When Sports Stars Need a Smart Lawyer Who Can Make Big Deals
Lon Babby arrived at the Williams & Connolly law firm in 1977. Fresh out of Yale Law School, he handled important matters, including white-collar criminal defense and a First Amendment case or two.
But Edward Bennett Williams, one of the firm’s founders, owned the Washington Redskins and the Baltimore Orioles. Babby, a sports fanatic, soon found his briefcase filled with work for the two teams. Many nights he climbed into Williams’s town car and rode up I-95 with the legendary lawyer to take in an O’s game.
Today Babby is one of the most influential agents in sports, with a reputation for integrity in a business known for its Wild West ways. His roster of clients includes Grant Hill, Tim Duncan, and a couple of dozen others who together will make more than $109 million this year from contracts he’s negotiated.
Photos in his office show clients towering over Babby, who stands five-foot-eight. “I grew up on Long Island in a Jewish and Italian community,” he says. “If you were six feet tall, you played center. I didn’t even know I was short until I got to college.”
Hill was Babby’s first client. Heading into the 1994 NBA draft, the Duke star turned to Babby at the suggestion of his father, Calvin, the former NFL great and an executive with the Orioles. Calvin was impressed by Babby and Williams, and he wondered: Shouldn’t players hire the same topflight legal talent that owners did?
“I don’t want to indict all sports agents, but very few have the brainpower to be at Williams & Connolly,” Hill says.
Babby doesn’t represent Hill in the usual way. Most agents get a cut of contracts they negotiate—typically 4 percent of salary and as much as 20 percent of a marketing deal. Babby insisted on being paid like a lawyer, by the hour.
Babby helped Hill land a $45-million, eight-year deal with the Detroit Pistons and a $6-million-a-year endorsement deal with Fila (later renewed for $100 million over ten years). Hill, whose polish, professionalism, and play made him one of the NBA’s most popular players, became a hot brand, signing with General Motors, McDonald’s, Sprite, Kellogg’s, and Tag Heuer.
Soon Babby was devoting nearly all his time to NBA players in the Grant Hill mold—Shane Battier, Ray Allen, and other smart guys with integrity.
With his partner Jim Tanner, Babby now has 30 clients, including pro baseball players (Chris Young, Chris Ray) and WNBA talent (Alana Beard, Tamika Catchings). He has built within Williams & Connolly a full-service shop for his clients, establishing relationships that extend beyond their playing days. Paralegal Shana Martin handles travel and other concierge-like arrangements for the athletes. Terese Smallwood, former marketing director for the Atlanta Hawks, heads up players’ marketing efforts along with Meredith Geisler, a longtime sports-marketing and public-relations executive. Bob Barnett, the firm’s star literary agent, handles book deals.
Babby added Tanner, a corporate lawyer with experience in mergers and acquisitions, to the practice in 1997. Tanner is the primary agent for many of the athletes—including the NBA’s Marvin Williams, Josh Childress, and Thaddeus Young— and handles complex business ventures for clients. Among his work for Hill: negotiating real-estate deals and helping the player put together a traveling exhibition of African-American art.
Such smarts are expected in today’s sports world, Babby says: “In the 1970s, it was an anti-intellectual environment. That’s changed. If you look at teams in all the sports, you now have well-educated, Ivy League types running them.”