GC and Chief of Business Affairs Norman Wain draws on his lifelong passion for athletics in leading USATF to the front of the pack
Something curious happens to kids as they pass through adolescence and into adulthood. Somewhere in between the twilight of our high school years and the start of our lives beyond higher education, whatever lifelong pipedream we’d had seems to be bombarded by reality and we take the next step in a tragically inevitable encore performance of the lives of our parents or other workaday mortals. We stop trying to be the next internationally renowned star athlete or pop star.
When it comes to the highest-profile roles in the business of sports, either as a team’s General Manager or President of Business Operations, rising through an organization can be extremely daunting—even for those armed with JDs and/or MBAs. Whether it’s as an aspiring athlete or business executive, however, the difference between the achievement and abandonment of a dream tends to lie in one’s commitment to it when they’re slogging through the least exciting parts of their journey. For career sports lawyer and executive Norman Wain, reaching a better outcome was all about having the same perseverance as the athletes he represents.
‘The Intern Who Wouldn’t Go Away’
In casting his vision to become an executive within the realm of the sports business, Wain saw law school as a gateway to myriad positions within organizations.
“My thought going into law school was that I was going to use that kind of professional training and insight as a door-opener,” he said. “Depending on what position I ultimately chose to pursue, to at least have that training, that negotiation skill set, and that aggressive mentality in terms of looking at issues and finding solutions to utilize as a tool as I continued down that path. I certainly don’t think it’s coincidental that a lot of teams’ Capologists, General Managers and Presidents tend to be lawyers. I definitely think that there is a correlation for a lot of those same reasons.”
After deciding between his first and second year of law school that working within sports was something he wanted to pursue, Wain began—in addition to working at a law firm by day—volunteering for the Los Angeles Salsa soccer team of the now defunct American Professional Soccer League.
“The LA Salsa was managed by Rick Davis, who had played on the New York Cosmos,” Wain said. “I had grown up watching the Cosmos and knew who Rick Davis was, and so I took this opportunity to meet with him and say, ‘Hey, I’m a Phi Beta Kappa graduate from UC Berkeley, and I’m also doing pretty well in law school. If there’s anything I can do to help you out and be involved, I’m willing to do it for the absolutely low price of free.’ He embraced the opportunity of having an extra resource and enabled me to learn the business side of the sport from A to Z.”
Upon the dissolution of the American Professional Soccer League, Wain was able to leverage the connections he’d made and earned an internship with the upstart Major League Soccer (MLS) organization, doing everything from communications to legal work and putting together the initial general manager packets. He didn’t just assemble them—he studied them.
After passing the bar exam, there was not an open position for in-house counsel at MLS for Wain to assume. Ultimately, those he had worked for as the self-described “intern who wouldn’t go away” were able to find him a job in the PR Department for one of the fledgling organization’s flagship teams, which he ultimately decided to pass on. In 2010, after stints in the sports and entertainment industry and nearly a decade as Vice President of Corporate Legal Affairs at the sporting goods company Finish Line, he reconnected with his old network from his days interning with MLS.
“I met at a Lakers-Pacers game with the inaugural MLS Commissioner, who had become the CEO [Chief Executive Officer] of USA Track & Field [USATF], and I jokingly said, ‘I wonder what the statute of limitations is on a job offer?’ After we had a good laugh, he talked to me about looking to make a transition in his Legal Department. He talked to me about the business focus that he had to transform the organization, and that’s what sold me. Being a partner and being integral in taking a professional, for-profit approach to a nonprofit and treating it just like any other sports business property.”
A For-Profit Approach to Nonprofit
Though the move from one of the nation’s largest mall-based specialty retailers at Finish Line to a nonprofit could have carried some understandable growing pains in tow, Wain seamlessly integrated his Legal Department as a strategic business partner by being proactive with brand management and bringing for-profit thinking and philosophy to USATF. With the subsequent arrival of Max Siegel as the CEO, Wain has been able to learn and grow with another like-minded sports and entertainment executive.
