The NYU School of Law IPELS Sports Group hosted the 1stAnnual Sports Law Symposium on March 23rd, 2012. I attended. This is my story…
The invitation came the same way all great invitations come: over drinks, at a dive bar, the night before the event was to take place. I was trying to be honest with myself. I knew I had nothing to do the next day anyway, and the opportunity to put on a suit and sit in the audience while the NHL Commissioner spoke was too much for me to pass up. So I pulled out my iPhone, found the event’s website and drunkenly RSVP’d for the event less than 12 hours before it was set to begin. I finished my brew, stumbled home, and pulled out the ironing board to have something presentable to wear the next morning. This was either going to be a terrible or a great decision.
Nostalgia was partially the reason I agreed to attend. In college I loved attending guest speaker events. However, in graduate school I have felt completely jaded and disconnected with my institution that I immediately delete any event or speaker event that crosses my inbox. But since this event was at a different school, one where I didn’t know any of the other attendees and they had legitimate speakers I was actually interested in going.
The other reasons for going (beside being convinced it was a great idea while I was drinking) was for possible networking opportunities (gimme a job, Bettman!) and possibly representing this new website. Was I going to register as a member of the media? Was I going to get laughed at if I said I was with Halftime Hennessy dot com? Was I representing Michael Bender, the graduate student, or Michael Bender, the online columnist? (or Michael Bender, the hungover idiot?)
So I arrive to at the NYU Law Building on W 4th Street and am instantly greeted by a trio of welcoming faces. They were very excited and thankful I was there. While this was a shocking introduction, I soon found out the reason for their warmth: the place was almost empty. I can sympathize with this feeling of impending doom. The organizers had spent numerous weeks planning the event, securing the guest speakers, advertising the event and the room was filled with empty chairs and with nervous organizers. All you want is people to file in, grab their seats, and then tell you it was a great event afterwards. Luckily for the organizers that the later the sessions went on, the more people came in, so I’m sure their agita eventually subsided.
After entering the room I immediately began to scout out the refreshment selection and noticed the biggest flop of the event: lack of suitable refreshments. At that very moment all I wanted in the world was a strong cup of coffee and some sort of snack situation. Instead, there was a large ice water container and nothing else. This was a missed opportunity at some easy points. I later find out there was refreshment reception after the event in another part of the building. Too little too late, NYU Law.
I scanned the program and for the first time had a chance to see what I signed myself up for. The event was to be split into 3 event: Part I was titled “Collective Barganing and the Labor Relations” from 10am – 11:50am, Part II was “The Role of Commissioner” from 12pm – 1pm, and Part III was “The Role of Laweyers in the Franchise Sports” from 2pm – 4:30pm. My hangover wanted to know why I hated myself so much, but I really wanted to make the best of this.
The first panel was introduced by a very nervous NYU Law Sports Group leader and all I wanted to do was give him a hug and tell them it was going to be okay. He looked like a younger less athletic version of Ray Kinsella but if when he “built it” then only 15 people came. He awkwardly threw it over to the moderator of the panel, ESPN’s (at the time anyway) Dana Jacobson. The panel consisted of Robert Manfred, Executive Vice President of Labor Relations for Major League Baseball, Russ Granik, former NBA Deputy Commissioner, Charles Grantham, former Executive Director of the NBA Players Association, and Bruce Myer, partner at Weil Gotshal & Manges, LLP.
The premise of the first panel was supposedly a discussion on the collective bargaining process and labor relations, which is highly relevant coming off two lockouts in the NBA and NFL this past year. While the experts talked about strategies and professional jargon that underlying theme was WAR. The participants used phrases such as “Shot their bullets”, and “using the weapons available to you.” Everything in their business comes down to strategy and eventually being victorious in the end. Both the players and the owners pad their “war chests’ prior to a labor dispute. The discussion turned to a series of moves each side will make and can make during negotiations. In the end it boils down to which side won?
The conversation was very self-contained until over an hour in when they started to open it up to audience questions. I wanted to ask about issues such as: does player salary matter to athletes today as much as it did 30 years ago (with the rise of additional revenue such as endorsements) and whether the professional leagues copy each other in terms of labor deals and negations. Instead, I choked under the pressure of not being competent to form words even though the room was less than full. I allowed others to ask questions that I deemed not as important. While I did enjoy this panel, I had a feeling the participants were too close to the action to see the big picture of what all of these labor battles are doing to our beloved sports. The panelists were all too close to the tree’s to see the forest, or if not then they were just dumbing down the conversation to what we hear on ESPN a million times a day because that’s what people know.
