When the shrink wrap finally came off Project X—the name given to the initiative unveiled earlier this month in which the Southeastern Conference will create its own national television network with ESPN—the announcement brought together a phalanx of high-profile college football coaches and sports executives.
Somewhere in the background, no doubt, were the SEC’s longtime lawyers from Charlotte’s Robinson, Bradshaw & Hinson. After all, Robinson Bradshaw corporate and sports licensing partners Robert Fuller and S. Graham Robinson took the lead advising the SEC on the agreement, which runs through 2034 and creates an SEC–specific sports channel called the SEC Network scheduled to launch in August 2014. Both Fuller and Robinson, who are known for their sports media expertise, declined to comment on the deal. While the agreement’s financial terms have not been made public, Forbes reports that the television deal is likely the most valuable in college sports.
Originally set to be announced in April but delayed because of the bombings in Boston, the Project X agreement comes nearly two years after Fuller and Robinson advised the SEC in connection with its addition of Texas A&M University, a maneuver that involved potential legal challenges stemming from a $1.17 billion broadcast rights deal with Fox Sports. The pair also had a hand in advising the National Collegiate Athletic Conference in 2010 on its mammoth $10.8 billion television contract with CBS Sports and Turner Broadcasting for the rights to televise the annual men’s college basketball tournament known as March Madness.
According to the SEC’s federal tax filings, the Birmingham-based nonprofit paid Robinson Bradshaw $413,282 in legal fees during its 2011–12 fiscal year. The same filings show that SEC commissioner Michael Slive—an attorney named one of the most powerful people in sports by Sports Illustrated earlier this year—earned more than $1.5 million in total compensation during that same time period.
For its part, ESPN handled its portion of the Project X deal in-house through senior director and principal counsel David Mayer. David Pahl is ESPN’s general counsel and in-house lawyer Marie Donoghue serves as senior vice president of business affairs and development for the Bristol, Connecticut–based sports and entertainment giant, which is owned by The Walt Disney Company.
The Sports Business Daily reported this week that ESPN will own the SEC–centric channel and share profits evenly with the conference, which will own the content. ESPN already has the television rights to the new College Football Playoff, having inked that $470 million deal with the Bowl Championship Series last November.
Manatt’s Loss is NBA Player’s Gain
When Jason Collins became the first active male athlete in a major U.S. professional sports league to come out as gay in late April, he did so after consulting with longtime agent Arn Tellem.
Tellem began his legal career in the early eighties as an associate in Los Angeles at what was then known as Manatt, Phelps, Rothenberg & Tunney, later making partner at the firm. But life at the firm now called Manatt, Phelps & Phillips wasn’t for him.
"Arn got stuck doing tax and litigation stuff, which he hated," former Manatt managing partner Stephen Greenberg—and son of Baseball Hall of Famer Hank Greenberg—told Sports Illustrated‘s Franz Lidz for a 2002 profile of Tellem. "He did just badly enough so no other partner would work with him."
Lidz, whose childhood ties to Tellem helped him break the Collins story, noted in the piece about his longtime friend how a wanted ad in the Los Angeles Daily Journal helped Tellem land the role as outside general counsel to the National Basketball Association’s Los Angeles Clippers in 1982.
The Clippers work helped launch Tellem’s career in pro sports. He left Manatt in 1989 and formed his own sports agency, which he sold to SFX Entertainment a decade later for $25 million. (Clear Channel Communications bought out SFX for $4.4 billion in 2000.) After cutting his ties to SFX in 2005, two years later Tellem took his team to Wasserman Media Group, where he now heads the agency’s team sports practice and was recently promoted to vice-chairman.
Tellem—whose wife Nancy is a former attorney and current Microsoft executive—has long been one of the dominant behind-the-scenes figures in pro sports. The inspiration for the main character in the former HBO television series Arli$$, Tellem currently represents at least 65 active pro baseball and basketball players, not to mention the hundreds of others he has advised since signing his first athlete client in former pitcher Mark Langston back in 1981.
Tellem’s prominence on the pro sports scene was on display again this month as Collins broke new ground by publicly proclaiming himself as gay.
While Tellem did not respond to The Am Law Daily‘s requests for comment about his role representing Collins, he did write a first-person narrative for SI.com about his client relationship with the Stanford graduate and 12-year NBA veteran. (Sports Business Daily also has a Q&A with Tellem about how he arranged for Collins to speak with certain media outlets.)
