Tipping Off with Bucks Lawyer Mike Sneathern

Jun 18, 2021 | Miscellaneous

Mike Sneathern is at the legal center of the Milwaukee Bucks. Here’s a brief glimpse of his life as chief legal officer for the professional sports organization reportedly worth more than $1.5 billion. But there was no playbook for chief legal officers to deal with a global pandemic that caused suspension of game play mid-season.

By Joe Forward

Sitting at 53-12, the National Basketball Association’s Milwaukee Bucks were the hottest team in basketball in March 2020, thanks in large part to Giannis Antetokounmpo (aka the Greek Freak), recipient of the NBA’s Most Valuable Player Award last year, and 2020 NBA Coach of the Year Mike Budenholzer.

Then it happened. On March 11, 2020, the NBA suspended the season because of COVID-19. Play resumed at the end of July, and the Bucks finished with the best regular-season record (56-17). But the team lost to the Miami Heat in the second round of the 16-team NBA playoffs, the result of injuries and interrupted momentum.

As of early May 2021, however, the Bucks were heating up again, and not just the players. Mike Sneathern, chief legal officer for Milwaukee Bucks LLC, isn’t in the huddle when Giannis and company hit the hardwood, but he’s an integral part of an organization that has greatly expanded its reach, doing much more than just basketball operations.

“It’s kind of like an airport, and all the planes can’t land at once,” said Sneathern in an interview at Fiserv Forum, the Bucks’ new arena. “I’m like an air traffic controller.”

Sneathern, a Marquette University Law School graduate who joined the Bucks in 2002, is at the legal center of a dynamic sports organization with numerous business ventures through parent and sister affiliates that operate with different purposes.

This is the business of professional sports. The Milwaukee Bucks – a storied franchise that brought us Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bob Lanier, Moses Malone, Sidney Moncrief, Oscar Robertson, Jack Sikma, Ray Allen, and Bango – is now an international brand.

In this profile, Sneathern provides a glimpse of life as chief legal officer for a big-time, professional sports organization reportedly worth more than $1.5 billion.

Bucks on the Move

Sneathern grew up in Manhattan Beach, a city in Los Angeles County, Cal. A Lakers fan, he attended UC Santa Barbara and knew he wanted to be a lawyer like his father. He also loved sports.

He learned about the sports-law program at Marquette University Law School but had never visited Wisconsin. He took a leap of faith, thinking he would return to California after finishing at Marquette. But in his second year, he landed an internship with the Bucks.

“I quickly realized how fortunate I was to have this position, and decided to stay,” Sneathern said. “My responsibilities include management of the day-to-day legal affairs of the Bucks and all of our affiliate entities. Every single day is different.”

Sneathern, one of two in-house attorneys, joined the team under former Bucks owner and U.S. Sen. Herb Kohl, who purchased the team for $18 million in 1985.

Kohl sold the team to the current ownership group – Wes Edens, Marc Lasry, and Jamie Dinan as majority owners, plus several investors – for $550 million in 2014, donating $100 million for the new arena to help ensure the Bucks’ future in Milwaukee.

“Sen. Kohl did so much for the organization, including the incredible gift he gave to the community in building this new arena and keeping the team in Milwaukee,” Sneathern said. “He also found the perfect ownership group for the future.”

Led by President Peter Feigin, the Bucks organization has forged a new path, with a new arena, a new brand, MVP-level player and coaching talent, and innovative ideas that are developed and implemented by various companies and affiliates.

There’s Milwaukee Bucks LLC, which operates the basketball team. Then there’s Future Bucks LLC, which runs Wisconsin Herd, the minor league (G-League) team.

Deer District LLC operates Fiserv Forum and the entertainment plaza. Bucks Gaming LLC runs Bucks Gaming, the professional e-sports team in the NBA 2K League.

Deer Solutions LLC is the organization’s innovation arm, and Head of the Herd LLC and Head of the Herd Real Estate Development LLC are the real estate arms that are developing the entertainment block and various buildings and parcels around the “Deer District,” a hub with restaurants, bars, and other businesses adjacent to Fiserv Forum.

These companies are affiliates under Fear the Deer LLC and Fear the Deer Holdings LLC, owned by Edens, Lasry, and Dinan as majority owners. Many of the companies are operated by the same people wearing different hats, Sneathern noted.

“It’s hard to find a team now that’s a single entity,” Sneathern said. “There’s all these other facets to the sports team that is far different than it was several years ago.”

“You have the training facility, the game arena, and all the ancillary development around the arena,” Sneathern said. “We are managing the whole district, and that will continue to evolve. We’ll be spending a lot of time with that the next several years.”

Similar to the Titletown District in Green Bay, the Deer District is a sports and entertainment hub; it is anchored by Fiserv Forum, home to the Bucks and Marquette Golden Eagles basketball. The arena is also a venue for music concerts and family shows, and the Bucks organization manages all these with Sneathern as chief legal officer.

Before Fiserv Forum, the Bucks were merely tenants at the Bradley Center. Now, with its new ownership group and affiliated businesses, the Bucks organization – like many professional sports teams – has spread its wings, exploring new ventures.

“Previously, it was purely basketball under one entity, Milwaukee Bucks Inc.,” Sneathern said. “Now, with Fiserv Forum and the Deer District, we’re the landlord, developer, and operations manager. That certainly made my role more complicated.”

“I thought I was busy 10 years ago. I didn’t really know what busy was until now, especially with construction of the new arena. That was very difficult because the arena didn’t come with a manual on how to do this or that or all the agreements.

“It didn’t come with licensing agreements for concerts and family shows, suite agreements, or all of the different vending agreements, and so forth – what I call the plumbing.”

