagner provided further insights on the behind-the-scenes process the NFL undergoes in selecting locations for its events. “It’s a several year process,” she stated, “Three to four years out for the Super Bowl and two to three [years] for the Draft.” Wagner compared the location selection process to a “marriage of interests with the market itself and the interest in how the NFL can market its own interests.”

Once again, Franks explained his experience with FIFA is similar to Wagner’s with the NFL. When it comes to selecting locations for the World Cup, “member associations put bids in…[then] bids are evaluated, and FIFA Congress votes,” Franks stated. 

For Toyer, selecting Los Vegas as the site for the Formula One World Championship was a strategic effort. “We targeted the site,” Toyer said. “A year beforehand we started talking to the people of Los Vegas…it took a little while to convince the casinos. [But] we knew the site we wanted.” The issue for Toyer and planning the Los Vegas Grand Prix was coordinating with each of the different constituents.

Franks balances different constituents with FIFA as well, except rather than a localized approach the considerations span across an entire country. “Previous World Cups had certain guarantees,” he said, but with two countries within North America undergoing presidential elections, “who will be in charge is unknown.” This raises a degree of uncertainty with planning the World Cup because political changes could affect immigration policy and customs that would inevitably impact the event. Therefore, Franks emphasized there is an emphasis on education in the market in North American, especially since the World Cup has not been held here since 1994.

There is further education around sponsorships, according to Toyer, who spends time explaining what the limitations are around what the Grand Prix can and cannot do given various vendor laws. Each of these organizations have a goal not only to put on a successful event, but also making sure they secure sponsorships.

A third goal emphasize by the panelists was event safety. This topic was considered in conjunction with customer/fan-experiences. When making considerations around safety for the Los Vegas Grand Prix, Toyer said he started thinking about it like Woodstock, with a vast number of people descending on a location the goal was to keep everyone safe. “We have our own security apparatus…we work with law enforcement, local and federal, because it is so high profile.”

Franks deals with high-profile attendees that involve their own safety precautions. “Diplomats and heads of state from different countries attend FIFA events,” Franks stated. In those cases, security such as Secret Service will step in “you do what they tell you.” Yet, various countries have different laws that influence safety considerations, such as the fact that some countries ban alcohol consumption like the most recent World Cup in Qatar, or places, especially in the United States, cannot prevent someone from carrying a firearm on state property, which is another learning curve within the educational dynamic of Franks’ role at FIFA.

In an industry like sports were passion and fever run high for certain events, teams, and players, organizations want to foster that environment, but keep it safe at the same time.

Wagner believes “communication helps with good will in the community.” That is both with the fans and the locals. The NFL will often have events around the “big” event, such as concerts, games, and other activities. Again, communication with the fans is paramount. “We let people known the cost, whether its ticketed or free, and if it’s free how to register.” 

Toyer added that making community events more accessible is important, but so is identifying sources of liability and worst-case scenarios. “It really is a juggling act,” Toyer stated.

Here’s where negotiating agreements becomes critical. Some agreements can be more straightforward than others. “When the existing venue is being used for what is it’s made for, then it’s a way more straightforward negotiation,” Wagner stated. Whereas when dealing with an independently owned parking lot or using a football stadium to build a hockey rink, like for the Winter Classic Series, for example, Wagner said the agreement is like making your own recipe. She emphasized it is important to communicate that “We aren’t trying to strong arm them,” rather, “We want to leave them better than when we came.”

Franks said that he errs on the side of proactive negotiated agreements, especially when he thinks issues could arise, coming to the table before problems arise can help resolve further conflicts later on. Toyer agreed with his colleague, “Do what you can in negotiating room.”

When planning sporting events, perhaps Wagner summed it up best when she called it “an organic process.” The outcome of a game, race, or match is often dependent on the planning, effort, and communication that happens beforehand—based on these panelists experiences, the same is true for planning the sporting event itself.

Gina McKlveen is a litigation associate based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. In 2021, Gina graduated from The George Washington University Law School (GW Law) with recognition for her pro bono achievements and by the National Association of Women Lawyers (NAWL) for her contributions as President of GW’s Law Association for Women. She concentrates her legal practice in the areas of art law, intellectual property, nonprofit formation and governance, and sports & entertainment. To contact Gina directly email her at:

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