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The Boxing Esq. Podcast, Ep. 41: Sports lawyer Jim Quinn

10
Jan

The Ring is proud to present “The Boxing Esq. Podcast with Kurt Emhoff.”  Emhoff, an attorney based in New York City, is a top boxing manager who has represented over 10 world champions in his 20-plus years in the sport. 

His guest on this episode – Jim Quinn – is truly a legend in the sports law community. Jim’s been legal counsel for every major sport’s players union, including the NFL, NBA, MLB, and NHL. He’s now of counsel at Berg & Androphy after a long, illustrious run at Weil, Gotshal & Manges. We discuss his new book, Don’t Be Afraid to Win: How Free Agency Changed The Business of Pro Sports. We get into the labor history of the NBA and NFL and how each players union achieved free agency. We also get into how salary caps got imposed in both leagues as a result of collective bargaining and how the sport of boxing can be better organized to maximize its potential.

Below are a few excerpts from the interview:

On why he wrote his new book – Don’t Be Afraid to Win: How Free Agency Changed The Business of Pro Sports and the impact free agency has had on sports:

“Probably about five or six years ago it came to me that this was an interesting story that ought to be told about how we got to be where we are. Why there is a ‘Bird Exception’ to the salary cap in basketball. And what are some of the other rules that quaintly got put together through negotiation? How did “franchise players” (in football) come into view and what do they actually mean? And so thinking about it over time, there were lots of different stories that I thought folks would be interested in whether or not they were lawyers. Just people that are interested in sports and particularly the history of sports. Free agency has had such an enormous impact on all four major sports in different ways. But, it’s made, I think, the major sports that much more fun to follow. Even in the offseason as fans can sit back and try to figure out how for their own fantasy football team where and when this player or that player is going to be playing. Free agency just makes most of the sports of interest for 365 days a year rather than just the season itself.

The fans love it and I think it has obviously been a huge benefit to the players themselves in terms of the economics of the sports. But it’s also helped the leagues and the owners themselves in maintaining a high level of interest. And the easiest way to measure that is just looking at the value of the four major sports leagues’ franchises today. In football, it’s 3 billion or so on average.  Even lowly hockey, it’s close to a billion dollars. In some instances, multiple billion dollars for some of the more popular, large market hockey teams.

So, the world has changed in enormous ways since this fight for free agency first began back in the late sixties and early seventies.”

On how the landmark Oscar Robertson case started as a way to block the ABA-NBA merger but ended up focusing on free agency: 

“The ABA had come into existence in 1966 and 67 and was competing head to head for players with the NBA for several years and obviously that had an enormous impact for players. Finally, it was competition for players and the salaries in both leagues shot up, doubled, within a matter of a couple of years. The ABA and the NBA realized that this was going to cost them a lot of money. They’d look back at what had happened in football a few years earlier where the AFL and NFL had competed with each other but then ended up merging and getting a Congressional law passed that allowed them to merge. So the ABA and the NBA decided to try to do the same thing. 

Well, before they could get a law passed, they announced that we’re going to have a merger and (Larry) Fleisher (Counsel for the NBA Players Association) once again being a provocateur and leader, along with the then president of the NBA Players Association, the union, happened to be Oscar Robertson, who was obviously a leading superstar back in the late sixties and early seventies. And they decided to file a lawsuit to try to block the merger and enjoin it as a violation of the antitrust laws. And, they ran into court and sure enough, the judge agreed with the players that, in fact, it was a violation. He enjoined the merger and as part of that lawsuit almost as an afterthought, the players and the players’ lawyers at Weil Gotshal, added some claims that went to the free agency and reserves system that existed in the NBA. And suddenly the case after a number of years switched from a focus of seeking to enjoin the merger and became focused on the reserve clause and option clauses that prevented players and basketball players from being able to negotiate with other teams after their contracts were up. 

And ultimately, and literally on the eve of trial, the case had gone very well for the players. On the eve of trial, the NBA and the players union settled. And for the first time, there was free agency in basketball. That settlement, which became known as the Oscar Robertson settlement, lasted for a decade. During that period of time, there was additional negotiations that made the system that much freer for the players over time. One of the ironies was that a lot of people even today focus on the Curt Flood case in baseball thinking that that was the catalyst for bringing about free agency in sports. In fact, Curt Flood lost that case in the Supreme Court. And it wasn’t until several years later, in an arbitration, known for a player, a Dodger pitcher by the name of Andy Messersmith, that in fact, an arbitrator ruled that the option clause could not prevent players after the option was exercised once to negotiate with other teams. And thus, free agency came into being in baseball. One of the ironies is that the Oscar Robertson settlement and the Andy Messersmith arbitration decision came down virtually simultaneously. So that, free agency in basketball and baseball both came into the fore in the mid-1970s.”

On the opportunity for growing boxing now:

“I think one of the things that, I think it’s probably true, maybe more so in boxing than in most sports is that given this enormous number of new outlets, whether it’s Apple TV or whatever, I guess NBC is putting one streaming with their Peacock Network, which is going to start soon. All of these are desperate for content. And, live sporting events remain one of the few types of content that people want to watch because it’s live. I would think that that boxing and for that matter, the UFC, have more and more opportunities in the near term with all of these new outlets looking for content.”

On how boxing can be improved:

“The reality is that because right now [boxing] is so haphazard, you know, there’s an occasional great fight that people are willing to spend $50 or $60 or whatever more to see on pay-per-view. The lack of organization I think is hurting the sport in a significant way. Uh, you know, I don’t have to tell you. To the throwback, boxing, at one time, along with horse racing and college football, were the three biggest sports in America for many years. That is obviously no longer true. Boxing is probably in sixth or seventh now. But there’s no reason why, with better organization, they couldn’t – particularly with all the outlets that exist today, that they wouldn’t be able to climb their way back up.”