As chairman of the Thompson Coburn’s Sports Law Group, Robert “Bob” Wallace successfully represents teams and prospective buyers of sports teams, as well as companies interested in sports marketing and civic and government entities facing team relocation or facility issues.
Wallace has built his successful practice on a foundation of more than 30 years of experience in both the St. Louis business community and the national sports arena through his past executive and legal work for the Philadelphia Eagles and the St. Louis Football Cardinals.
We recently sat down with Bob in hopes of learning more about his practice.
Question: How did you get your start in sports law?
Answer: I have always been interested and very involved in sports. I was a running back at Yale and played some baseball as well. After Yale, I went to Georgetown University Law Center and in-between my second and third year interned at the NFL Office for then-League Counsel Jay Moyer. It was a great experience and I happened to get this opportunity because the Raiders had decided to move from Oakland to Los Angeles (1980) and Jay Moyer and the League’s Executive Director under Commissioner Pete Rozelle, Don Weiss, were looking for someone to do legal research about the move. Also during that summer I met outside league counsel Paul Tagliabue and he helped me secure a law clerk position during my third year at Covington & Burling in D.C. As I began looking for a permanent position, I wrote to a lot of places and got an invitation from St. Louis [football] Cardinals owner Bill Bidwill to meet him in D.C. for dinner. Mr. Bidwill found my background interesting as through a family friend, I had spent the summer of 1971 as a ball boy for the Cardinals, even though I was from New York City. He also liked that I went to his alma mater, Georgetown. Talk about the old boys’ network! He was looking for a young lawyer to assist his General Counsel Thomas J. Guilfoil in handling the day-to-day legal work and eventually negotiating player contracts. I moved to St. Louis in 1981 and started my sports law career. I spent 10 years working with the Cardinals, before going in-house to the Philadelphia Eagles as Assistant to the President/General Counsel, and eventually to the St. Louis Rams as EVP.
Q: How did being general counsel for the Rams make you a better attorney as outside counsel?
A: It makes you a problem solver. In addition to being General Counsel I was the senior business executive and had P&L responsibility and oversaw the revenue-producing departments. Consequently, I was looking for solutions and innovations, and seeking opportunities that grew revenue and built our brand. Lawyers are sometimes looked at as roadblocks to getting deals done, and as I advise clients now, I want to look for ways to help them make deals, not impede them. In the sports context, contract agreements are often the start of a relationship, whether it is with a player, coach, sponsor or city, so you are trying to make a deal that works for both parties. Having been on the team side, I think I am sensitive to that dynamic.
Q: Its mentioned in your bio that you are involved in the UAS (DRONE) practice. How does it or will it intersect with the sports industry?
A: Drones or unmanned aerial systems (UAS) is fairly new technology and provides enormous capabilities for sports organizations. Drones can capture fantastic aerial footage for broadcast purposes, facility maintenance – even game play strategies. Teams may also hear from sponsors that want to use UAS within their facilities. With this new technology, the government is heavily regulating the use of drones, especially around populated areas or near airports. Some of my colleagues at Thompson Coburn had real experience in this area and we started to advise leagues and teams, as well as other entities that were interested in utilizing drones for their operations. The drone regulatory world seems to be constantly evolving and our UAS practice group continues to advise those that want to get up and fly legally – they also have a podcast: Three Lawyers and a Drone. See thompsoncoburn.com/services/practices/unmanned-aircraft-systems.
Q: What are some areas of your practice that are beneficial to professional sports teams?
A: I’ve developed some deep experience in the many ups and downs in the landlord-tenant relationship between a sports organization and the facility where it plays. In particular, my experiences first with the St. Louis Football Cardinals sharing a stadium with the baseball team that owned the stadium, then with the Philadelphia Eagles and the well-known problems with Veterans Stadium to the St. Louis lease situation which allowed the Rams to terminate their lease if it was determined that the facility was not “first tier.” In other words, I have seen a lot in this space. I have also been intimately involved in sponsorship agreements and naming-rights deals; I negotiated the first renaming of a stadium when TWA went out of business and we were able to resell the naming rights to St. Louis-based Edward Jones. Also because of my experience negotiating contracts I am helpful in advising teams, coaches and executives in structuring employment agreements. We have done some really good work helping navigate separation terms when someone gets fired.
Q: You’ve always been open to talking about race and sports. What is your take on the Colin Kaepernick, and how the league has handled it, then and now?
A: I am very confused by the whole situation. My experience is that teams will usually take a chance on a player that has some ability. Kaepernick took a team to the Super Bowl and even during his last year played pretty well for a bad team. When you see injuries hit teams and some of the quarterbacks that are given tryouts or eventually signed, it is curious that Kaepernick can’t get that opportunity. Kaepernick shined some light on a serious societal problem and used his platform to do so. I seriously question whether that should be a reason that he’s not in the League.
As I look at the tryout fiasco in November, I think there was enough blame to go around. It was hurriedly arranged, and the details were not worked out between Kaepernick’s camp and the NFL. But Kaepernick missed an opportunity that he said he wanted. He had 25 teams set to show up and calling “an audible” highlighted the distraction problem that teams feared if they brought him into their organization. I hate, however, that Kaepernick and the NFL have not been able to resolve this. In my opinion, this whole situation is a lose-lose for both sides
Q: Is there anything that isn’t being done that should be done that would help more minorities break into sports law?
A: Simple answer: Provide opportunity. Don’t tell me that you lack candidates. Call me and I can provide you a list of qualified minority candidates for any position in sports. The Rooney Rule or something similar where teams must interview minority candidates has generally been a positive. When I hear that teams are just checking a box by doing so, and that the MLB has scrapped that practice and is instead using a training program for minority candidates, that rankles me. Minority candidates don’t need remediation, they need an opportunity. The problem is with those doing the interviewing, not those being interviewed. As I mentioned before, the old boy network is a powerful pull. People hiring people that look like them is a longstanding practice, and until people understand this bias, minorities will continue to be under-represented, especially until minorities are in a position to do some of the hiring.
Q: What advice would you give to a law school student or a young lawyer looking to achieve the kind of success you have had?
A: Get experience. Telling a prospective employer that you are fan is not a job skill. Volunteer for something in the industry as you try to break-in. If you’re in law school, go to the school’s compliance office within the athletic department and see if you can do something for them. If you’re a good writer, go to sports information office, and try to work there. Get involved with your local sports commission. Become involved with the Sports Lawyers Association or some similar organization that can help you network. Be persistent. Recognize that you won’t start out as the General Manager or General Counsel. Also, if sports is really what you want your career to be, realize that you can’t limit yourself by geography. There are not that many jobs so unless there is some compelling reason why you can’t live somewhere be willing to relocate. Be present and be willing to work long hours. Be willing to learn. But first, get your foot in the door and get that experience.