Sports Teams Experience High Turnover in General Counsels

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Over the last month, there have been at least six professional sports organizations that have promoted or hired new individuals to serve as general counsel. Experts say this shows an unusual amount of in-house turnover for the sports industry. However, this trend in sports is similar to what recruiters are seeing in other industries. According to, it’s common in professional sports to promote general counsel from within.

Baseball Tops the List

Since the start of July, three major league baseball teams have changed their general counsel: the Pirates, the Phillies, and the Mets.

  • The Philadelphia Phillies promoted Leslie Safran from associate general counsel to general counsel, taking over for Rick Strouse, who is retiring.
  • The Pittsburgh Pirates named Mera Kutrovac general counsel in July. She had served as general counsel to The Nutting Co. before moving to the sports team. Robert Nutting, Pirates chairman, owns the company. Kutrovac replaced Frank Garland, who served as interim general counsel.
  • The New York Mets promoted James Denniston and Jessica Villanella to co-general counsels. They previously occupied senior counsel roles with the team. The two attorneys assume the top job from David Cohen, who was fired earlier this year.

From the NHL to the NFL

The National Hockey League’s San Jose Sharks named Cassie McBride its new general counsel. McBride previously held that role for the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars. She replaced John Tortora, who left the organization last year.

With McBride’s departure, the Jacksonville Jaguars promoted Lauren Strackbine from associate general counsel to general counsel.

From Protein Snacks to Sports

Finally, in basketball, the NBA’s Minnesota Timberwolves hired Suzanne Spellacy as general counsel. She was most recently at Jack Link’s protein snacks. Spellacy replaced Gregory Jackson as the team’s head of legal.

Pandemic Plays Role in Moves

Bob Mannino, a director and in-house recruiter at Major, Lindsey & Africa in Boston, told that general counsel of sports organizations retain their roles for five to seven years on average. But firings, retirements, and more consideration for where these attorneys want to work during the pandemic created openings in these organizations.

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Mannino said the common thread among five of six of these recent moves is that new GCs were promoted to their role or previously worked for an organization associated with the team. Professional sports teams often seek people with sports law experience who know the business of the team. In the sports realm, Mannino observed, it’s common to promote from within.

Sports Teams Consider GC and Legal Department as Teammates

Aaron Curley is a partner at Search Solution Elite, a recruiting firm in North Carolina. He helped place McBride with the Sharks. Curley told that “Sports organizations, in general, are viewing the general counsel role and the legal department as true business partners.”

Sonya Olds Som told that the “closed universe” of sports provides opportunities for attorneys to move outside the legal department. Som is both partner and recruiter at Chicago’s Heidrick and Struggles. “If you have the right relationships and show that you have business savvy, there are an increasing number of business opportunities,” Som said.

That was the situation for interim president of the Las Vegas Raiders, Dan Ventrelle. He was general counsel with the Raiders organization for 17 years before accepting his current role. The Raiders have not disclosed whether Ventrelle will move from interim to full-time president. However, the Raiders have posted a listing for a new general counsel on LinkedIn.

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