“Brand management is important regardless of the position,” Wain said. “Whether it’s at USA Track & Field, my department, or me and my work product, [brand management] is what I’m selling. I’m selling this type of brand and standard that I deliver on a day-in, day-out basis. For me, it’s unwavering loyalty and integrity, a tireless work ethic and consistent-quality results.”
In brand managing rather holistically throughout the organization, Wain described the immense importance of being on top of intellectual property protections so that the brand and its properties can grow. From events and merchandise to coaching education and youth outreach, having comprehensive brand management that is every bit as circumspect as what could be found in a for-profit organization has allowed for consistency within the developing IP strategy for USATF. It also has helped to keep the mark and seal of the federation from being used inappropriately.
Likewise, Wain shared a story from his time at Finish Line about the way in which any business or organization ought to evaluate its competition. “In one of the business meetings, they asked us to name who we thought our competitors were. And while the natural answers were places like Foot Locker or Dick’s Sporting Goods, and those within the same product category, the reality was, just like in the sports industry, you’re also competing with Best Buy and the jewelry store and everybody else. Because when the consumer walks into the mall, they have ‘x’ amount of money in their pocket that they’re going to spend, and the sport consumer is the same way. You have so many events that you’re going to attend in a year, be it a football game, a baseball game or a track and field meet, so [as a business] you have got to think broader when it comes to eyeballs or ‘butts in seats.’”
“You’re responsible for yourself, but you’re accountable to the organization.”
That quote is a succinct summation of the Oz Principle of leadership that Wain has employed in his executive roles at Finish Line and USATF. He explained in greater detail the way he has led according to the tenets of this leadership model, which is detailed in a book by Roger Cannon, and how he has applied it in his various roles:
“The basic concept [of the Oz Principle] is that it talks about organizational accountability and focusing in on what the organizational goals are,” Wain said. “So you understand what those organizational goals are, you make sure that there’s accountability both within your department and then it trickles down to individuals, and as long as you get that alignment between individual goal and department goal and department goal and organizational goal, then you know that everybody is moving in the right direction.”
“It kind of has that athlete mentality,” he continued. “It’d be great if you could rest on your laurels and show what you’ve done for the last five years, but if you’re not towing your weight now, there’s an issue. Your teammates are counting on you. The expectation is that you’re performing at a high level day in and day out. That’s what the organization expects of you, and that’s your job to perform.”
Wain has taken his love of sports and the intrinsic virtues one derives from playing them at a high level, and fashioned a career of excellence. He has worked hard along his professional path and made significant contributions to each of the organizations he has been involved with—either in a volunteer or professional capacity—through his creative thinking, business acumen and perseverance.
“It’s always been one of my goals to make each place I have been at a little better,” Wain said, “because of the mere fact that I was there.”♦
The Core Four
In terms of advice for young lawyers and law students, Wain has been quoted as saying that it’s important to first learn to be a lawyer and cultivate skills in four key areas of practice. With these, an individual can add value to an organization by having a solid general skills base and knowledge beyond their particular legal specialization.
- Corporate transactional work. “All contracts—nondisclosures, leases, ecommerce agreements, independent contractor agreements, license agreements, sponsorship agreements, etc.—and the ins and outs of all of those agreements.”
- Labor and employment. “Organizations are always hiring, firing, coming up with compensation packages, and dealing with all kinds of employee-related issues.”
- Intellectual property. “Each organization has their marks, their brand, their assets, and what they’re about. What strategies do you have to monitor it, to enforce it, to protect it? Being able to understand those types of issues proactively is important.”
- Litigation. “Not so much in the sense that you can go try a case, but you have to understand how the process works from the law firm side of it. What is their approach to an issue? How much should it cost to file an answer or do discovery? Knowing this can help you manage your outside counsel as you go through some of these cases, and you can keep your legal bills in check—which is another way you can show value and manage expectations both internally and externally.”
Norman's Key Partners:Loeb & Loeb (IP & Marketing sponsorship media) | Faegre Baker Daniels LLP (IP Matters) | Ogletree Deakins (Outside Counsel)
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