Scott Wilkinson is the top lawyer for the Atlanta Hawks, one of the NBA’s 30 member clubs. I had the great honor of talking with Scott about his career and background, and he also had some advice for law students interested in sports law. Check out my interview with Scott below in this latest JSEL Career Spotlight.
Name and Position:
Scott Wilkinson, EVP, Chief Legal Officer, ATL Hawks, LLC
Manage all business legal matters for ATL Hawks, LLC
A.B. Duke University (4-year football scholarship)
J.D. Duke University Law School
What do you most enjoy about your job?
I get to work with smart, creative and passionate people, from my co-counsel and paralegal to my CEO and our ownership. The legal work always brings new challenges, so much so that I cannot ever be bored. Attending Hawks games and select concerts is also a plus.
How did you begin working in the sports law industry?
While working as a law firm litigator in 1993, I started my own sports representation business by signing a former Duke football teammate who had just been released by the Green Bay Packers. I grew the football-focused agency to include international basketball players and college coaches, eventually merging with two other agents to form the Buoniconti Sports Management Group in 1995. We had offices in Orlando, Kansas City and Durham, N.C. I divested from BSMG to work as senior counsel at Turner Sports, Inc. in Atlanta in 1999. Turner owned the Atlanta Braves (MLB) and Turner Field, the Atlanta Hawks (NBA) and Philips Arena, the Atlanta Thrashers (NHL), World Championship Wrestling and The Goodwill Games. I was lucky enough to handle legal work for all of these sports teams, venues and entertainment entities.
What has been one highlight from your career?
As a lawyer for World Championship Wrestling, I was tasked to attempt to settle a license agreement dispute with iconic pro wrestler Hulk Hogan. He showed up at our settlement meeting spray tanned in a white tank top, jeans and cowboy boots with bandana on his head. The Hulkster seemed to be in character during the negotiations, arguing that we owed him more than just the contractual royalty because he was the “Babe Ruth of Wrestling.” I had to rebut him with evidence of declining pay-per-view ratings and other sinking popularity indicators. I remained in my lawyer role, suppressing my urge to unleash my own pro wrestling persona. Surreal. My time at WCW provided many highlights like this and was a refreshing place to work immediately after toiling in a commercial litigation law firm environment for years.
Can you speak a bit about your experience doing both legal work and basketball operations for the Hawks from 2006-2015?
I was the Hawks’ Assistant GM and the Chief Legal Officer for 8 years (all but one were playoff seasons) after serving only as CLO for a few years. I was fortunate to be in the right place at the right time in 2005 when the Hawks AGM left to go to another team, allowing me to assume his salary cap management and administrative duties on an interim basis. The eventual replacement AGM was happy to focus on scouting, pro personnel and team building; he wanted me (with invaluable assistance from two other lawyers who worked with me) to keep handling the non-basketball tasks he did not really enjoy. My work earned the AGM title for me in 2007 and I continued in that capacity for 3 different Hawks GMs. I gained extensive exposure to all areas of basketball operations, cap management and team building, even adding supervisory responsibilities for the training staff, the medical staff and the team chef. In 2015, I gave up the AGM title and duties, returning to solely Hawks and State Farm Arena business-side legal work.
What piece of advice would you give to a current law student who wants a career in sports law?
Three main things to remember: (1) be patient – you will not be a team general counsel right out of school. Go spend 5 or 6 years at a large law firm getting training and exposure to complex legal issues, then you will be ready to contribute; (2) volunteer to do the things that nobody else likes to do, it is a great way to entrench yourself in an organization and (3) build authentic relationships, not serial networking acquaintances. Networking works best when you are not trying to network. Help your friends, be a good teammate – it goes a long way and is often repaid in multiples when you least expect it.
What is a recent sports law case or trend that interested law students should do some research about?
In the coming months, look for the Supreme Court’s decision in Alston v. NCAA. In the interim, watch for state-by-state developments regarding college athletes’ monetization of their names, images and likenesses. If those issues do not interest you, track the changes in sports betting legislation across the country.
What do you like to do in your free time?
I enjoy athletic activities of all kinds, including weightlifting, road cycling, wakesurfing, and playing basketball and handball.
Eli Nachmany is a second-year law student at Harvard Law School and the Managing Editor (Print) of the Harvard Journal of Sports and Entertainment Law.