With the field set for the National Collegiate Athletic Association men’s basketball tournament, let others agonize over their brackets. The Am Law Daily’s focus is on the lawyers and law firms with ties to the NCAA and the nation’s top college sports conferences.
This year, the money-minting event known as March Madness will culminate with the Final Four in Dallas on April 5 and 7. Among those scheduled to play prominent roles in the weekend festivities are Terdema Ussery, a former Morrison & Foerster associate who serves as president and CEO of the National Basketball Association’s Dallas Mavericks and sits on the host committee’s board of directors.
High-profile local lawyers like Ussery often do such duty when the Final Four comes to town. When Atlanta welcomed the games last year, longtime hoops fan and Morris, Manning & Martin technology practice head John Yates served as chairman of that city’s host committee, according to sibling publication the Daily Report.
Though such posts like those held by Yates and Ussery are typically unpaid, the latest tax filings by the NCAA and the 32 athletic conferences whose champions get automatic March Madness bids show that plenty of college sports–related legal work is not done pro bono. (Except where noted, the filings in question cover the period from July 1, 2011, through June 30, 2012.)
For example, the Greensboro, N.C.–based Atlantic Coast Conference, which last week said it will move its annual tournament to Brooklyn starting in 2017, paid North Carolina’s Smith Moore Leatherwood $130,732 for legal services during that time frame, according to tax records.
Polsinelli, meanwhile, received $663,833 from the Big 12. The firm acted as outside counsel to the Irving, Texas–based conference in connection with its creation and has handled numerous other Big 12 matters. Tax records for the Big 12 also show that former commissioner Dan Beebe—a lawyer forced out of his leadership post in September 2011 who now works as a college sports consultant—received a $5 million severance package.
Tax filings made by the Rosemont, Ill.–based Big Ten show that it paid more than $1 million to Mayer Brown for legal work during fiscal 2012. (Relatives of late Penn State football coaching legend Joe Paterno are currently seeking documents from Mayer Brown and the Big Ten in connection with their suit against the NCAA.) The Big 10 has been led by attorney James Delany since 1989; he was named one of the most powerful people in sports last year by Sports Illustrated.
Another attorney who landed on Sports Illustrated’s power list, Michael Slive, currently serves as head of the Birmingham-based Southeastern Conference. The SEC’s most recent tax filing—which covers the period between September 1, 2011, and August 31, 2012—shows that the conference paid $413,282 to Robinson, Bradshaw & Hinson. The Am Law Daily reported in 2011 on the role played by Robinson Bradshaw, a regional firm with a large sports practice, advising the SEC as it poached Texas A&M University from the Big 12.
Tax records show that another major conference, the Walnut Creek, Calif.–based Pacific 12, paid $868,413 to Proskauer Rose and another $235,811 to Cooley. The Pac-12, which has been a client of Cooley sports law chair Michael Sheentz, turned to Proskauer for help creating its own television network in August 2011.
Then there’s the Big East. Or, rather, the three entities with ties to that name: the original Big East and the two conferences created when the so-called Catholic 7 took one of college basketball’s best-known names and spun themselves off last year.
The collection of schools left behind by the breakaway group is now known as the American Athletic Conference, whose latest tax filing—which essentially functions as the original Big East’s latest tax filing—shows that the Providence-based nonprofit paid Covington & Burling nearly $1.3 million and Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher approximately $413,071 during its most recent fiscal year. (The filing also lists $150,000 in fees paid to Hyannis, Mass.–based lawyer G. Arthur Hyland for his work as coordinator of men’s basketball officiating.)
As for the new Big East, it has yet to file its first Form 990 with the Internal Revenue Service. The Am Law Daily reported last year on its hire of Proskauer soon after forming. The firm’s Times Square headquarters now serves as the nascent conference’s temporary home, according to a recent story by The New York Times, which also focuses on new Big East commissioner Valerie Ackerman. A former Simpson Thacher & Bartlett associate who got to know Proskauer lawyers during her tenure as an in-house lawyer at the National Basketball Association and later as commissioner of the affiliated Women’s National Basketball Association, Ackerman is now tasked with plotting a new future for the conference.
Proskauer has helped the Big East secure its own television contract with Fox Sports 1, while Covington has helped the AAC reach a more lucrative broadcast rights deal with ESPN, predominantly because the member schools in the latter have top football programs. (The Am Law Daily reported in January on the lawyers behind college football’s annual bowl season.) Michael Aresco, a former assistant general counsel at ESPN, serves as commissioner of the AAC.
The NCAA’s own latest tax filing—spanning the 12 months between September 1, 2011, and August 31, 2012—does not list any law firms among the organization’s top five vendors. The filing does reveal that Donald Remy, a former Latham & Watkins partner hired as the NCAA’s general counsel in January 2011, received $466,566 in compensation. His predecessor, Elsa Cole, was paid $180,993 during the same period, while attorney and former vice president of enforcement Julie Roe Lach received $318,406.
Lach was fired early last year in the wake of a Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft–led inquiry into the circumstances surrounding the NCAA’s investigation of the University of Miami’s football program. (She later defended her actions in a June 2013 op-ed for Yahoo Sports.) Cole, who spent almost two years as general counsel of the Austin-based Michael & Susan Dell Foundation after leaving the NCAA, was hired as the University of New Mexico’s general counsel in April 2013.
The NCAA also has an in-house lobbying arm led by attorney Abe Frank, who was hired in 2001 as the organization’s director of government relations, and associate government relations director Edgar Burch II, who is also an lawyer. U.S. Senate records show the unit racked up $180,000 in fees last year lobbying Capitol Hill on player safety and health issues, proposed legislation on sports gambling and FCC broadcast regulations. (Robinson Bradshaw advised the Indianapolis-based NCAA in 2010 when it inked a $10.8 billion media rights deal with CBS and Turner Broadcasting to televise March Madness.)
The NCAA must now also contend with an antitrust suit filed Monday by Winston & Strawn antitrust head and sports law cochair Jeffrey Kessler, which also names as defendants the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC. Kessler, who led a 60-lawyer team that joined Winston in May 2012 from the now-defunct Dewey & LeBoeuf, is known for his work representing professional athletes. The Litigation Daily, a sibling publication, has more on that case.