Last Updated on June 8, 2022
Sports Law Degree: How to Become a Sports Law Professional
The world of sports law is appealing for young professionals seeking a career in law while also pursuing their passion for sports. The skills that law school graduates bring to the table are incredibly valuable to sports organizations and athletes alike, as they frequently have the need to establish and modify relationships using contract language.
Competition within the niche of sports law is fierce, but for those with the right combination of skills it can become a dream career. For those with the perfect balance of skills, work ethic, and legal discipline, visions of swinging big league deals and working beside high-profile teams, coaches, and athletes can become a reality.
What is Sports Law?
Sports law is the collection of law on which the industry depends, including contract, trademark, labor, antitrust, immigration, and criminal law. Looking at all of these categories, it is easy to see that law professionals are an essential part of the sports industry. Their services are required for every agreement between teams and their players, sponsors, media outlets, stadiums, and more.
Law degrees are flexible and can open doors for a degree holder in many different industries in a variety of ways. Dan Matheson, former Director of Baseball operations with the New York Yankees, recently spoke with Sports Degrees Online and had this to share,
“Going to law school doesn’t pigeonhole you or require you to go into the traditional practice of law. Law school teaches very transferable skills in critical thinking, communication and analytical thinking. It sharpens all of those abilities and teaches you really to think like a lawyer in ways that can be transferred to any industry you go into.”
Having training as a lawyer will help you in virtually any professional pursuit. Matheson first held an internship with the Yankees during their Spring Training, and eventually worked his way one to one of the most senior positions at one of the biggest professional sports organizations in the world. When looking back on this, Matheson said…
“I think one of the reasons the Yankees were interested in me when I approached them first for a spring training internship and then when they offered me a job, is that I had that legal training. They were going to be giving me assignments that they could trust me with because I had the writing and reasoning skills of a law student. I could write contract language, I could write an agreement that wouldn’t have required as much editing and could be inserted into a contract with very little changes needed. Working with any rules like the MLB rules, NCAA rules, it’s very much like interpreting legislation.”[source]
Sports Law Jobs & Careers in Sports Law
- A sports agent works for athletes and represents their interests in contract negotiations, sponsorship deals, and financial planning, amongst other aspects of their professional lives. Having a law degree is not a necessity, but can really help a sports agent to fully understand the contracts which they are negotiating and also having the critical thinking skills to work through solutions while negotiating. Also, they are forming arguments on behalf of their clients. They must present a case as to why their player is worth a certain amount of money, and must back this up using logic and data. Check our our guide on how to become a sports agent.
General Manager/Front Office
- A significant amount of general managers across all professional sports hold a degree in law. One notable example is Theo Epstein, the President of Baseball Operations for the Chicago Cubs, who said that having a law degree helped him get “a better seat at the table.”
He described this situation as he was coming up with the San Diego Padres that “…by going to law school and getting the degree, if there was a negotiation where maybe [Padres GM Kevin Towers] would only have the assistant general manager with him, in this case he would approve me as well – if only do the contract language. Getting that seat at the table gave me the opportunity to be involved, and then my responsibilities grew from there” [source].
Having the skills to read, understand, and negotiate contracts is vital for a successful general manager, and almost any sports law program will cover this topic in depth.
- Sports organizations at the professional and amateur level must comply with local, state, and national laws, as well as the regulations set by the governing body which the organization belongs to. These various levels of rules and governance are constantly changing, and it is the role of a compliance offer to stay up to date and compliant with all of these arrangements.
- Having a law degree can certainly assist a compliance officer in reading through the legalese and codification of various rules and restrictions which their employer must abide by.
- Additionally, compliance officers could also be responsible for ensuring that various departments are adhering to internal rules and guidelines. These are usually in flux as well in sports organizations.
- As sports teams are constantly adjusting to how they are promoting themselves and how the media ecosystem is constantly changing, being compliant is not just important, but necessary.
- There is no set field of sports law like there is family law or immigration law. Because of this, sports law is interdisciplinary by nature. Generally speaking, a sports lawyer will have a background in contract law, employment law, labor law (especially related to collective bargaining agreements when working at the professional level), intellectual property law, and copyright law.
- One major responsibility of a sports lawyer is negotiating, drafting, reviewing, writing, interpreting, and explaining contracts. A sports lawyer could be representing a players union, athletic conference, professional sport organization, a college athletic department, or even a broadcasting network.
- As an example, they may be representing the organization in media, sponsorship, or partnership deals. It is crucial that a sports lawyer understands the ins and outs of the sports business, as well as various compliance issues and be able to explain their knowledge in non-legalese terms so that the layman can understand the ramifications of certain actions and agreements.
General Counsel for an Athletic Organization
- It is now standard practice for professional and major sports organizations to have in-house counsel to advise decision-makers on financial, legal, team-related, and facility-related issues. A large market team may have several lawyers that are employed full time.
- Every organization is different, and based on where the team is located, what sports, and what city, its legal needs could change significantly. However, there are some core issues that all teams must deal with. Among the roles, an in-house counselor for an organization would likely be overseeing contract reviews, any litigation related to the team, the drafting of internal policies and procedures, compliance (both internal and external), and the monitoring of intellectual property.
- An effective general counselor is not just focused on rules and regulations, but they are also an advisor to the top brass of the organization. A GC can help executives fully understand the legal implications of their decisions.
- Rob Manfred, the Commissioner of Major League Baseball is a lawyer. This is no coincidence that the commissioner is a lawyer. His predecessor, Bud Selig, taught law at Marquette University, and now is working with Arizona State University’s Law Department.