“That took a lot of work and effort, and a lot of hours to create,” Sneathern noted. “I relied on colleagues who have done it before, with other teams, and outside counsel, using them as a sounding board and a resource. Frankly, our outside firms did most of the heavy lifting when it came to constructing the arena.”

Although NBA teams are competing on the court, Sneathern says general counsel at different teams tend to be resources for one another.

“It’s collegial. We are not competitors,” he said. “We all have the same issues, and we support each other. I look to teams that are in a similar spot before we got there.

“Whether it’s the Brooklyn Nets that did the development work with their arena, or the Indiana Pacers with operating theirs – I look to different colleagues and attorneys throughout the league to assist with all matters like that, and they reach out to me too.

“I’ve even looked outside the NBA, to the Atlanta Braves, as an example, who have been tremendously helpful.”

In his two decades with the team, Sneathern has seen many issues repeatedly, including cyclical topics such as player, media, vendor, and licensing agreements.

In addition to its new arena, the Bucks inked a seven-year, $200-million local-broadcast deal with Fox Sports Wisconsin in 2018. “Seven years goes fast,” Sneathern said. “Those take a couple years to negotiate, so we’ll start working on that pretty soon.”

“I generally have enough familiarity to handle an issue from start to finish. A lot of it is contractual,” he said. “Occasionally, you get those crazy scenarios, and you have to do some research or think about a similar issue you encountered in the past.”

Sneathern also looks to outside counsel on various matters, including construction of the arena and the ancillary development, litigation, and unique labor and employment issues. As the NBA attracts players worldwide, outside counsel also assist with immigration matters.

“Often, it’s just a sanity check,” he said. “But I’m not looking to be a hero and will rely on others from time to time who are doing it every day and have a certain expertise or knowledge in a specific area.”

Sneathern typically seeks help from attorneys at Wisconsin-based Foley & Lardner LLP, Reinhart Boerner Van Deuren S.C., and Quarles & Brady LLP, and Chicago-based Katten Muchin Rosenman LLP.

“We have our go-to group of attorneys who are true experts in their respective fields,” Sneathern said. “In some cases, those teams include attorneys who were working with the Bucks long before I got here.”

A Pandemic Year

After Fiserv Forum was completed, things calmed down. “We were on autopilot, at least on some transactional agreements we put in place, tweaking them and learning from mistakes, seeing how these things work in practice,” Sneathern said.

Much of Sneathern’s work gets done in the off-season. “That’s really when we do the most work, renegotiating deals and putting things in place for the season,” he said. “But there is truly no off-season in this business.”

The team’s success and MVP players such as Giannis Antetokounmpo have also created more work in the area of intellectual property.

“That happens more with popular and relevant teams, so it’s not necessarily a bad thing from that standpoint. But we are constantly playing whack-a-mole on those types of issues and work closely with the NBA and player agents to handle infringement matters,” Sneathern said.

Sneathern is well equipped to deal with most legal issues that come through the door. But there was no playbook for chief legal officers to deal with a global pandemic that caused suspension of game play mid-season.

In the 2019-20 season, the Bucks were rolling on what looked like a potential championship run. Then COVID-19 hit, and like everyone else, the Bucks had to pivot.

“We all hunkered down and tried to figure out how we were going to deal with the rest of the season,” Sneathern said. “Everybody was optimistic that the season would resume at some point. We started working from home just like everybody else.”

“Then it was just a matter of trying to understand this new landscape and trying to operate within that framework and following the directives of the league and local government.

There was also a revenue problem, with no basketball games, and no concerts or shows at Fiserv Forum. The Bucks organization had to be creative.

“We must have gotten at least 150 memos from the league over that period of time, constantly updating us, putting protocols in place, and establishing this bubble environment.”

Sneathern said employment- and COVID-related issues, as well as sponsorship and vendor contracts tied to an empty Fiserv Forum, shaped his work over the last year.

“It just created new issues that none of us had ever dealt with,” Sneathern said. “We worked together with other teams, discussing issues, from the CARES Act to COVID-related protocols and testing. There was a lot of problem solving, I will tell you that.”

There was also a revenue problem, with no basketball games, and no concerts or shows at Fiserv Forum. The Bucks organization had to be creative.

“We are now in the chicken-tender business with a great product,” said Sneathern. The organization now runs Cream City Cluckery, a pick-up-and-delivery-only “ghost kitchen” restaurant in the Deer District created and developed internally with the Bucks’ concession partner.

“We needed to look at new ventures to continue earning revenues, because we were severely kneecapped by the pandemic,” he said. “I’m told chicken is really hot right now.”

“Getting involved was really interesting. I’m not a franchise lawyer, I don’t know much about the quick-service-restaurant business. But you have to pivot.”

Sneathern said Peter Feigin is an innovator, always thinking of ways the organization can leverage the brand and enter new markets.

“Peter keeps me on my toes every day,” Sneathern said. “We have a great group of executives that I’m fortunate to work with.”

Decibel levels increased at Fiserv Forum to start the playoffs in May. Based on updated health and safety guidelines from the Milwaukee Health Department, the Bucks were able to increase fan capacity from 18 percent to 50 percent. Full capacity at Fiserv Forum is about 17,500.

Sneathern is hopeful the Bucks can reach the pinnacle with an NBA title, something the franchise has only done once, in 1971. “Everything is coming together,” said Sneathern, who attends most home games during the season.

“We have a fantastic new ownership group and leadership at the top,” he said. “We have rebranded, creating hot merchandise, a newer state-of-the-art arena, and obviously, a great team with players like Giannis and a supporting cast that Jon Horst and our basketball operations have worked tirelessly to put together. Hopefully we can complete the run by bringing a championship back to Milwaukee.”

This article is reprinted with permission of the Wisconsin Bar. 94 Wis. Law. 30 (June 2021)

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