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Fight Over Minor League Baseball’s Future Gets Big Time Lawyers (1)

April 27, 2020, 9:46 AM; Updated: April 27, 2020, 6:01 PM

Professional baseball may be on hiatus due to the coronavirus pandemic, but some big name lawyers are working to sort out a disagreement that could shape the future of minor league baseball.

In the thick of the negotiations between Major League Baseball (MLB) and the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues is Stanley Brand, who once served as general counsel to the U.S. House of Representatives under former Speaker Thomas “Tip” O’Neill Jr., and who recently left his role as senior counsel at Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld in Washington.

Brand is now vice president of Minor League Baseball (MiLB), an organization whose trademark is owned by the NAPBL, a St. Petersburg, Fla.-based nonprofit that acts as the governing body for the minor leagues. Brand has worked with MiLB in some capacity since 1992.

Taking the lead on the talks for MLB is Daniel Halem, a former labor and employment partner at Proskauer Rose who now serves as the league’s deputy commissioner and chief legal officer. Halem is working with a predominantly non-lawyer group that includes league economics and operations executives Morgan Sword, Reed MacPhail, and Travis Buck, said two sources briefed on the matter.

Sullivan & Cromwell chairman Joseph Shenker is also providing outside counsel to MLB, which has consulted with team owners Richard Monfort of the Colorado Rockies and Ronald Fowler of the San Diego Padres on its negotiations with MiLB. Fowler serves as chairman and CEO of Del Mar, Calif.-based beer distributorship Liquid Investments Inc., while Monfort is a former ConAgra Brands Inc. executive with restaurant, retail, and real estate investments.

MiLB has assembled its own legal roster as it attempts to secure a new long-term deal with MLB.

The two sides recently returned to the negotiating table as they try to finalize the details on a deal that will delineate a new structure for MLB’s 30 teams and their minor league affiliates. At stake in the negotiations is an MLB proposal that would trim the number of affiliated minor league franchises to 120, cutting roughly 40 teams considered to be either unprofitable or playing in substandard facilities.

Akin Gump Exit

In an email to Bloomberg Law, Brand confirmed his recent departure from Akin Gump in order to return to his “entrepreneurial roots as a small firm practitioner” and teach at the Pennsylvania State University Dickinson School of Law, in addition to his duties at MiLB.

Jeff Lantz, a spokesman for MiLB, told Bloomberg Law that Brand bidding adieu to Akin Gump was a personal and professional decision that “had nothing to do with his role as vice president of Minor League Baseball.”

Brand is working with MiLB general counsel D. Scott Poley, deputy general counsel Robert Fountain, and associate counsel Shannon Finucane, all of whom are based in St. Petersburg, in advising MiLB on its negotiations with MLB, Lantz said. Also serving as special counsel to MiLB on those discussions is George Yund, a partner at Frost Brown Todd in Cincinnati and former CEO of the Louisville, Ky.-based firm. Yund has served as chief outside counsel to MiLB since 1988.

As for Akin Gump, it’s long had close ties to the major leagues, MiLB’s current adversary at the negotiating table.

Retired litigation partner John Dowd was special counsel to three commissioners in investigating MLB’s all-time hits leader, Pete Rose, for betting on baseball. J. Thomas Schieffer, a former senior counsel at Akin Gump who held U.S. ambassadorships to Australia and Japan, was tapped by the league in 2011 to oversee the Los Angeles Dodgers after the team’s ownership found itself in financial trouble.

Brand himself also advised MLB in the mid-2000s when Congress requested documents and testimony from the league over its steroids policies. Akin Gump brought on Brand in 2015 when it absorbed the Brand Law Group, a criminal and political law shop he started in 1999 after dissolving Brand, Lowell & Ryan, a small law firm he ran with prominent Beltway litigators Abbe Lowell and Stephen Ryan.

Tough Times

The talks about a new Professional Baseball Agreement had already grown contentious even before the Covid-19 crisis shuttered U.S. sports leagues and put pressure on minor league team owners forced to cope with a loss in ticket sales and other gate revenue.

In late January, letters between MiLB president Pat O’Conner, Halem, and MLB commissioner Robert Manfred Jr.—a former labor litigator at Morgan, Lewis & Bockius—were exchanged publicly in which the two sides accused each of unproductive negotiating tactics.

MiLB has turned to Congress for support in its effort to stave off a contraction. In early March, just before the coronavirus shut down much of the U.S., Rep. Max Rose (D-N.Y.) publicly praised the passage of a House bill calling for the Government Accountability Office to evaluate the “social, economic, and historic contributions” made by MiLB to “American life and culture.”

Rose, whose district is home to the Staten Island Yankees, which could lose its affiliation with MLB’s New York Yankees, is one of four co-chairs of the Save Minor League Baseball Task Force.

MLB is also aggressively defending itself in Washington. An April 20 filing with the U.S. Senate shows that the league paid $100,000 during the first quarter to The Duberstein Group, a high-powered federal lobbying firm, to advise on issues related to the CARES Act and “Minor League Baseball modernization.”

MiLB also has a Capitol Hill advocate in Brand, who it paid $15,000 to during the first quarter to lobby on labor matters and tax-exempt bonds, according to an April 22 Senate filing. Public records show that MiLB paid another $60,000 last year to Brand for federal advocacy work, which he has handled for the organization through his own firm since 2015.

As vice president, Brand heads MiLB’s “government relations activities, coordinating representation before Congress in connection with legislative proposals impacting the minor leagues,” according to the organization’s website. Federal tax filings by the NAPBL, the nonprofit parent of MiLB, show that Brand was paid a collective $887,625 for consulting services between 2013 and 2018.

(Adds information on MLB owners handling negotiations in fifth paragraph. An earlier update corrected the spelling of Pat O'Conner's name.)

To contact the reporter on this story: Brian Baxter in New York at bbaxter@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Seth Stern at sstern@bloomberglaw.com

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