Timothy Kelly said his in-house legal gig with the XFL, a renegade spring football league backed by wrestling titan Vince McMahon, was a dream come true.
“Every day you were doing sponsorship contracts, giveaways, promotions,” Kelly said. “That’s what I love about working in sports—you’re never bored.”
It didn’t last long. Kelly spent roughly two months with the XFL before it filed for bankruptcy a year ago this week. Roughly a hundred people who worked for the startup league lost their jobs.
The XFL’s quick demise showed how the coronavirus pandemic wreaked havoc on professional and amateur sports. Lawyers of all stripes in the sports business either found themselves out of work or working overtime to figure out how to make athletic competitions reasonably safe during a time of elevated risk.
But despite those complications related to Covid-19, lawyers determined enough to stay within their sports specialties were able to do so—though not always easily.
The XFL as it launched last spring was able to recruit high-end legal talent in its effort to carve out a presence in the crowded U.S. sports landscape.
Bloomberg Law reported last year on the XFL hiring lawyers to run three of its eight teams, as well as the league’s multimillion-dollar recruitment of Oliver Luck—an attorney and former NCAA executive—to be its commissioner.
Kelly, who was once general counsel for the now-defunct Arena Football League’s New York Dragons, knew he had to seize the XFL opportunity when he had a chance.
He gave up a position as a legal and talent affairs executive at William Morris Endeavor in New York for an hours-long commute each day from his home on Long Island to the league’s headquarters in Stamford, Conn.
In the sports industry, there are only so many jobs, Kelly said.
When the XFL collapsed, he consulted with his wife, a teacher, about whether it was time to give up his sports dreams and take a job at a law firm or some other employer. They decided Kelly should stay in the industry he loved.
So he looked, and waited.
“I was out of work for almost a year,” Kelly said. “It was a grind.”
He finally got a break when a former golf agent who he worked with at William Morris Endeavor tipped Kelly off about a position at Hall of Fame Resort & Entertainment Co.
Kelly applied—and got the job. He started March 22 as an assistant general counsel with the newly public entertainment, media, and resort company that is based around the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.
He expects to relocate later this year to Canton, where the National Football League plays its annual preseason Hall of Fame game.
“It couldn’t have worked out any better,” Kelly said.
New Sports Lives
Most of Kelly’s other XFL legal colleagues have also now found new employment.
Mali Friedman, hired as the league’s general counsel in September 2019, this week joined the NFL’s Washington Football Team as a deputy general counsel. The job reports to new chief legal officer Damon Jones, a former top lawyer for Major League Baseball’s Washington Nationals.
Friedman left her job as an assistant general counsel with the National Basketball Association’s Golden State Warriors, who have enjoyed both on- and off-court success in recent years, to join the upstart XFL.
Brian Michael Cooper, who ran the XFL’s Houston Roughnecks, last year returned to Big Law by joining Frost Brown Todd as a partner to help that firm open an office in Houston. He takes pride in having run a team that finished 5-0 in the XFL’s abridged 2020 season, making the Roughnecks the league’s de facto champions.
“I would’ve loved to see that story line play out, I loved everything about my job,” said Cooper, noting that the Roughnecks drew nearly 20,000 fans in one of their last games. “We had a good product and we proved there’s a demand for it.”
Future of Football
The dissolution of the XFL, a reboot of a 2001 professional football venture also backed by McMahon, marked the demise of yet another attempt at creating an alternative to the NFL.
The Alliance of American Football, a would-be spring rival to the XFL, filed for bankruptcy in 2019 and liquidated its operations.
But the XFL, during its short existence, may have left something of a legacy.
The league was an early adopter in its engagement with gambling enterprises and implementing unique sports advertising campaigns. The XFL also sought to sign college players not eligible to play in the NFL and adopted new rules on the field, such as widely praised changes to kickoff formations.
“We were able to get a lot of high-quality talent that was looking to showcase itself on national television and then get signed by the NFL,” said Heather Brooks Karatz, who was president of the XFL’s Los Angeles Wildcats.
Karatz, an attorney who previously worked for the NFL and National Hockey League, became one of the few women ever tapped to run a pro football team when she was named Wildcats president in 2019.
This month, Karatz took a new job as an executive vice president for growth and operations at the United Talent Agency. She said the XFL “proved that spring football worked—but it’s very expensive to run a spring football league.”
A League’s Death
Trying to run a sports startup without fans in the stands watching actual games is what ultimately killed the XFL, said Kelly, Cooper and Erik Moses, who was president of the league’s D.C. Defenders.
“Casualty of the pandemic,” said Moses, another former AOL lawyer who prior to joining the XFL was CEO of the D.C. Sports & Entertainment Commission and managing director for Events DC, roles that made him the sports czar of Washington.
Moses said the beer snake, a creation popularized at D.C. Defenders games that linked thousands of empty plastic beer cups, shows how the best marketers and public relations professionals are no substitute for old fashioned fan engagement.
Luck, in one of his last acts as commissioner, even contributed to the elastic serpent that slithered in the stands at Audi Field, something Moses attributed to growing fan enthusiasm for the XFL’s on-field product.
“There was the uphill battle of whether professional spring football works given the array of dead bodies from previous leagues scattering the landscape,” Moses said. “But we were onto something, most importantly with the broadcast deals that allowed every one of our games to be televised nationally.”
After the XFL went bust, Moses spent several months working at Washington’s Fisch Sigler before becoming president of the Nashville Superspeedway, a position that made him the first Black man to head a NASCAR track.
An XFL Revival?
The XFL was sold out of bankruptcy for $15 million last August to Alpha Acquico LLC, a group led by wrestler-actor-entrepreneur Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, his ex-wife Dany Garcia, and former Goldman Sachs Group Inc. partner Gerald Cardinale of RedBird Capital Partners LLC, a prominent sports business investor.
Redbird partner Alec Scheiner, a former NFL executive who once served as president of the Cleveland Browns and general counsel of the Dallas Cowboys, told Bloomberg Law via email that Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson partner Mark Lucas—a former Goldman lawyer—advised the group on its purchase of the XFL.
Scheiner didn’t respond to a request for comment about the XFL’s current plans. The XFL’s owners confirmed in March they would postpone a relaunch for the 2022 season while they engage in discussions with the Canadian Football League about a potential combination. Talks between the two leagues are reportedly ongoing.
Meanwhile, the XFL’s former owner and commissioner continue to battle in court.
Luck and McMahon have filed dueling wrongful termination and breach of contract lawsuits against one another contesting whether Luck is owed $23.8 million from his XFL contract. K&L Gates, a longtime legal adviser to McMahon-related entities, is representing the WWE Inc. chairman and CEO in the dispute.
John Wilson, a sports and technology law partner at K&L Gates in Seattle who was seconded to the XFL after Friedman went on maternity leave, declined to discuss the league. K&L Gates told Bloomberg Law last year that it helped get the XFL off the ground, handling everything from player contracts to aircraft and stadium leases.
Andrew Zeitlin, a partner at Shipman & Goodwin in Stamford representing Luck, didn’t respond to a request for comment about his client’s XFL experience.