The Intersection of Sports and Law in a New Era with Don E.N. Gibson
In this episode of On Record PR, Jennifer Simpson Carr goes on record with Don E.N. Gibson, President and CEO of Kavi Sports, to talk about the evolution of sports and law. Don is an accomplished attorney, business executive, and entrepreneur in the sports and entertainment industries. Don has represented entertainers, athletes, and companies in business and legal matters, and spent more than 20 years in senior leadership positions with major sports organizations. He was an attorney in the Office of the Commissioner of Major League Baseball, then became Vice President and General Counsel, and Senior VP and Acting President of MLB Properties. Following his tenure with MLB, Don served as the Chief Executive of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, where he was responsible for all day-to-day administration of the institution, including management of the $103 million new Hall of Fame Riverfront development project. Don is currently President and CEO of Kavi Sports, a consulting firm that provides strategic planning, licensing, intellectual property management and development, and business development services to clients.
Don is also a Professor of Practice at Arizona State University, Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law, where he teaches courses in sports law and business. He has been twice elected by the students as Faculty of the Year, most recently in 2023. Don holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Economics from Bucknell University, and a Juris Doctor degree from UCLA School of Law where he was a member and Chief Comments Editor of the Law Review.
How did you end up working in the sports industry?
It really is the epitome of how most people get into the industry, and that is being in the right place at the right time. I was a young entertainment litigation attorney in Los Angeles. My firm represented some of the most high-profile music, television, and film personalities and companies. I was enjoying that work. My very first client that I did work for was Jane Fonda. But I had a deep passion for baseball, and three years into my experience as a young attorney, I decided to visit Arizona and attend spring training games. I spent two weeks between Tucson and Phoenix going back and forth to those games. At the end of that trip, I decided that if I wanted to be an attorney, I wanted to be an attorney in baseball. I reached out to a friend who was a colleague of mine at Stanford Law School.
I spent a year teaching there on a fellowship and he and I became close friends. His name is Bill Gould. He was a Labor Law Professor and he was also doing salary arbitration work for Major League Baseball at the time, and baseball was our deep connection. He is the most avid Celtics and Red Sox fan. I’m the most avid Knicks and Mets fan. Our fandom became a connection and also a way in which we were able to rival each other for many years. I reached out to Bill and I said, “I would like to get a job in baseball. Can you help me?” He said he would do anything to help and started sending my resume around. I got the same response from everyone: “Impressive resume, but no job available.” However, in several instances, they offered the opportunity to meet with me if I ever happened to be in that town.
This all started in May of 1988. Then in August, I had to go to Baltimore for the wedding of one of my Bucknell classmates, and I decided I would visit my family in Brooklyn. I contacted the Mets and the Commissioner’s office, both of whom I had heard from, and asked if they were still willing to meet with me if I’m in town. Both said yes. I had a meeting with the General Manager of the Mets. At that time, it was Al Harazin. He was a former lawyer who became general manager. I thought that would be an insightful meeting for me, to learn from someone who transitioned from being an attorney to being general manager. We had a great meeting and the next day I met with the Director of Legal Affairs for the Office of the Commissioner of Major League Baseball. At that meeting, he tells me they now have a job open and I’m the first person they were interviewing. I was in the right place at the right time.
I went through this incredibly arduous interview process, which included being invited to the World Series and watching the Oakland A’s and the Dodgers play. I said, “Who needs a job if I can simply go through an interview process as simple as this?” But in all seriousness, later in that following February, my last interview was with the then-National League President soon-to-be Commissioner Bartlett Giamatti and his soon-to-be Deputy Commissioner Fay Vincent. They were the last people who interviewed me. A week later I was offered the job. I informed my firm that I was leaving and made the trip back to New York.
Jennifer Simpson Carr: What a great story. You are talking to a fellow Mets fan. I was actually born in Arizona. My mother coached basketball there. I have very fond memories of spring training with my parents. Back then, you could get very close to the players. Now it’s all different, but what an amazing story.
What advice would you offer to someone seeking a career in the sports industry?
I think the first thing I would say is, understand that being a fan is not going to get you that job. You certainly have to have knowledge of sports and be passionate about sports, whether it be teams, leagues, or some of the various organizations involved in the industry of sports. They’re not looking for fans. They’re looking for passionate, knowledgeable people, but they want people who are going to work hard and deliver great results. I see so many people who say, “Gosh, I’m a huge sports fan.” But that’s not what it’s about. It’s about being consistently great at what you do and delivering these companies results that will allow them to want to keep you in the fold. That’s the secret to a long-tenured opportunity. You have to build a great network of relationships with highly respectful people who can influence and impact your ability to get that opportunity, whether that person is involved in sports or not. Certainly, having relationships with people involved in the industry will pay huge dividends.
