SBJ/April 30-May 6, 2012/In-Depth

Sports Lawyers: Lawrence Epstein

The UFC has sued sports bars, restaurants, websites and streaming services that have offered feeds of its pay-per-view events without paying for them. Recently, it has taken the next step of going after individual fans who watched those pirated broadcasts. The company says it has collected almost $5 million as a result of those lawsuits.

“We might not be the biggest sport in the world yet, but we are certainly the biggest pay-per-view provider in the world,” said Lawrence Epstein, executive vice president and general counsel of the UFC.

Photo by: UFC
“We have more to lose than anyone else as a result of piracy. The NFL gets a check from the networks to broadcast its games. … But when somebody steals our pay-per-view, they’re reaching into our pockets, stealing from us and our fighters. We have skin in that game in a way that nobody else does.”

While he considers himself a sports lawyer, Epstein said it has taken him a while to get there. For years, working on matters in private practice for Las Vegas-based boxing promoter Top Rank, and then UFC owner Lorenzo Fertitta, he thought of himself as a commercial lawyer with a toe in sports.

He realized he had made the conversion to sports in full when he signed on as the UFC’s general counsel five years ago. Still, the combat corner of the sports world differs from most others.

While Epstein is involved in television and licensing negotiations, he also works with government regulators inside the U.S. and abroad — something attorneys at teams, leagues and agencies rarely do. Boxing and mixed martial arts are the only two sports that derive most of their revenue from pay-per-view, another wrinkle that makes his job unique. In November, the UFC sued the state of New York, which has banned MMA events since 1997.

“I do think my position is a unique intersection of sports, politics, television and regulatory issues, all in a sport that is young and edgy,” Epstein said. “I can’t think of another place where I could do what I do here. We’re not a mature business with a lot of managers running around. We’re a growth business. And that’s exciting.”

— Bill King
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