O’Melveny Practice Leader on the Evolving State of Sports Law

Irwin Raij sees opportunities for deal lawyers as the sports industry evolves.

Hired at O’Melveny & Myers this month, Raij was brought on board to co-chair the firm’s lawyer sports industry practice group, which has made several prominent additions this year.

“I see sports content evolving in so many different ways,” said Raij. “I think media can be defined so broadly — movies, cable, international, sponsorships, online games [a.k.a. “esports,” or professional computer gaming]. It means we will be defining sports a little differently than we all once did.”

Raij came to O’Melveny from Foley & Lardner and after the firm hired his fellow co-chair in crime, Chuck Baker, who joined from DLA Piper.

Baker also attracted Jared Bartie, a partner who specializes in sponsorship transactions, team investments and media rights agreements, who hailed from Herrick Feinstein. All three are based in New York City and all focus squarely on the business aspects of the sports industry.

Other large firms with sports practices include Proskauer, Winston & Strawn, Foley & Lardner, Reed Smith, Covington & Burling, Arent Fox, and Ropes & Gray.

Raij explained that the rise of the Internet — and the resulting world of online gaming — has brought an entirely new dimension to the sports business.

“The Internet already increases access to the Olympic sports, professional boxing, MMA,” said Raij. “And then there is esports. You have rabid, rabid fans around the world. There is no geographical location or limitation. People watch it all hours of the day and night. I’ve gone to Madison Square Garden to see the League of Legends [computer game] World Championship sellout event. I went two nights in a row. I took my wife the second night because I said you’ve got to see this — 18,000 people packed into the stadium. But none of them were buying drinks or food, so it was very different from a traditional sports event.”

If Raij’s name rings a bell, that might be because he represented Guggenheim Baseball Management in its $2 billion acquisition of the Los Angeles Dodgers, one of the largest deals ever for a sports franchise. Outside of advising clients on legal issues, he also has his own hand in the business: he owns a stake in the minor league team, the Oklahoman City Dodgers, and in the MLS Los Angeles Football Club.

In a wide-ranging interview, Raij spoke with Big Law Business about his decision to join O’Melveny and the interface between sports and entertainment law. The following has been edited for brevity and clarity.

 

Big Law Business: What inspired you to make the jump to O’Melveny?

Raij: There were multiple reasons. Started with the clear commitment to the sports practice evidenced by the (O’Melveny) business plan. It was then their efforts to implement that plan by bringing in other colleagues like Chuck Baker and Jared Bartie.  This said to me that this is not a short-term plan, but a real commitment. Combining sports with the firm’s historically strong position in entertainment and media was also powerful. The firm’s culture of collaboration and access to foreign markets was extremely compelling.  I feel that our team will  be in a position to go after all and any element of sports as a team. You have the traditional big five sports: baseball, football, basketball, hockey and soccer. We’ll be active in that space. But not just active in those spaces. We’ll look at every element of sports; this crew is really game for it.

 

Big Law Business: You were the sports-law star at your last firm. Now you will be part of a team. Any thoughts on that?

Raij: I’m excited to be a part of an amazing, collaborative team. Each of us have been successful in different ways. Chuck Baker has been predominantly focused in the M&A, private equity and venture capital areas, Jared Bartie on the operations, sponsorship, naming rights, media rights and facility/arena management deals.  I have been fortunate to be more of a generalist that has been successful with M&A and operations-sponsorship, but also bring to the table a lot of experience in stadium development and negotiating media rights deals. So, we have a lot of overlap and opportunities to work amongst ourselves and alongside the entertainment and media group.

 

raij

Irwin Raij.

 

Big Law Business: Can you give us more insight into the interface between sports and entertainment law?

Raij: These two worlds are growing closer and closer. It’s very interesting to see some of the players in the entertainment arena interested in sports and vice versa. O’Melveny hosted a dinner last week at the World Congress of Sports with sports industry leaders and prospective clients. Our entertainment team joined the dinner. Before during and after the meal just talking amongst ourselves we were coming up with ideas, ways to position ourselves and market ourselves based on experiences we have had that might be applicable to sports and vice versa. I’m 100% convinced that when we sit down with our ESM (entertainment, sports and media) team, we will devise ways to cross fertilize.

