The Journal on Sports and Entertainment Law recently sat down with Rick Buchanan, General Counsel and Chief Compliance Officer of the NBA, to discuss current issues in professional sports. Rick is a 1988 HLS graduate and joined the NBA in 1993.
The interview was conducted by Loren Shokes, an Entertainment and Sports Highlight Contributor for the Harvard Journal of Sports and Entertainment Law and a second year student at Harvard Law School (Class of 2017). The interview is part of JSEL’s interview series with lawyers in the sports and entertainment field that will be featured on JSEL’s website. It has been edited for clarity.
**Please note that, throughout this interview, Mr. Buchanan was speaking in his capacity as an individual and a scholar, and not as a representative of the NBA or any of the NBA’s affiliates.**
Loren Shokes, Journal on Sports & Entertainment Law (JSEL): There is growing momentum that the NFL is seriously considering having a team with its home base in London, England. While the NBA has one team based in Canada, has the League discussed expanding its franchise abroad to make basketball more of a global sport, akin to soccer?
Rick Buchanan (RB): Along with our owners, we are constantly discussing ways of growing our international business. We currently have 14 offices around the world. We have close to 200 employees who are physically on the ground in Asia — in offices in Shanghai, Hong Kong, Beijing, Taipei and Mumbai. We have been playing both pre-season and regular season games in international markets now for more than 20 years, including a slate of games that we traditionally play every year in the pre-season in Europe and in Asia. We’re constantly looking to find ways to connect fans to our game in every country in the world.
The question of whether we can locate an NBA team someplace outside of North America requires an analysis of the logistical hurdles in terms of travel and time difference in order to make that work. It’s something we’re always looking at but I do think the first step you’d more likely see is the exploration of additional markets in North America, and I don’t just mean the U.S. For example, Mexico might be a place we would look at as a next step before we consider countries in non-U.S. time zones or that would require a lot more travel to get back and forth to play games.
JSEL: How and to what extent do you feel the League has changed under the guidance of Commissioner Adam Silver as compared to Commissioner David Stern?
RB: Commissioner Stern is an energetic, charismatic, and incredibly intelligent leader who drove the NBA to a great deal of success over his 30 years as Commissioner. During the last 10 years of that time, Adam was his deputy and they shared virtually every problem and issue that the League went through together. They have a very similar approach in terms of analyzing questions and figuring out creative solutions for dealing with them.
At one level, Adam has continued the excellent stewardship of the League that David started, but there are other areas where Adam has moved forward on his own. Coming in as the new Commissioner, his platform was to re-examine all of our rules, practices, and ways of approaching issues to determine if there were improvements we could make to do things better or more effectively. For example, we’ve now been able to create a game schedule that provides more rest for our players — just because we got underneath it and started over again in terms of how it’s created. We’ve also engaged in a number of transparency initiatives, where by being very open with the public in term of processes that we use, or the data that we have with respect to decision making, play on the court, or whatever it might be, we’ve allowed fans to get a little closer to how issues are resolved at the League Office – which has increased the level of engagement for fans who otherwise didn’t really understand how those matters were handled. Of course, Adam has also done a terrific job handling difficult situations, like the Donald Sterling matter, and in growing the NBA’s business, such as with our new national media agreements that will commence next season. He has stepped right in where David left off.
JSEL: From accusations of match fixing at Wimbledon, to under inflating footballs to try to give certain players an extra edge, to using performance enhancing drugs and painkillers to keep players bodies in championship shape, cheating has become an increasingly poignant subject in the sports world. With respect to professional basketball, what is the NBA doing to keep games fair and maintain the integrity of the sport? Moreover, do you think there is more the League, individual teams, and/or team personnel can or should be doing?
RB: For the NBA and any sports league, the core of the business is the sport itself. You have to get the competition right. There are no shortcuts and we always have to be vigilant. Whether it’s ensuring that we have a state of the art drug testing program, or the salary cap rules designed to promote competitive balance, playing court rules, or whatever else it might be, we need to constantly ensure that our teams are focused and that we are on top of it. And so I don’t think there’s a lot that’s new here. I think the rules and the policies are reasonably well established but it really gets down to the willingness to come in every day and pay attention to those things and work at them and do the enforcement that’s required in order to make sure that players, teams, referees, and everyone involved in the competition understand how important they are. As I said, there are just no shortcuts.
