The Journal on Sports and Entertainment Law recently sat down with attorney Dolores DiBella, Counsel to the NFL, to discuss current issues in sports law and career development. Ms. DiBella currently manages intellectual property, commercial litigation, employment matters, and rights enforcement for the League and its member clubs. She received her Bachelors in Government from Georgetown University, and her juris doctor from Columbia Law School. After graduating from Columbia, Ms. DiBella was a litigation associate for several years at Proskauer Rose LLP, where she specialized in intellectual property, false advertising, and entertainment law, and handled a variety of commercial litigation matters. She is a frequent guest lecturer and former adjunct law professor. Ms. DiBella joined the NFL at the beginning of 2012.
The interview was conducted by Loren Shokes, a Sports Highlight Contributor for the Harvard Journal of Sports and Entertainment Law and a current second year student at Harvard Law School (Class of 2017).
**Please note that, throughout this interview, Ms. DiBella was speaking in her capacity as an individual and a scholar, and not as a representative of the NFL or any of the NFL’s affiliates.**
Loren Shokes, Journal on Sports & Entertainment Law (JSEL): With the milestone Super Bowl 50 having recently concluded, as Counsel to the NFL, can you describe the type of legal challenges that are addressed in order to prepare for the Super Bowl?
Dolores DiBella (DD): At the NFL, preparation for Super Bowl events often begins several years ahead of time, and the Legal Department has an integral role in that preparation. For example, at least a year beforehand, I often begin working closely with law enforcement in the host city and surrounding areas to ensure that we offer the proper training and resources for counterfeit product and ticket enforcement leading up to the Super Bowl game. In addition to intellectual property enforcement issues ahead of Super Bowl, there are many other legal matters that are addressed such as creative review, contracts, and staffing preparation– just to name a few out of dozens. Every year there are challenges to address in the planning stages, but Super Bowl week is always a rewarding – and exciting—event for both the fans and the League staff.
JSEL: The NFL has been working to grow its international fan base including by scheduling several regular season games in the UK each year. Can you tell us about your role at the NFL’s International Series games?
DD: As the League continues to expand its international presence and hold regular season games in the UK and Mexico, we want to ensure that fans across the globe enjoy an authentic NFL experience. For the International Series games, for example, I work to coordinate counterfeit enforcement operations on game day with several UK enforcement agencies, such as Trading Standards and the Police Intellectual Property Crime Unit (PIPCU), as well as HSI offices overseas. The NFL also works closely with sports leagues and brands abroad so that we can learn about the landscape ahead of time and remain prepared for issues that arise.
JSEL: For years, the NFL and its official partners and affiliates have tried to create new and innovative ways to curb the production and sale of counterfeit game tickets, jerseys, and other official merchandise. For example, in the recent Operation Team Player results announced this month at Super Bowl, the NFL worked with law enforcement to successfully thwart the shipment of over 450,000 items of counterfeit sports merchandise with a retail value of $39 million. Additionally, during a counterfeit ticket and merchandising conference you gave prior to Super Bowl 50 you showed the latest security features on Super Bowl tickets to counteract knock-offs. What strategies is the NFL taking to protect its fans and its goodwill?
DD: The NFL undertakes a multi-faceted approach to its brand protection strategy to protect its fans and business partners year round. Counterfeiting is a crime, and for that reason the NFL coordinates broadly with a number of law enforcement agencies — local, state, federal, and foreign– to give the support they may need for successful operations. We have seen particular anti-counterfeiting success in recent years through Operation Team Player and our collaboration with Homeland Security Investigations and the National Intellectual Property Rights Coordination Center. The NFL also undertakes its own civil enforcement efforts to disrupt the sale of counterfeit NFL products online, including through litigation and seizure actions. In fact, over the last three years, the NFL has filed a number of federal civil cases in the Southern District of New York resulting in the seizure of over 10,000 sites selling counterfeit NFL and Club merchandise. The public has come to expect high quality NFL merchandise, and protecting consumers and maintaining the NFL’s goodwill is an essential part of our brand protection strategy.
JSEL: Many young attorneys who hope to one day work in house at an organization such as the NFL begin their careers at law firms and I understand that after graduating from Columbia Law School you started your legal career in the litigation department at the law firm Proskauer Rose. Can you tell me more about your career path and how you found your position with the NFL? Can you describe the transition between working for Proskauer and being counsel to the NFL?
DD: After graduating from law school, I spent about five and a half years working in the Litigation Department at Proskauer Rose. These years gave me a fantastic breadth of experience in commercial litigation matters, but I was also able to specialize in various intellectual property practice groups, like Trademarks, False Advertising, Copyright, and Entertainment. Building a well-rounded portfolio at the law firm led me to consider in-house opportunities, and then to apply for a position at the NFL that was a match for those litigation skills. The transition between law firm life and in-house life was smooth but of course involved calibrating to the business side of legal practice. Working inside an organization gives you a deep perspective into your client’s priorities, strategies, and the paths for success for each business department.
JSEL: What advice would you give law students interested in pursuing careers in sports law and going in-house?
DD: Start thinking early about the career you want for yourself, and take concrete steps to develop an area of specialty during your law firm years — including by volunteering for non-billable and pro bono assignments in your favorite subject area. With respect to a sports career, I tend to tell students to remember that you need to develop as a “lawyer first, fan second”. First figure out what area of law you enjoy, and then aim to find a position with a sports organization. Sports leagues and clubs engage a broad variety of lawyers: litigation, transactional, real estate, intellectual property, estate planning, labor and employment, and many more; in other words, there are multiple paths to a successful sports career.