Jennifer Simpson Carr: Those are great answers. They sound very much aligned with the expectations of athletes: showing up every day and working hard.
Don Gibson: Exactly. I tell my students that as someone working in the front office, the legal department, or the sales and marketing department, you have to go to work every day in this industry understanding that like the athletes and the coaches, you have to be a winner. You have to excel, and you have to produce results. Every day you read the papers and you see the obituaries of coaches and players who are terminated because they didn’t perform to the expectations. The same thing happens in the front offices, business departments, and marketing departments within these organizations and companies. If you don’t perform, you won’t be around very long.
Could you share with our listeners your greatest challenges and successes while working for Major League Baseball and for the Basketball Hall of Fame?
There are so many. Where do I start? I think the first thing you start with is that these jobs are available so infrequently that when you get the opportunity, the pressure to succeed is incredibly great. There is always going to be someone ready to take your place because the jobs are so desirable. People are attracted to these jobs because of the apparent sex appeal, if you will, of the industry and being in close proximity to high-profile, sometimes famous people. Again, it’s all about production. When you get in the door, the pressure to succeed is something you have to be able to face head-on and deliver the results that will allow these companies and organizations to keep you employed. I would say that challenge of meeting those expectations is real.
I like to tell a story, just as an aside, to put into context how difficult it is to get into the industry. In 1992, three years into my tenure at Major League Baseball, I was general counselor of Major League Baseball Properties at the time, and I hired my very first senior staff member. He was a young attorney. He retired from his position at Major League Baseball two years ago. These doors open, and most people who get these jobs don’t want to give them up voluntarily. This goes back to the pressure and the challenge to make sure you excel because there’ll always be someone else that can be brought in to replace you.
In terms of my role and my job function at Major League Baseball Properties, the biggest challenge that I encountered was within three months after I was named Senior VP and Acting President, we had the labor stoppage of 1994 and the cancellation subsequently of the World Series. That was cataclysmic. Canceling the World Series, you would think that Major League Baseball as an institution had taken the heart out of most Americans who were baseball fans or had taken their children away from them. The anger, the level of upset, and the impact it had on the business was dramatic.
I think most people in the industry at that time would say it probably took a good three to four years to recover from that, in terms of the business, the fan interest in the game, ticket sales, television rights sales and licensing, merchandise sales, and sponsorship opportunities. A number of licensees went out of business because they could not sustain themselves as a result of that time period. I would say that was the greatest challenge. One of the things that I look back on with great pride is coming out of that labor stoppage. At the beginning of the 1995 season, we launched the first ever national marketing campaign for Major League Baseball. The tagline was What a Game, and we got Aretha Franklin, LL Cool J, Mary Chapin Carpenter, and the Goo Goo Dolls to be involved in music videos that included players, championing how great the game is and trying to get the fans to embrace the game with the same level of excitement and love and passion that they had previously.
At the Basketball Hall of Fame, the biggest challenge was one that I never anticipated until I took the job, and that was recognizing that the institution had no brand identity. Most people did not even know where the Basketball Hall of Fame was located. When I encountered professional basketball players who had no idea where it was located, I knew we had a problem. There was just no awareness of this institution and what it stood for and certainly wasn’t held in the same level of ideal as the Baseball Hall of Fame where people take annual pilgrimages as fans to go visit.
The big challenge was helping to develop a new awareness of the Basketball Hall of Fame by building a brand and creating the Enshrinement Ceremony. We turned that into something that was more glamorous and Hollywood-like that people would want to attend and that they would want to broadcast on television. Those were the things that I was able to accomplish that I look back on with great pride. Certainly, I am also proud of getting the new facility development off the ground, being involved with the architects and the design and all of the various elements of the new facility.
Jennifer Simpson Carr: I will say as someone who is currently very intimately involved with the Basketball Hall of Fame induction process, it is class. That is probably many thanks to your experience there and your impact. It is top of the line. They have treated us so well. For the listeners who may not know, my mother is representing the 1976 Olympic Women’s Basketball team. We were in Houston several weeks ago for the announcement with the ’23 class, and then in August, they’ll be enshrined. It has been an incredible experience and they’ve made it very glamorous. That’s a great success.
Don Gibson: I worked with someone named Todd Radom who’s one of my business partners now. He was a friend back then and did a lot of work for Major League Baseball when I headed Major League Baseball Properties. We developed a whole new logo for the Hall of Fame, which is still being used. The Enshrinement dinner used to be a sit-down dinner in the local auditorium. The year that Larry Bird was going to be enshrined, I pushed and got the support of the NBA and the board to turn it into a really high-end affair. We sold tickets, and we had fans come down from Boston. It was televised by the NBA. It became a Hollywood-style Oscar or Grammys kind of presentation. That has continued to this day and they had not done anything like that before then. It has become much more high-end in that sense.
