Top sports lawyer excels as GC of Brooklyn Nets, Barclays Center

Jeff Gewirtz says his job is a slam-dunk

He might only be 5 feet 7 inches tall, but Jeff Gewirtz is a giant in the sports law world.

As an undergrad at Tufts University, Gewirtz, a lifelong tennis aficionado, envisioned becoming an agent for professional tennis players. Through his research, he found that the most high-profile agents at the time all had law degrees. So he followed their lead and pursued a law degree at Brooklyn Law School. Once he realized how much he enjoyed his classes and internships, he changed direction and decided he wanted to practice sports law.

After graduation, he went to work in the sports industry practice group at Dunnington, Bartholow & Miller in New York. There, he handled legal work—including corporate, intellectual property, litigation, marketing and sponsorship agreements, licensing and merchandising deals, risk management and governance—for the United States Tennis Association (USTA), the U.S. Open, the International Tennis Hall of Fame and other sports clients.

From there, Gewirtz hopped to a variety of in-house positions at sports organizations, including the Women’s Tennis Association and the Ladies Professional Golf Association, where at 29 years old he was the youngest general counsel of any major professional sports organization in the country. He also was a lawyer for the International Olympic Committee, which led him to another position in the legal department at The Coca-Cola Co. before returning to the Olympic movement as general counsel of the United States Olympic Committee.

Today, Gewirtz is executive vice president of business affairs and chief legal officer for the Brooklyn Nets, which this season will debut as a newly named National Basketball Association (NBA) team in a brand-new facility, Barclays Center.

With all this experience, it’s no wonder that Sports Business Journal named Gewirtz one of the “Forty Under 40” top sports executives three years ago.

Q: How did you come to work for the Brooklyn Nets and Barclays Center?

A: I always had a vision and a desire to come full circle and come back to my hometown of New York. It was just a tremendous opportunity. We’ve had a lot of new stadiums built in New York over the past few years, including the USTA’s new outdoor facility, the Mets’ and Yankees’ new outdoor facilities, and the Jets’ and Giants’ new stadium in New Jersey. But there hasn’t been a new indoor sports arena constructed in New York since 1968. So the prospect of helping to be part of building this new sports arena and bringing major professional sports back to Brooklyn for the first time since 1957, when the Brooklyn Dodgers left for Los Angeles, was an incredibly enticing opportunity, as was working on the Nets side of things.

Q: What does your job entail?

A: I work closely with David Berliner, the general counsel of Forest City Ratner Cos., which is the lead developer for Barclays Center. He’s been a great mentor of mine because although I have deep experience in sports marketing, media, licensing and advertising, my real-estate background is very modest. David has been the lead lawyer on the development side of the Barclays Center transaction, and I’ve learned a tremendous amount from him about the real-estate business, zoning, environmental legal issues and more.

As the chief legal officer for the arena and the team, my responsibilities are very broad and not limited to traditional sports law issues. I handle everything including coaches and scouting contracts, general employment issues, tax issues, licensing agreements, sponsorship agreements, working with our media partners, IP, concessionaire agreements and much more. I also have a lot of interaction with the NBA and must ensure that we’re in compliance with its rules and regulations at all times.

Q: What has been most challenging about your job so far?

A: The most challenging part has been the years of litigation we were confronted with related to the arena project. Ultimately, we prevailed to the point that allowed us to break ground and commence construction on Barclays Center. In addition, much of the financing for the project was done in 2008 at the depths of the recession, so that was a significant challenge that we were able to overcome as well.

Q: What is one of your nonwork passions?

A: I’m on the boards of a few charities, most notably the Jewish Vocational Services of MetroWest New Jersey (JVS). It’s a non-profit community-based health and human services organization that helps more than 18,000 individuals a year on a nonsectarian basis. Primarily what they do is help both unemployed individuals and individuals with disabilities and provide them with vocational skills so they have the ability ultimately to work. They also provide immigrants with language skills, resume writing skills and computer skills.

One of the most high-profile things they’re involved in is the JVS Darfur Resettlement Project, through which they help resettle immigrants from Darfur [Sudan] who are in the crosshairs of the humanitarian crisis that’s been going on there for several years. They resettle them here in the U.S., give them housing, job-training skills and language skills so they can find work and become productive members of society.

Q: What advice would you give to a young person who wants to become involved in sports law?

A: The easiest route, frankly, is to go to the best law school you can, get the best grades you can, go to the best law firm you can—preferably a law firm that has sports industry clients—get exposure to those clients, and then ultimately impress those clients and hope to get an offer to move in-house. Many of the lawyers I’ve dealt with and know through the Sports Lawyers Association ultimately went in-house within professional sports leagues because they worked on matters for those clients as outside counsel.

Q: What’s your proudest career moment?

A: For my current job, the most rewarding moment will be showing up Sept. 28 on opening night at Barclays Center and watching the curtain come up on Jay-Z to perform.

Q: If you didn’t work in law, what would your dream job be?

A: I’d like to be a top 10 player on the ATP [Association of Tennis Players] World Tour, but unfortunately I don’t have the physical gift to allow me to do that, notwithstanding the fact that I’m
5 feet 7 inches tall. So my dream job would be to be the CEO of the ATP World Tour.

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