The Work

February 12, 2010 6:41 PM

As Olympics Open, Lawyers Craft Contracts

Posted by Brian Baxter

Lindsey Vonn. Shaun White. Apolo Anton Ohno.

With the Winter Olympics opening in Vancouver on Friday, the big names on the U.S. squad are already familiar to most of us. But the Olympics are also big business, and some of those names will become even bigger after lawyers finish crafting corporate sponsorship agreements.

"A lot of these big companies make deals with athletes to either endorse the product, use their pictures in advertisements, or come to a corporate event," says Ken Meyer, of counsel in Bryan Cave's Los Angeles office.

Meyer, a former senior executive vice president at MGM, helps companies negotiate sponsorship agreements with athletes and entertainment figures. Most of his clients take one of two approaches: wait and see if they win before offering a contract or sign earlier in hopes of getting a better deal.

Nike has perfected the signing early option, Meyer says, swooping in to get a lower price with the added benefit of watching an athlete blossom under their brand. Some companies, such as Nike, offer bonuses for meeting certain performance standards.

"I've seen companies offer different amounts for gold, silver, and bronze," Meyer says. "And in track-and-field you'll have financial incentives for world records."

Of course, for every reward, there's a personal conduct clause to protect the corporate interest. (Think Tiger Woods.) How strongly worded those clauses are depends on the company, Meyer says. Sports agents will fight for phrasing like "convicted of a felony." But for Meyer, criminal charges are enough to tarnish the athlete's reputation and diminish their value to sponsors.

"On behalf of the company, we usually try and get broad language to cover them should something happen," he says.

One U.S. athlete that seems to have come out of nowhere is skier Lindsey Vonn, who posed for the cover of Sports Illustrated's Olympic preview issue and the magazine's swimsuit edition. (Vonn's mother is a solo practitioner in Minnesota, and her father, with whom she is estranged, is a partner at DLA Piper in Minneapolis.)

Vonn suffered a shin injury this week that could prevent her from competing, but Meyer says it would be unusual for a sponsorship deal to include an "opt out" because of injury. He did, however, notice something interesting during Vonn's rapid rise to mainstream recognition.

"I was surprised she was able to keep her Red Bull headband on for the Sports Illustrated cover," Meyer says. "I guess she must have a good contract." (Meyer declined to speculate on whether Red Bull and Sports Illustrated had reached some sort of quid pro quo that allowed Vonn to don the headband for the cover.)

If Vonn does return to the states with medals in hand, she'll need to start planning for life after the cheering dies down.

"Fame never lasts forever, you need to start life-planning before the cheering stops," says Bryan Cave counsel Roy Hadley, who advises NBA and NFL players on managing their finances. "I tell my clients that when they're famous is the time to sign deals that can pay out long-term."

Done right, two weeks of success can turn into a lifetime of fortune. Speed skater Ohno performed on Dancing With the Stars and nabbed Stephen Colbert as a sponsor. Snowboarder White has branched out into video games and remained an extreme sport staple.

And more than a decade after her last Winter Olympics, Picabo Street, a skier who had a shin injury just like Vonn's, still has sponsors.

Make a comment

Comments (0)
Save & Share: Facebook | Del.ic.ious | | Email |

Reprints & Permissions


Report offensive comments to The Am Law Daily.

The comments to this entry are closed.

By: TwitterButtons.com

[email protected]

From the Newswire

Sign up to receive Legal Blog Watch by email
View a Sample