As a general counsel at a major sports organization, what recommendations would you have for GCs who come up against unexpected crises or challenging times? How do you advise that they get through that?
One thing I learned firsthand is that when I went in-house after being an attorney at a private firm representing private clients and corporate clients, lawyers have an image within the business circle that is very difficult to dispel. Lawyers are often viewed as the people who screw up deals because they’re more concerned about problems as opposed to finding solutions and identifying problems as opposed to creating solutions. I remember when I told staff people at Major League Baseball Properties that they have to go talk to the legal department, they would say, “Oh my God. No. Do we have to?” Because they’re looking to get a deal done, and the lawyers typically say, “This is a problem. You can’t do it,” as opposed to, “Okay, let me figure out how to help you get it done.”
I think that if you take that mindset and become totally immersed in the business operations and the goals and objectives of the people in the marketing or communications departments and understand that your job as a lawyer should be first and foremost to help them do their jobs best, you’ll be much better appreciated, and you’ll be better at what you do.
What trends are you seeing in this industry, and how are they impacting your business at Kavi Sports and the sports industry generally?
One trend that stands out to me started a few years ago, and it is the professional athlete who finally realized that they themselves were brands and that they can build an entire enterprise around themselves as a brand and create revenue streams outside of their work as an athlete. Athletes are creating their own personal logos, attaching them to business enterprises that they were involved in, and understanding that this is a way of creating an income stream that will sustain them after their careers have ended. It took a long time for most athletes to appreciate that, and I started to see this trend becoming more realized a few years ago. Now it has been ramped up in the last two years with the college and high school athlete marketplace because of the ability to commercialize their name, image, and likeness rights, which is a result of a number of litigation matters involving the NCAA, which the NCAA has lost.
Now the marketplace is wide open for college athletes, and in many states high school athletes, to profit from the value that they can attach to their name, image, and likeness, which in almost every instance is going to be tied to their success as an athlete. I think that’s a huge trend, which creates a multitude of opportunities for people who want to think outside the box and create opportunities for themselves. When you look at the percentage of athletes who can matriculate from the college level or the high school level to the professional sports ranks, it’s a minuscule amount. If during their time as high school students or college students, they’re able to capitalize on their fame and the exposure they have on the playing field or on the court to turn that into income and opportunities to build businesses, enterprises that they can then own and monetize, then it creates a huge set of opportunities for people who will never make it as professional athletes. That is something I’m looking at, and it’s something that I’m actively involved in.
Jennifer Simpson Carr: I was a college athlete D2. I was not going to be on anyone’s radar, it just got me through college. It’s been interesting to watch, as a former college athlete. Many of my family members played sports. I remember sitting with my cousin who played football at a major D1 school, and we were playing Madden. We had that conversation years ago. Fast-forward, maybe 20 years out now, I’m out of college. I know this week Angel Reese signed her latest deal with Mercedes. It’s been exciting to watch that evolution, and the opportunities come about for individuals who can capitalize on that moment in their life. As you said, there’s such a small percentage of individuals who go on to pro, but there are revenue streams the pro athletes can have once they’re done playing. Many are not lasting years and years as professional athletes because of the toll it takes on their bodies.
Don Gibson: I think the experience that you can have as a high school or college athlete being represented and partnering with smart businesspeople will teach you lessons that you can then take to your next career and beyond. So many of the professional athletes come from high school or just after two or three years of college, and they haven’t had exposure to the way in which business operates. They haven’t had the ability to learn from experienced people so that they can then take a career that might only last on average two to two and a half years and transfer that into something that they can then develop long-term. The lessons they learn doing those things might lead them to purchase businesses, whether it be quick service food or an automobile dealership. Those lessons will allow them to be positioned for success long term.
Are there any other trends that you’re seeing in the industry?
One that I don’t particularly care for is the importance of social media. There are so many instances, and just look at the situation with Ja Morant, where athletes have found themselves in very precarious positions because of the exposure that they have gotten on social media. People hit send and they think they can retract what they have just sent and they can’t. People will tweet things and try to delete a tweet, but somebody has done a capture of it and now you still have to deal with the consequences of the message or words that you have chosen. People in high school are active on social media, and they don’t understand the impact that might have on their ability to be admitted to a college or to be recruited to a college because certain things they have done have been captured and communicated and are now there for eternity.
People see that and judge and evaluate them based on that. I think the trend of being immersed in social media and fighting with people who have no interest other than to engage with you in a way that is unseemly, is one that I just don’t like. I think that most people who are looking to be athletes at a college level or a professional level need to recognize that social media can be your own worst enemy, and maybe you’re better off having someone else serve as an interface as opposed to interacting directly with people who will call you names and say disparaging things which will make you feel the need to respond. There are some athletes who just stay quiet and don’t get involved, and yet they get chastised for being quiet. It just shows you that there are no winners in this, so you may as well just stay out of the fray, get your business done, do it the best way you can, and leave social media for the people who just want to engage and be negative.
