Wrestling magnate Vince McMahon’s second attempt at professional football returns this weekend with hopes of looking nothing like the original XFL that folded in 2001.
The scantily clad cheerleaders and players with nicknames on the back of their jerseys will be absent Saturday when the Seattle Dragons take on the Defenders at Audi Field for the XFL’s inaugural game in Washington.
But the XFL’s latest iteration will have at least one thing in common with its predecessor: lots of lawyers. Lawyers lead three of the league’s eight teams and XFL commissioner Oliver Luck is a former attorney and NCAA executive.
The XFL’s rebirth presented an opportunity to get back into sports management for Brian Michael Cooper, who left a partnership in the entertainment, media, and sports practice at Lewis Brisbois Bisgaard & Smith to lead the Houston Roughnecks.
The other lawyer serving as team presidents are Erik Moses of the D.C. Defenders and Heather Brooks Karatz of the Los Angeles Wildcats. Neither responded to requests for comment about their decision to join the XFL.
“About 50% of my practice was either representing players or companies in sponsorship deals and transactions like that,” Cooper said.
Leaving Big Law
He cited the XFL’s mid-2018 hire of Luck, a former president of Major League Soccer’s Houston Dynamo and CEO of the Houston Sports Authority, as enticing him to leave Big Law behind for a shot at startup sports glory.
Cooper began his career two decades ago in the sports law practice at Proskauer Rose, the one-time home of future pro sports commissioners David Stern and Gary Bettman of the National Basketball Association and National Hockey League, respectively. (Stern died Jan. 1.)
It was Proskauer—in part through former partner Dan Halem, now chief legal officer and deputy commissioner of Major League Baseball—that handled the labor work for the XFL’s first foray into spring football.
McMahon bankrolled that ill-fated venture with television network NBC. The co-founder, chairman, and CEO of World Wrestling Entertainment Inc. is now going it alone, having sold at least $372 million in WWE stock since late 2017 to fund the XFL’s parent company, Alpha Entertainment LLC.
McMahon’s first major XFL investment was recruiting someone to lead the league.
Luck, a former National Football League quarterback who later worked as a commercial transactions associate in Washington at Fulbright & Jaworski (now Norton Rose Fulbright), reportedly received a $20 million multi-year guaranteed contract from McMahon.
The payday helped recruit Luck from his role as an executive vice president of regulatory affairs for that National Collegiate Athletic Association, the governing body for college sports. Federal tax filings by the Indianapolis-based nonprofit show that the NCAA paid more than $1.02 million to Luck for his services in 2017-18.
Luck, the father of recently retired Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck, also spent four years running an NFL developmental league in Europe that ultimately folded in 2007. In public statements since being hired by the XFL two years ago, Luck has emphasized that the newest version of the league will have faster-paced play and innovative rule changes.
Reporting to Luck at the XFL’s headquarters in Stamford, Conn., is a small in-house legal team led by vice president of business and legal affairs Mali Friedman, hired in September after serving as assistant general counsel of the NBA’s Golden State Warriors, and director of legal and business affairs Olivier Manigat, who came aboard around the same time after working in-house at Heineken USA Inc.
Luck, Friedman, and Manigat were too busy this week preparing for the start of the season to discuss with Bloomberg Law the myriad legal matters facing the new league, an XFL spokesman said.
A pension fund filed suit against the WWE in late December claiming that McMahon is diverting financial resources from his wrestling enterprise to the XFL. K&L Gates is representing the WWE in that case.
A firm spokesman told Bloomberg Law that K&L Gates is also advising the XFL on everything from stadium and aircraft leasing to gaming contracts. The firm’s Pittsburgh-based litigator Jerry McDevitt is its longtime relationship partner with McMahon and the WWE.
Roxanne Kosarzycki, who initially joined the new XFL as its first general counsel in late 2018 but left shortly thereafter, did not respond to a request for comment about her departure.
Startup football leagues have at best a somewhat checkered track record of success.
Most recently, the Arena Football League, which had been around in some shape or form for three decades, filed for bankruptcy in December and announced plans to liquidate its operations. The Alliance of American Football also filed for bankruptcy in April 2019, just eight weeks into its first season.
McMahon is perhaps better positioned for success his second time around. The XFL has secured broadcast deals with The Walt Disney Co.’s ABC and ESPN and Fox Corp.’s Fox Sports, all of which will televise weekly games.
“Vince McMahon is a well-capitalized marketing genius,” said George Postolos, a former Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz associate who is now president and CEO of Houston-based sports business consultancy The Postolos Group LP. “TV network interest in more football at lower cost is a big part of the appeal to start a new league.”
Cooper said his day-to-day duties running the Roughnecks involve business generation rather than legal work, although his background does help when it comes to negotiating with sponsors and vendors.
This is the second time Cooper has jumped from a law firm to a sports team. In 2008, he left Haynes and Boone in Houston to become president and general manager of the Rio Grande Valley Vipers minor league basketball team, which won a championship in 2010.
“There’s a lot of great players in the XFL that I think people will know and those that you’re going to want to know,” Cooper said. “I’m just hoping for championship No. 2.”