SBJ/November 10 - 16, 2003/Forty Under 40

Adam Helfant

It seems that every big sports property has a Harvard lawyer in a position of prominence.

At the NFL, it's executive vice president and chief legal counsel Jeff Pash (Harvard Law class of '80). The NBA has deputy commissioner Russ Granik (Harvard Law '73). Sandy Alderson (Harvard Law '76) has been a member of MLB's kitchen cabinet as the league's executive vice president of baseball operations since 1998, and the NHL boasts a Harvard barrister who played pro hockey, Brian Burke (class of '81), the league's former senior vice president/director of hockey operations, who's now president and GM of the Vancouver Canucks.

At Nike, it's Adam Helfant, vice president of U.S. sports marketing. He's yet another Harvard-educated barrister, but also the only executive we know operating at the top levels of the sports industry who's an MIT engineer. Now, sports marketing ain't rocket science, so what gives?

"I will admit it wasn't quite a linear path," from an applied material science and engineering degree at MIT to heading U.S. sports marketing at what is arguably the world's top sports brand, Helfant said.

When he went off to college, Helfant didn't think he was going to be a lawyer. He ended up at a New York law firm after his Harvard stint, got recruited to the NHL after four years and joined Nike's legal department in the mid-1990s.

Having distinguished himself as one of the sharper legal minds in Beaverton, Ore., at a time when Nike was experiencing unprecedented growth, he was elevated to vice president of U.S. sports marketing earlier this year.

While Helfant holds one of the most powerful jobs in sports marketing, getting him to talk about himself is nearly impossible. Helfant has told some close friends that while MIT undergrad studies really were intellectually challenging, the work load at Harvard Law was the tough part. So, when you ask sports executives who worked with Helfant to describe him, their recollections all start with the same word: smart.

"He is as thorough and as attentive to detail as any person I have worked with in this industry," said Tim Brosnan, MLB's executive vice president of business, who most recently worked with Helfant on MLB's new apparel licensing deal. "When you negotiate for Nike, you don't have to trump anybody. It's all about getting value, and he does that well."

Perhaps it is Helfant's aversion to the spotlight that allows him to succeed in a job that is subject to intense scrutiny, both inside and outside Nike.

"Adam's style is completely the opposite of the constant one-upmanship you see in this industry," said NHL group vice president of consumer products marketing Brian Jennings, who worked with Helfant at the league and after Helfant left in crafting Nike's NHL licensing deals. "He lets everyone else talk a lot, then he just goes out and cuts a better deal."

This year, those deals included some of the biggest in sports: LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony — oh, and Kobe Bryant, both coming in and going out.

Helfant is reluctant to discuss any of these deals in detail, the combination of which Nike chairman Phil Knight termed "the perfect storm of sports marketing." He will only admit that "it made for an interesting summer."

Helfant gets accolades from competitors, co-workers and business partners for an unwavering ability to focus, a knack for quickly grasping the essentials in even the most unfamiliar scenarios, valuing the input of co-workers when preparing a new deal, along with a negotiating style that's also atypical.

"There's no hard edge to Adam," said Steve Solomon, an independent sports consultant, who was the NHL's COO when Helfant worked there. "He listens and doesn't feel the need to be tough just because he is negotiating. That sets him apart from most people in the business right there."

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