Forty Under 40
The Covington & Burling lawyer recently has been in the middle of college conference realignment, advising the Big East on its now settled lawsuit against West Virginia, which left the conference for the Big 12. He helped in the creation of the University of Texas’ Longhorn Network, which in part set off the game of collegiate musical chairs. And he is advising the Big East on its media strategy, which could include the creation of a new regional sports channel when the conference’s contract with ESPN expires in 2013.
The collegiate law practice has been enormously stressful, Zern conceded, adding that hopefully the light is at the end of the tunnel and the right pairings of colleges will soon be within reach.
How does Zern deal with the stress? He said mostly, if you asked his wife, by walking around and being grumpy.
When Zern began as an associate at Covington in 1998, it was not with an eye toward sports, though the firm is the well-known outside counsel to the NFL and provided that league with former Commissioner Paul Tagliabue.
Even now, he calls his practice no different than those who do corporate law in other sectors of the economy, whether it’s mines or drug companies. But with just about all his work in sports now, whether he likes it or not, Zern has earned the tag of sports lawyer.
In the NFL, his expertise is in the league’s financial transactions, from leaguewide credit facilities to reviewing proposed loans for the purchase of teams. That work was somewhat slow leading up to the NFL lockout, which Zern did not work on. But since the conclusion of the labor impasse, he has been busy with team sales and limited-partnership purchases, team refinances and new media deals.
Last year, he advised on the sale of the Golden State Warriors, which at a reported $450 million set a record for top sale price of an NBA franchise.
Still, while not exactly dried up, finance work has certainly shrunk significantly. Some of that was lockout-related with labor stoppages in the NFL and NBA. Many teams lined up their debt deals before the lockouts, Zern explained. Leagues also have their credit facilities for clubs to borrow from, so there is less of a need for individual club deals.
But don’t feel too bad for Zern because media has stepped into the vacuum, he said. If it’s not the Longhorn Network or a potential Big East network, he has also been advising the U.S. Olympic Committee on its media deals.
In fact, more than half his work now is sports media, Zern estimated. In the past, he’s helped MLB with the launch of its network, and the NHL on the sale of equity in its media channel. And he’s working with the USOC on its revenue-sharing negotiations with the International Olympic Committee.
Of course, perhaps Zern’s most famous assignment was, in terms of the law, the most mundane. He led on behalf of the NFL the negotiations in 2008 with Matt Walsh, the former New England Patriots videographer who claimed he had tapes that showed the team spying on other clubs.
Walsh’s principal preoccupation in ceding control of the tapes was his right to write a book, which he never did. Zern drafted the agreement that led to the tapes getting handed over to the NFL, which aired them for the media soon after.
COMPANY: Covington & Burling LLP
Education: A.B., Dartmouth College, 1995; J.D., Georgetown University, 1998
Family: Wife, Kathie; twins Christopher and Caitlin (5)
Career: Started at Covington straight out of law school in 1998 and have been here ever since
First job: Bicycle mechanic
Last vacation: Maine
what's on your ipod? A lot of classic rock and some music the kids like to dance to
guilty pleasure: I’m a big fan of Twizzlers
best stress release: Playing with the kids
pet peeve: One-floor elevator rides
fantasy job: Flyfishing guide
what keeps you awake at night? My son. And sometimes my daughter.
business advice: Be honest, do your best and take initiative.