Ryan Lake, President, Beyond the Playbook
Among my most enjoyable experiences over the years has been serving as an adjunct professor and mentor to law students and young professionals. It’s great to see former students and mentees begin and grow into their careers. And it’s even better when we can stay in touch and continue to foster a positive relationship.
Ryan Lake, President of the sports consultancy firm, Beyond the Playbook, earned his LLM in International Sports Law Practice from St. John’s University School of Law in 2013. As a professor in the LLM program, I had the pleasure of having Ryan in my U.S. Sports Law class. Recently, I caught up with Ryan to find out how his career is progressing.
JF: You completed the LLM program in 2013. What have you been up to since then?
RL: First, I would like to thank you for being a mentor, your guidance has had a tremendous impact on my career.
Since completing the LLM program, I’ve been able to explore a wide array of areas in the sports industry. Immediately following the LLM program, I worked with the U.S. Olympic Committee, where I worked on issues ranging from anti-doping, team selection, athlete right to play, and athlete safety. After working on these matters with some Olympic sports organizations, I was offered the opportunity to work in close collaboration with USA Hockey as outside counsel to an emerging professional women’s hockey league and a collegiate hockey association. While I valued my time at the U.S. Olympic Committee, I felt the opportunity to get involved at a high level in two international organizations was worth making a change.
JF: Working for an emerging professional sports league sounds challenging, especially when you combine that with starting your own firm. What was that like?
RL: Once making a move to branch out on my own, I was quickly involved in some fascinating projects and unique issues. As the de facto general counsel for the professional women’s hockey league, I was asked to handle everything from the drafting of internal policies, negotiating playing contracts, broadcasting and sponsorship agreements, and negotiating joint ventures with the National Hockey League and some of its member clubs.
One of the most interesting and complex items I’ve worked on was the creation of the first ever Women’s Winter Classic, which was an outdoor game at Gillette Stadium. The Women’s Winter Classic was a joint venture with my client, the NHL, New England Patriots and the Kraft family.
In addition to the women’s hockey league, I’ve been able to work on high-level issues with a variety of sports clients including a national collegiate association, other start-up professional leagues, professional sports agents and Olympic organizations. I’m also honored to follow in your footsteps and teach as an adjunct professor at St. John’s University School of Law. Additionally, I have had the pleasure of co-coaching the successful St. John’s salary arbitration baseball and hockey teams with Kap Misir from your office.
JF: And if that’s not enough, you recently started a consultancy firm.
RL: Yes, I did. As a consultant, I assist athletes and agents on a variety of issues and offer services ranging from legal and business strategy, financial planning and market analysis.
JF: What are some of the rewards and challenges of running your own practice?
RL: As you know running a practice is highly rewarding and challenging at the same time. The most rewarding aspects of being the boss are that I drive the direction, image, and philosophy of the company. This ability to shape the practice is highly rewarding, but also one of the biggest challenges. As you know Jeff, the marketplace is not only highly competitive but also brutally honest. The market quickly lets you know if your ideas on how to serve your clients and grow the practice are valid.
The competitive nature of the sports industry poses challenges to everyone who works in this field, and when you have a small practice, these challenges are magnified. I have to constantly work to find new ways to add value to my clients and find new potential clients. While this is one of the most challenging industries in which to have longevity, it is also one of the most rewarding when you are fortunate enough to have happy clients and a growing practice.
JF: What was behind your shift from a law firm to a sports consultancy?
RL: I’ve found that while I’m able to add tremendous value to my clients by providing legal advice, I’m in fact able to provide a higher level of service and expertise by offering business and market-focused services. These non-legal specific services are difficult to articulate and sell when positioned within a law firm. I had several potential clients express an interest in my non-legal offerings, but they had a notion that if they engaged a law firm to perform the work, they would be paying an above market rate for the services. After running into these same responses multiple times, I spent a few months evaluating the market and what would be the best way to offer a multitude of services that would appeal to the established players in the market, as well as the up and comers.
JF: How is it working out so far?
RL: It’s been less than a year since I made the decision to shift my direction and focus on the consultancy and there has been a tremendous amount of work to get the organization’s web presence to a place where I could start putting it out in the marketplace. In the past three months, I’ve gotten the firm to a place where I can actively market and offer services. In that time I’ve found the barriers to entry in different aspects of the industry are much less than what I encountered with the law firm. I’ve been able to build up a client base of professional agents and also create a new market by providing education to athletes and families through online courses and eligibility guides. While the practice is still young, I’m very optimistic given the amount of attention and interest that I have received since the start of the New Year.
JF: One of the challenges of being in business is staying in business. In other words, getting and keeping clients. How do you go about obtaining clients?
RL: This is a challenge in any industry, but I think the competitive nature of sports makes this even more challenging. I find the challenge is not only getting clients, but also the right type of clients.
