Firms See Super Bowl as a Super Bust

Firms See Super Bowl as a Super Bust Jason Doiy / The Recorder Alan Denenberg, Davis Polk & Wardwell partner

Seats at Oracle Arena for the Warriors; a luxury suite at AT&T Park to watch local hero Madison Bumgarner or fading star Tim Lincecum; or maybe a dinner at Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar in Palo Alto.

Entertaining clients is part of any lawyer’s job. And with Super Bowl 50 landing in Santa Clara Feb. 7, what better way to make a client feel special than to take them to the game? Grab a couple beers, eat some hot dogs, maybe splurge on an Oreo churro.

And yet, Bay Area lawyers are mostly sitting on the sidelines.

“I had thought about it when I first heard [that the Super Bowl would be in Santa Clara], like, you know, wouldn’t that be a fun and cool thing for clients?” said Alan Denenberg, managing partner for Davis Polk & Wardwell in Menlo Park. “But buying enough tickets? God knows how much that would cost. You’d probably have to take a mortgage out on the firm.”

Tickets on the 50-yard line in the nosebleed section of Levi’s Stadium go for $7,000. At the club level, closer to the field, tickets are about $15,000. If you can get them.

Cost and availability aren’t the only considerations for law firms. Sporting events aren’t universally popular with potential clients, especially Silicon Valley tech titans, lawyers say. Having a conversation at a football game can be hectic and scattered, and spending lavishly on entertainment may send cost-conscious clients the wrong message.

And there’s one other downside: What happens when a client finds out you had tickets, but took somebody else? Stephen Cowan, the managing partner of DLA Piper’s San Francisco office, said a few partners are taking clients. But he said those partners—and he said he doesn’t know who they are—bought the tickets on their own.

He doesn’t see the event being as big a draw for, say, tech founders. “Millennials are not going to go all the way down to Santa Clara to see football between two teams they don’t care about,” Cowan said. “It’s a different world.”

Daniel Zimmermann, a partner at Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr, said his firm sometimes gets seats at the Virgin America Loft for Giants games at AT&T Park. But he said client events there can be a crapshoot. The firm will buy about 35 tickets for the loft, Zimmermann said, at $100-plus apiece. And then, sometimes the clients don’t show.

“They’re blowing it off not because they’re being jerks, but because it’s not a big deal to them,” Zimmermann said.

Wilmer is taking clients to a Warriors game in March and Zimmermann himself has season tickets for the San Jose Earthquakes. But he says there’s no way his firm would spring for a Super Bowl suite, which he estimated would cost $500,000. (A Super Bowl sales agent declined to discuss suite pricing.)

Cooley partner Sally Kay said that she goes with clients to see the Warriors, the A’s and the San Jose Earthquakes. If the Raiders were playing in the Super Bowl, Kay said she might consider the splurge.

“I realize that the Super Bowl is a bucket-list thing, but when I looked on StubHub, the cheapest tickets are around four grand, and that’s way up top,” Kay said. “If I was going, I wouldn’t want to sit way up top, I would want to go big, and I am not doing that for the Broncos or for Carolina.”

Lawyers at Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati, King & Spalding, Fenwick & West, and Morrison & Foerster all said they did not know anyone at their firms going to the game.

“We are not doing anything special for the Super Bowl,” said MoFo M&A partner Robert Townsend. “We too have been priced out of the market.”

PASSING ON THE GAME

In a sense, the Super Bowl might be too special of an event to take a client to, said Davis Polk’s Denenberg. Even if a lawyer does have a favorite client, it’s better that no one knows that.

“Let’s say you buy four tickets. Which three clients win?” Denenberg said. “You have a drawing? What do you do? And then let’s say you take a group, what if someone’s upset? You don’t want anyone going ‘Oh, Denenberg took A, B and C, where do we rank?’ “

Besides, Denenberg said, baseball’s better for bonding. The relative calm makes it easier to have a conversation. Cooley’s Kay likes baseball for building relationships, too, saying a chatty client will talk no matter what, and a quiet client gets the chance to soak in the game. For some clients, sports just don’t hit the mark.

Skadden partner Kenton King said lawyers at his firm are not the Super Bowl type, and he seems to think its clients aren’t either.

“We had a big seminar yesterday where we had very significant government officials come, and then we even had a few glasses of wine at the reception afterwards,” King said. “But that’s it. That’s our reward for sitting through three hours of antitrust stuff.”

Kay said she doesn’t see as much of a generational divide as other lawyers, but that a client’s upbringing and their home state play a larger role. If you grew up in Wisconsin, for instance, she said, you root for the Packers, no questions asked. And even if you didn’t go to University of Wisconsin, you still root for the Badgers.

But maybe a client wasn’t steeped in sports growing up. Sometimes music hits the right note.

Kay said she routinely goes to concerts—Barry Manilow in Las Vegas, Earth, Wind & Fire in Chicago—with clients with whom she’s already established a relationship. Trying to get to know someone early on in a concert venue can be difficult, she said.

Wilmer took clients to see Pearl Jam last year, an event that Zimmermann said was very successful. And he said his firm also scored a hit when it took clients to an event where Eric Schmidt, the ex-CEO of Google, was signing his book, “How Google Works.”

But that probably speaks more to Schmidt’s star power in tech than a thirst for literary outings.

“I haven’t seen any poetry readings,” he said.

Contact the reporter at druiz@alm.com.

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