 

Big Law Business: What would say are the biggest changes taking place in the sports law sector?

Raij: I see sports content evolving in so many different ways. I think media can be defined so broadly — movies, cable, international, sponsorships, online games [a.k.a. “esports,” or professional computer gaming]. It means we will be defining sports a little differently than we all once did. It used to be all about ball and stick. Now [in the case of esports] we are talking about eye-hand coordination, broadening who the sports person can be. We plan to be very active in these sports places and already are.

 

Big Law Business: Esports is an area you already have experience. Will the Internet change the dynamics of sports and the legal industry that serves it? 

Raij: I don’t think it changes the dynamics of sports, but it expands the reach of sports. The Internet already increases access to the Olympic sports, professional boxing, MMA. And then there is esports. Has been around for a long time. But what we are just starting to do is figure out how to monetize it. We are just scratching the surface in terms of monetization. How do you monetize that sport? You have rabid, rabid fans around the world. There is no geographical location or limitation. People watch it all hours of the day and night. I’ve gone to Madison Square Garden to see the League of Legends [computer game] World Championship sellout event. I went two nights in a row. I took my wife the second night because I said you’ve got to see this — 18,000 people packed into the stadium. But none of them were buying drinks or food, so it was very different from a traditional sports event. This event is as much about the marketing of it as it is about the physical presence. Because look how many people are watching in Asia and Europe, there are millions and millions. It’s like watching multiple super bowls.

 

Big Law Business: Would you say the definition of a sports asset has changed? How does that impact sports law?

Raij: The acquisition of a stadium, or a franchise is clearly sports. But what would you say about the technology company that is investing in a concept that is beneficial to sports? So, for example virtual reality, that could help an athlete in his career, but could also have benefits for health care or sensor technology that provides data analytics. Is that sports? I think so. I think technology that can be used in the sports space is the business of sports.

 

Big Law Business: Speaking about international business, do you see more foreign investors coming in and getting to the point where billionaires will be buying the Dodgers or the Cardinals?

Raij: The answer is yes and no. We are already starting to see some foreign investment in U.S. sports. NYCFC (New York City Football Club) is majority-owned by overseas investors. I think there will be a real interest in foreign dollars coming into the U.S. sports assets. How that evolves is going to depend on a variety of things. In the U.S., it’s a regulated free market. You have the commissioners and owners and they are your congress, they are your legislature. They want to control and protect the brand. I’ve represented clients in Europe on deals in Asia. The leagues’ rules were much simpler than in the U.S. Not to say that one is better than the other. It’s just to say that the process in the U.S. is rigorous.

So, going back to your questions, I think we are going to see additional, continued foreign investment in US sports assets as people try to acquire content especially those entities tied to the media, who want to package and push the content. You look at Chinese companies buying U.S. media assets. We are going to see that continue. And there are going to be opportunities.

 

Big Law Business: You are an investor in a couple of teams. What inspired you to go down that road?

Raij: Sports has always been a huge part of my life. So, investing in sports is something I was always interested in and was fortunate to have the opportunity to do so.  It’s not a road many lawyers go down. There are lots of regulations in relation to lawyers investing with clients or former clients that you have to be very careful about. But you gain additional perspective into the business of sports so this was something I felt I had to take advantage of. I don’t know if I’m going to make money, I hope so, but making money was not the basis for doing it.

 

Big Law Business: How does being an owner influence your work as a lawyer?

Raij: If you understand the [sports business] ecosystem of how you get from X to Y, whether it’s the regulatory process, dealing with the league, unions, revenue generation or just how a team practically speaking operates, I think it’s helps me understand more so that I can bring even more real value to the table.  It helps bring perspective for clients developing or refining their business plan. So, I become more than a lawyer, I become a counselor. And I think that’s the most exciting aspect of the sports practice.

 

Write to Big Law Business at biglawbusiness@bna.com.

 

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