The session ended and there was going to be a short break before the keynote portion of the event. I went to the bathroom quickly and was planning on rushing back as to not lose my coveted seat (joke) but while in there another man entered the bathroom in the stall next to me: NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman. Now, I have had some interactions with celebrities and famous people before, and usually I am very professional (lie) but seeing him next to me froze me mid-stream. Being in the audience during a panel is one thing, but being in the next urinal over is another. I wanted to chat him up one on one, ask him some about the tough issues facing the NHL, but bathroom etiquette barred me from doing so. I left the room without so much as a comment or a glance over and feel ashamed I learned nothing from being in the same small space as the NHL Commissioner.
Luckily, I was able to quickly forget this missed opportunity and enjoy the second portion of the event. The format for this portion had Bettman to be interviewed one on one by NYU professor, Robert Boland of the Robert Tisch Center. Bettman is coming up on the 20th Anniversary of being the NHL commissioner and Boland was quick to point out that 20 years ago the NY Rangers won the Cup and this year they are one of the favorites to win it again. Bettman countered with the breaking news that the hockey world does not revolve around the Rangers. Bettman talked about changes to his job and his business in the last 20 years including the expansion of media coverage and how his customers are consuming the hockey product today versus 1993.
In general Bettman seemed very sure of himself and positive about the status of the NHL. Any troubles from the lost season seem to have been forgotten and it’s been mostly bright days for the league. Bettman says every year since the lockout has been a record year in terms of revenue and 5 of the 7 years have produced record attendance figures. He had the look of a man who was able to watch two other leagues tear itself to shreds this past year while his own league has discovered its identity and is full of confidence. The NHL is not going to challenge the NFL and might not get top billing on SportsCenter, but that’s okay.
Some other topics of note that Bettman and Boland discussed:
- Competitive balance in the league. Only Toronto and Florida had not made the playoffs since the lockout (With Florida finally getting in this year)
- Dealing with issues of international currency with player salaries in the US and Canada.
- NHL being excited about its new TV contract with NBC, after Comcast bought them.
- How High Definition has made watching hockey better than ever and other ways people are watching the games on their tablets and phones.
- NHL Realignment. An issue that Bettman believes is not apart of collective bargaining (historically it never has been) and how this may lead to a fight next year. Hopefully, the NHL will be able to balance the interests of travel with the interests of rivalries and divisions without going to WAR.
Bettman cracked a few smiles; he made some jokes at the expense of some of the audience question askers and seemed like an overall good guy. As a person who consumes the NHL on a regular basis I felt secure in the knowledge that this man in the power suit was at the helm.
An hour break followed and I was able to refuel my body with coffee and grease. The final session seemed daunting and I was trying to rationalize leaving early as reward for the hard days work already put in sitting in a chair and half-heartedly taking notes. But I couldn’t bring myself to abandon my adoptive NYU brethren in their dark hour, and stayed the course through to the end.
On the panel were: Ari Nissim, Director of Football Administration for the New York Jets, Richard Buchanan, Executive Vice President and General Counsel for the NBA, Ethan Orlinsky, Senior Vice President and General Counsel for MLBP, and Andrew Brandt, ESPN Sports Business Analyst. Each was interesting in his own right and the discussion flowed through a bevy of topical subjects including: the loyalty of agents, treating the job as a game of fantasy football, league wide concerns, and of course: how they all got their jobs.
The final panel came off as a cruel joke to me. It was four successful lawyers sitting in a row taking turns talking about how they achieved their position in sports and what they do now. They were doing nothing wrong and while I should have had a twinge of envy for their success, I was angrier that they had achieved it at all. I falsely assumed that coming to law school contained the golden keys to the world and any job would be at my disposal upon graduation. While they did nothing wrong talking about their very awesome sounding jobs, I just wished it was myself up there secretly gloating about being an agent or a lawyer for the players association.
The audience which had swelled some during Mr. Bettman’s presentation, and which had now fallen in numbers again, finished the program by asking some more questions and giving a courteous applause to the guests. There was a reception to follow in another room, but it was now late afternoon on a Friday and after sitting through a day of sports, law, and some sports law I felt the need for a pint. My only regret was that the NHL commissioner had already vanished and I wouldn’t be able to debate with him the chances of a Rangers title run and whether there were any jobs in the league office for me.