Team Executives Discuss NBA Front Office Practices

Team Executives Discuss NBA Front Office Practices

(Editor’s Note: The following was written by Drew Berube, a rising third-year law student at the University of Miami School of Law. The full article appears in Professional Sports and the Law.)

On April 4, 2019, the annual University of Miami School of Law, Global Entertainment and Sports Law + Industry Conference, hosted a panel titled, A View from the NBA Front Office. Executives from around the league gave their perspective of the current status of the NBA and the issues they face. Moderated by Professor Andres Sawicki of the University of Miami School of Law, the panel consisted of Ted Johnson, Chief Strategy Officer of the Minnesota Timberwolves; Steve Silton, an attorney at Cozen O’Connor and Adjunct Faculty at the University of Miami School of Law in the Entertainment, Arts, and Sports Law L.L.M.; Vered Yakovee, Vice president and Associate General Counsel at the Miami HEAT; and Joe Pierce, Vice President and General Counsel for the Charlotte Hornets.

The panel began with each panelist discussing their background and what led them to their current positions.

Ted Johnson, Chief Strategy Officer, Minnesota Timberwolves

“I’m not an attorney, [though] I’ve had a lawyer-like career…. I took my LSAT, got accepted into law school, and took a left turn to work in politics. [I] had a great opportunity to go up to Washington D.C., [and] intern for a member of Congress…. I started my career in paid campaigns…and spent some time in the Attorney General’s office working with a lot of attorneys, before I went to work for a PR agency. [I was] then recruited over to the Timberwolves 15 years ago. I’ve worn a number of different hats within the organization. I started out by running the communications arm and eventually ran half of the business operations as the CMO [Chief Marketing Officer]. About four years ago, I transitioned again to Chief Strategy Officer…. This is a role that’s emerging and typically Chief Strategy Officers have a broad set of experiences within a front office and tackle a lot of the things that fall outside of the normal lines of running a basketball team. The vast majority of my time is spent…doing business development, and trying to lead a transition within our organization from a basketball team to an enterprise level operation that’s involved in multiple franchises and properties…”

Steve Silton, Attorney at Cozen O’Connor & Adjunct Faculty at the University of Miami School of Law in the Entertainment, Arts, and Sports Law L.L.M.

“I’ve been practicing law now for 23 years…. I was trained as a general corporate attorney…[and] started practicing in commercial bankruptcy. Back in 2007, I had my own practice… [and] I was marketing a client who had a regional catering company. I had never done any sports work prior to that time and really wanted to. As a part of the marketing effort for my client, I was introduced to a player who had recently retired from the NFL, Jack Rourke. [During his playing days, he] started a number of businesses…with the NBA…and he needed a lawyer. [I] was glad to help out Jack…[and he] wound up introducing me…to Drew Rosenhaus. I got to know Drew and his brother, Jason, very well and we became very close. [In the process], my craft…expanded from representing players, to representing agents, to working…with teams. I’ve had the privilege to work with a number of professional sports teams including the Minnesota Timberwolves, Wild, [and] Vikings.”

Vered Yakovee, Vice President & Associate General Counsel, Miami HEAT

“Before [I began my current role], I was Associate Team Counsel for the Boston Celtics. Before [the Celtics] I had my own law firm in policyholder-side insurance and risk management. [I] did transactions similar to what I’m doing now, [as an] outside counsel [and worked on] some sponsorship contracts and…everything under the sun for…the Sugar Bowl. Before I had my own firm, I was with a big firm in Los Angeles known for their policyholder-side insurance. Before that, I was volunteering for an athletic organization, [the Southern California Outrigger Racing Association] that I also competed with. I raced outrigger canoes for almost 20 years. Almost no one was involved in this type of insurance, so when there’s no one doing something, it’s a really good opportunity to come in and learn the full scope of whatever the subject matter is. I started doing [policyholder-side insurance] and continued to do that all the way until I went in-house with the Celtics.

Joe Pierce, Vice President & General Counsel, Charlotte Hornets

“I grew up in San Antonio, a major fan of the Spurs and was exposed to the business of sport at…an early age. [E]ven as I moved forward as a collegiate athlete, I…recognized that I wanted to work on the business side of the sports world and eventually did a JD/MBA [at the University of Pennsylvania Law School and the Wharton School of Business]. Going through the program I realized the benefit of a legal education and the chance to see the enterprise [of law and business] and all the issues that [they encompass] as opposed to being in just one silo. I realized [this] would be a good place for me to contribute on the legal side of sports or in general business.”

After law school, Pierce decided to go to the top law firm in Silicon Valley, and focus on building skills. While at the firm, a partner announced he was leaving, just four months after he became partner. “As a young impressionable first-year associate, I said, ‘So why is so-and-so leaving?’ And a friend of mine said, ‘He’s going to G-O-O-G-L-E dot com.’” Fortunately, Pierce fell back on his sports interest and eventually became the Associate General Counsel for the Jacksonville Jaguars. His journey then took him to Comcast working on their sports television RSN (Regional Sports Network) group, where he served as the Vice President of Legal & Business Affairs, negotiating TV rights deals for several years. Before his obtained his position with the Charlotte Bobcats (now the Hornets) he became the Senior Vice President, Associate General Counsel with Bank of America in Charlotte. “[It was] a little bit of a different route but still focused functionally on media, sports sponsorship and advertising, and talent work for the bank. I’ve been at the Hornets for just about five and a half years now.”

Professor Sawicki then asked the panelists who the main decision-makers and personalities in NBA front offices are?

The full article appears in Professional Sports and the Law.