The media firestorm surrounding Collins’s revelation also shed light on one interesting Am Law 100–related tidbit. Collins played on the same Los Angeles area high school basketball team as comedic actor Jason Segel, the son of Irell & Manella partner emeritus Alvin Segel, who headed the firm’s transactional practice from 1990 to 2007.
As for Tellem, while at Manatt the future sports agent worked for partners like Greenberg and Alan Rothenberg, the latter a founding and name partner at the firm who decamped for Latham & Watkins in a high-profile lateral move in 1990. Rothenberg, a University of Michigan Law School graduate like Tellem, was named interim chairman of the Los Angeles Sports Council last month.
The retired Latham litigation partner and veteran sports lawyer—Rothenberg was once president of the U.S. Soccer Federation and founded Major League Soccer—takes over leadership of the nonprofit organization from former KPMG partner Scott London, who was fired in April for his alleged role in an insider-trading scheme.
Rutgers Ditches Cahill for Skadden
The scandal stemming from Rutgers University’s belated decision to fire its athletic director and men’s basketball coach as a result of inappropriate conduct involving players took another turn this week when the school replaced Cahill Gordon & Reindel with Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom for an internal investigation of its athletic program, according to sibling publication the New Jersey Law Journal.
Cahill recused itself due to a conflict involving Roseland, New Jersey–based Connell Foley, which led the initial, much-criticized inquiry into ex-coach Mike Rice’s conduct that allowed him to keep his job late last year. Skadden is no stranger to top-level college basketball probes, having conducted an extensive independent review of Binghamton University’s program three years ago, according to our previous reports. Skadden of counsel Judith Kaye, a former chief judge of the New York State Court of Appeals, led an investigation that saw the firm receive nearly $1 million for its efforts.
Rutgers general counsel John Wolfe resigned last month and was replaced on an interim basis by former New Jersey Attorney General John Farmer Jr. On Friday, Rutgers admitted that its new men’s basketball coach, Eddie Jordan, had never graduated from the university despite assertions to the contrary.
Around the Horn
—The sports law bar lost a major figure in April when George Gallantz, the founder of Proskauer Rose’s powerful sports practice, died a day after his 100th birthday, according to sibling publication the New York Law Journal. Gallantz began representing the NBA in its infancy and two young lawyers who worked with him at the firm—David Stern and Gary Bettman—went on to become commissioners of the NBA and the National Hockey League, respectively.
—In July 2010, the NBA’s Phoenix Suns surprised many in pro basketball circles by hiring player agent and Williams & Connolly partner Lon Babby as the team’s new president of basketball operations. Despite finishing with the worst record in the Western Conference this year, last month the Suns renewed Babby’s contract through 2015. Another Am Law 100 alum wasn’t as lucky. The Minnesota Timberwolves declined to renew a contract for president of basketball operations David Kahn, who began his career as a Proskauer associate.
—The tug-of-war over the NBA’s Sacramento Kings continued this week as a prospective Seattle ownership group—advised by Covington & Burling—raised its offer for the team to $625 million. The revised bid comes a week after an NBA ownership committee recommended the Kings stay put after an investor group led by software billionaire Vivek Ranadive offered to match an earlier offer from the Seattle group that valued the franchise at $525 million. Katten Muchin Rosenman sports law chair Adam Klein—no stranger to NBA team sales—is advising Ranadive. Sacramento’s largest firm Downey Brand, which has we’ve previously reported has been working to keep the Kings in Sactown, is now advising certain investors in Ranadive’s would-be ownership group.
—Sick and tired of Tebow time? Then you’re not like John Morgan, a top Florida plaintiffs lawyer and founder of Orlando’s Morgan & Morgan, who is urging the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars to sign much-maligned hometown hero Tim Tebow, who won the Heisman Trophy in 2007 as the best player in college football while attending the University of Florida. Morgan, no stranger to television ads, has already run into some anti-Tebow opposition.
—Finally, while Collins’s revelation garnered most of the mainstream sports headlines this month, SI‘s May 6 issue features a backpage "Point After" column by Major League Baseball Players Association executive director Michael Weiner, who was diagnosed with inoperable brain cancer last year. A Harvard Law School graduate who took over leadership of the union in 2009, Weiner is a thoughtful man who has been open about his fight against the disease. His piece is well worth a read.