To get clients, I vigorously work to build real and lasting relationships with people in the industry. I firmly believe to be successful in this industry you must have a long-term approach. I’ve worked to build this philosophy into my practice and established a day every week as a day that’s spent on building and maintaining relationships with people in all aspects of the sports industry. Maintaining relationships can be something as simple as sending a text asking someone how they are doing, or it can be an international trip to grab a coffee with someone that I think has an impressive firm or job.
As you know, when you work in a highly competitive and small industry, the most successful practices are built on a foundation of real and long-lasting relationships. While cold calling someone to give them a pitch for my services is often tempting, this rarely results in the development of a long-lasting relationship. Therefore, I spend a lot of time and resources on meeting new people and maintaining the current relationships I have in the industry.
JF: What about servicing your clients? What are the keys to keeping your clients happy?
RL: This is what the practice is all about. I have built the practice on four key pillars for client services. First, is quality work. This is what I have been hired to provide. I will not let any work out the door if it does not meet the highest standards. Second, is timeliness. When taking on a new client or project, I work with the client to ensure that there is a firm timeline that we can work towards as a team. Next, is transparency. It is important to not only provide excellent service for your clients but to also bring them into the process and tailor the services to their particular needs. I work hard to keep clients aware of the progress that has been made on an individual project and keep them aware of the billing schedule. Fourth, is affordability. I streamline my internal processes and the overhead of the practice so that I can provide my services at reasonable rates.
JF: The sports business often presents complex legal and practical issues. As a solo practitioner, have you ever had the need to seek outside help or form strategic partnerships to deal with such issues?
RL: One of the most important things I think all good practitioners realize is that they cannot know everything about every issue they may face. That is particularly the case in the sports industry where there are so many unique and complex issues. Early in my career, I realized that if I’m going to provide the highest quality service to my clients, I need to develop a network of strategic partnerships with experts in a variety of fields. I have developed partnerships with other law firms, financial consultancies, and other sports consultants. The global nature of sports also adds to the complexities, so I have worked to develop a network that includes people and firms in the USA, Canada, and Europe.
With the wide variety of services I now provide through Beyond the Playbook, it is important not to be all things to everyone. To avoid this potential pitfall, I’ve developed strategic partnerships so that I can provide top of the line services and advice even in areas where I may not be an expert.
JF: How much of your time is spent networking?
RL: One of the things you taught us during the LLM program is the importance of developing and maintaining relationships in the industry, and I have seen the value of this over the years. I try to spend a day each week reaching out to new people in the industry and reconnecting with people I already have in my network. I also make it a point to attend conferences throughout the year. Additionally, I think it is crucial to have face time with people so that a real relationship can take root, so I try to make a trip each month to have coffee with people who live outside of my area. These trips have taken me around the country and throughout Canada.
JF: I find that many people do not know how to network effectively. What would you say to a young or aspiring professional who wanted to know the best way to build a strong network?
RL: I think I would tell a young or aspiring professional the same advice that you gave me when I was your student: you have to have the right perspective on networking. The goal should be to build relationships and get to know people in all aspects of the industry. It is very obvious when someone approaches you with the sole purpose of getting a job. Obtaining a job is important. However, I think people often lose sight of the fact it is very rare when a person is offered a job after talking with someone for a few minutes at a conference. You are far more likely to find a job if you work at building the relationships, get to know people on a deeper level and build trust over a period of time.
JF: The sports business, like business generally, is extremely competitive. You’ve obviously worked hard to get where you are. Has it been worth it?
RL: I think it has been worth it, for sure. It has been a long journey to develop a practice that can focus primarily on sports clients. There have been difficult moments, and if I did not have a deep passion for sports, I don’t think I would have continued down this path. To get to this point, I’ve made a lot of sacrifices, both financially and regarding other work opportunities outside of sports. But for as long as I can remember, sports has been my passion. Despite the challenges and sacrifices, I had no real choice other than to follow my passion, otherwise, it would be one of the biggest regrets of my life. While it has been worth it to this point, I don’t think the path ever becomes an easy one. Even if established, there are constantly new competitors, and you have to work hard to stay ahead.
JF: What advice would you give to someone who wanted to work in the sports industry?
RL: I would tell them to ask themselves two questions and spend some time on self-reflection before deciding to move forward. First, how important is sports to them, is it worth making the sacrifices that are necessary to get into the business? And second, what in sports do you want to do?
Just like in every industry, it is much harder to advance if you don’t have a roadmap and strategy to follow. I often meet young professionals that want to get into sports, and when I ask them what they want to do in sports, they have no clear answer. I remember you asking me the same question after class one day and my response was, “I don’t know, I just want to be in the industry.” Your reply has stuck with me all these years. You said, “I can’t give you advice until you know what you want to do.”
I didn’t fully understand your response until I started down the path of trying to break in. When I first started, I went after any and every opportunity I saw. I quickly realized that I needed to figure out what my end goal is and develop a plan and strategy to get there. I think this is the most important thing anyone can do before they try to break into sports.