- Adam Silver, the Commissioner of the NBA is also a lawyer, as was David Stern before him. Gary Bettman, the Commissioner of the NHL is also a lawyer. Do you see a trend? The only commissioner not a lawyer of the 4 major sports in the U.S. is Roger Goodell, but Goodell rose through the ranks in the NFL, starting as an intern.
- While there are only four jobs as commissioner for major sports leagues in America, there are plenty of other organizations in sports which require a commissioner, president, or another high-ranking title that works to settle disputes, grow the sport or league, and solve difficult problems. All of which can be aided with a law degree.
- There is an entire market of lawyers who are involved in defending athletes. Whether they are defending athletes in a court of law, NCAA proceedings, or any internal investigation or hearing from major sports organizations. Whether it be FIFA, the Olympics, or domestic sports leagues, almost over season there are issues that need to be resolved and allegations that must be investigated.
- Many lawyers have built successful careers by representing athletes in these proceedings. Athletes need someone who has the logic and critical thinking skills of a lawyer, as well as fluency of specific rules, by-laws, and regulations which are in question.
Sports Law Professor
- As this field is becoming more popular, there of course will be more demand for professors. A sports law professor can help the next generation of sports professionals gain skills they need to be successful in their personal career, as well as helping their clients achieve their goals and ideal end results.
Emerging Issues in Sport Law
- As the world continues to evolve, more and more legal issues are arising which require legal expertise. The companies and organizations that adapt quickest and get the best sports law experts in place will be setting themselves up for success on the emerging frontiers. Professor John Grady of the University of South Carolina, who recently spoke with Sports Degrees Online, explains,
“I think the technology changes are probably what’s guiding law to be a popular career and one [factor] that will really be changing a lot in the near future in sports. For example, NFTs, gambling legalization, different kinds of social media, and cryptocurrency. So you’re seeing technology really push and advance the law in other areas, those [areas] will eventually trickle into sports and have an impact on sports. So trying to figure out the NFT’s of players such as trading cards or different video compilations, it really is a wide-open legal sphere right now, and I think new younger minds who are more tech-savvy will be needed to sort of educate the lawyers on how these issues might be impacted when they affect sport.[source]
How to Break into the Sport Law Industry
There are myriad pathways that one can take in the world of Sport Law. It can certainly be overwhelming for students and young people to figure out which direction is best. Some of the best advice we have to offer? Fine a good mentor. Again Sport Law Professor John Grady,
“As far as career path advice, especially for those seeking a law path in sport management, it really speaks to finding a good and trusted mentor and recognizing how that person can really, really, truly change your career trajectory in one conversation… One person can change your path. It’s really true.”[source]
Of course, law school is an obvious first step. But choosing the right school is crucial. If you are looking to work only in a certain market (New York for example), then it would be wise to narrow your search on New York schools, as a degree from a New York University will likely bring with it connections in the New York area. However, these connections do not come in the form of names and phone numbers on the back of your expensive degree. You need to work for them, which brings us to the next tactic.
Like the rest of the sports industry, networking is incredibly important. Every relationship that you establish could end up helping you somewhere down the line, and the energy that you put into making connections can turn into career altering opportunities later on.
There are so many opportunities to network. Whether it be attending in-person or virtual conferences and events, building your Linkedin network, or reaching out to friends of friends of friends. One tangible thing you can do is join professional networks such as the Sports Lawyers Association. This membership will get you access to the latest developments in the industry along with access to this amazing and welcoming community. There are different levels of membership depending on your qualifications and interests.
Throughout the process, seek exposure to as many different areas of the sports law field as you can, and treat every opportunity as a learning experience. The earlier you can figure out what you don’t want to do, the quicker you will be on your way to learning what area of sports law you’d like to pursue a career in.
Once you learn where you would like to specialize, seek out connections in that niche and learn all you can about it. Keep in mind that most professionals in sports law need to be proficient in many areas, but it is always good to have an area of expertise that you consider your specialty. If you establish yourself as a specialist in an area that you really enjoy, there is a good chance that you will find yourself doing more of that type of work more often.
Especially in the field of law, internships are crucial to get your foot in the door of this competitive field. You can check out our internships guide for more information on how to best find, apply, and prepare for internships.
Scholarship Information & Resources
Law School is a significant investment of time, and the financial burden is considerable. There are schools and programs willing to work with students to make the cost more manageable. Almost all programs offer their own internal scholarships. When comparing programs, be sure to search the site for scholarships.
As an example, Marquette University has annual competitions amongst its law school students with cash prizes that can be applied towards tuition. For Black students, BESLA is an amazing organization that provides scholarships and mentoring to current and future law students looking to build a career in the sports and entertainment industry. There are other smaller scholarships such as the Phil Cowan – Judith Bresler Memorial Scholarship. You can check out our scholarships guide for general information on finding and applying for scholarships.
Podcasts to Stay in the Loop About Issues Related to Sports Law
Conduct Detrimental, by Dan Lust
Business of College Sports, by Kristi Dosh, @SportsBizMiss
Trustees and Presidents- Opportunities and Challenges In Intercollegiate Athletics (focused on Higher education issues in college athletics), Karen Weaver
Sports Law FAQs
There is no particular major required for entry into law school. Students can gain acceptance to schools with all different backgrounds. Many law schools will look at an applicant’s GPA as well as their LSAT scores. Many people apply to law school immediately after graduation, or much later in life. Each program will have their own specific requirements which can most likely be found on their website.
According to Comparably, the median salary of sports lawyers is well over $100,000/yr. It is certainly possible to make more or less than this, and many people just entering the industry will likely make less, there are quite a bit of potential earnings in this field!