Are you seeing an impact on technology in sports and if so, what does that look like?
No doubt. It’s been interesting to watch a sport like Major League Baseball, for example, which is extremely conservative, start to embrace the use of technology, particularly in the last three to five years. Technology makes the sport more enjoyable for the viewer. We also have instant replay technology for training purposes for athletes to improve their performance on the field. Technology to assess athletes’ performance analytics is based on being able to determine tendencies and how those tendencies might impact performance. Now it’s across all sports. Baseball is so steeped in analytics. Now you see it being used as a great measure in sports like football and basketball. I don’t see it going away because the technology has proven to be such a valuable asset in helping athletes perform better, helping prevent injuries, and helping athletes train better.
Now you’re seeing it passing on to the way in which the game is played. I would point to Major League Baseball as one of the best examples of that with the use of the pitch clock this year, and then beginning last year, the use of the PitchCom technology, which is one of the projects that I helped develop and brought to Major League Baseball. Being able to eliminate any possibility of cheating or sign stealing through nefarious methods. You enhance the integrity of the game, but at the same time you’re speeding up the game and providing more action and less downtime, therefore improving the pace of play and making the game more enjoyable for that fan. This year alone, if you go to a baseball game, you’re on average leaving 35 minutes earlier than you did last year.
That’s immense in terms of the younger audience that baseball wants to attract and retain. They have a very limited attention span, and not having to sit there with all this downtime and be bored if you’re not yet a serious baseball fan is immense. You look at football and the use of microphones and helmets to transmit play calling and the way technology is used to break down plays and how you can disrupt a certain tendency of a team or anticipate a certain formation or play that a team might run. It’s huge and it will just continue to be that way.
What was your experience being involved in bringing innovative technology like PitchCom to a sports organization?
It was during my ownership of Kavi Sports and my work there. The founders of PitchCom were introduced to me by a mutual friend who was aware of what they had developed, but they were not getting any interest from Major League Baseball through the communications they had sent. My friend said, “Well, if you want to get into baseball, I know the person who can help you.” I had a meeting with them here in Scottsdale, Arizona. They demonstrated their prototype of the technology and I knew right away that this could be immense. We needed to tweak some things to make it appealing to baseball and address concerns that I knew baseball would have. That knowledge is based on my personal experience in the game, running the licensing division, being involved with baseball operations people over the years, and developing other technologies and products that people have used in baseball.
We came together. They engaged me as a consultant. After several months of making overtures to baseball, we finally got an audience. Once we demonstrated the product to them, their jaws dropped. We knew this opportunity would have some real impact long-term on baseball, and we went through the testing process, the safety testing, as well as the on-field testing of the product. Last year, baseball authorized the use, and slowly but surely, it started to steamroll. More and more teams started to use it because they saw the benefit of having their pitchers be confident that a sign that was being communicated was not going to be stolen. It sped up the game, and pitchers got into a rhythm. This year, I believe 100% of the teams and pitchers are using it in some form or fashion.
Technology is not something that sports can run away from. Throughout history, technology has advanced American business and social lifestyle. We went from riding horses everywhere to driving cars. Technology in sports is not going to go away. As long as the game can benefit, the fan experience can be enhanced, and the integrity of the game can be protected, you’ll continue to see more technology being adopted.
How does your work as a professor of practice at ASU College of Law align with Kavi Sports?
It aligns perfectly because I will tell people that what I teach my students is what I do every day. That’s what I love about my work as a professor. I am able to share real world experience, real world subject matter that I have learned firsthand as opposed to reading in a book somewhere. The students really find that beneficial.
Jennifer Simpson Carr: Congratulations. They must find it beneficial because you’ve been voted twice the Faculty of the Year, including this year. It sounds like you’re having a great impact on your students.
Don Gibson: I feel that I am based on the feedback they give me. I know that when I go to the campus every time I teach, I do it with great expectation and a lot of excitement.
The subject matter I teach is what I do every day in my work at Kavi. One of the courses I teach, for example, is a course called the Law and Business of Sports Branding, which I was asked to create about four years ago now. That was based on my experience at Major League Baseball and the work that I do at Kavi. The students learn about what constitutes a brand, how a brand is built and sustained, and branding from the corporate business side to the individual personality side and how they intersect and become symbiotic. That’s one example. I also teach a class with former Commissioner Bud Selig which I call MLB’s Impact on Law and Society. We track the history of Major League Baseball and how it has impacted things in American society like integration, analytics, and social issues. Those are good examples of how my work at Kavi intersects with my teaching.
Don E.N. Gibson
Jennifer Simpson Carr