JSEL: Can you elaborate on the rationale and thought process behind the League’s response to the Donald Sterling controversy and if there were any alternative outcomes seriously contemplated before the League decided to render a lifetime ban and order Sterling to sell the team?
RB: This matter has been publicly discussed by the Commissioner and there’s been a lot written on it. It’s a chapter we’re happy has virtually been closed. There’s still some litigation that Mr. Sterling has pending against the League, but we’re confident that there’s no basis for his claims and that they will be dismissed soon enough.
There’s not really much more I can add. When we saw his comments and the tremendously hurtful impact they had nationwide and immediately, we didn’t feel we had any other choice but to take the action we did. We did what we thought was
JSEL: With an ever-increasing number of Americans cutting the cord or never having any form of cable or satellite subscriptions, how has the NBA adopted its marketing strategy and how does it plan to ensure that it maximizes potential viewership?
RB: We are keenly focused on a strategy of making NBA content available to our fans, wherever they are, whenever they want it, and however they want to consume it. With people who either cut the cord or even if they haven’t cut the cord but get a tremendous amount of their content and information via their mobile device or some other form, that’s where we want to be. Whether it’s mobile, whether it’s social, whether it’s some other digital platform, whether it’s getting our games via broadband, we are going to make sure that we are at the cutting edge of whatever the newest technologies are. Our fans, who are extraordinarily tech savvy and are likely to be early adopters of whatever the newest and best technology is, won’t have any problem at all with being able to immediately access all the NBA content that they want. That’s something we are spending a tremendous amount of time on and we always want to be ahead of whatever is next.
JSEL: Can you please tell me more about your career path and how you became General Counsel and the Chief Compliance Officer for the NBA.
RB: After I graduated from law school, I was a clerk for a year on the DC Circuit and after that I went to work at Covington and Burling, a firm in DC where I was fortunate to receive a job offer after being a summer associate. Covington at the time was, and still is, one of the principal outside firms for the NFL so when I went to Covington I worked on NFL matters. I first worked with Paul Tagliabue for a couple of years and then he went off and became Commissioner of the NFL. After that I worked for Jeff Pash, who’s now the General Counsel of the NFL. I was fortunate to get those opportunities and to learn from true experts in the sports law field. After spending a number of years at Covington, I decided I wanted to try a position in-house. I had met people at the NBA because of matters I was handling for the NFL at Covington and ended up interviewing here for an assistant General Counsel job in 1993. I’m still here.
The NBA is a great place to work and every day is something different. It’s a very dynamic company with lots of new and interesting challenges and legal issues. I’ve never really looked back and I’m happy to be here.
JSEL: What advice would you give to law students who are interested in pursuing a career in sports law?
RB: The advice I give is always the same. There’s lots of different ways people can get to where they want to go. There’s no one path and so I would not presume to suggest that there’s only one way to do it. But I would tend to default a little bit to the route I took because I see it replicated with some frequency with other people who join as lawyers in this company and who join as lawyers in other sports organizations.
The first thing you have to do is go out and become best lawyer that you can be and develop your skills as an attorney in whatever discipline you prefer. If you’re a litigator, learn to be a really good litigator; if you’re a corporate lawyer, learn how to be an expert in M&A or finance or governance; if you’re in labor, tax, intellectual property, or whatever it might be, become as good as you can be and distinguish yourself as best as you can from your peers in that area of specialty. And along the way, develop the core skills that all the best lawyers have to have, which means you’re an excellent writer, you spot issues really well, you can present, and all of those things.
In this organization and lots of other similar organizations, we don’t typically look to hire people right out of law school. We’re looking to hire people who have already been trained to some extent and have an ability to come in, hit the ground running, and add value to us on their first day. In order to be that person and get that position, you’ve got to be a really good lawyer. So, if you want to work at the NBA, you need to be prepared to spend at least four or so years after law school learning the craft at a firm, with the government, or in some other legal position — so that if there is an opening here, when I get a stack of resumes, I find yours and it has a bunch of great experience on it and you’re able to convey how much you’ve learned and how adept you are at lawyering by that point.
That’s the advice I always give—just put your head down and focus on developing your skills as an attorney in your first number of years in the profession and then you’ll be in the best position to get a job in sports law or whatever kind of law that you’re ultimately interested in.