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PGA Tour, LIV Golf Battle Lures Big Law Titans on Both Sides (1)

Aug. 4, 2022, 1:58 PMUpdated: Aug. 4, 2022, 5:11 PM

Three Big Law firms—Baker McKenzie, Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, and Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan—are representing 11 pro golfers who have defected to the PGA Tour’s new Saudi-backed rival, LIV Golf, court filings show.

The golfers, including Phil Mickelson and Bryson DeChambeau, filed an antitrust lawsuit Wednesday against the PGA in a federal court in San Francisco.

The PGA, which is the organizing body for professional golf tours in the US and Canada, has retained Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom and Keker Van Nest & Peters to advise on antitrust-related matters, a spokeswoman for the tour said.

Elliot Peters, a name partner at Keker, a prominent San Francisco-based litigation boutique, is serving as lead counsel to the PGA in the players’ lawsuit.

Some of the players are seeking a temporary restraining order to participate in the PGA’s FedEx Cup playoffs starting next week. Quinn Emanuel co-founder John Quinn, who recently became chairman of the firm, said in a statement that the players suspended by the PGA for their move to LIV Golf had no choice but to sue.

“We’ve brought this action on behalf of professional golfers to vindicate their rights to play where and when they choose and to ensure professional golf innovates and grows,” Quinn said. “In light of the pendency of this important action, we won’t comment further at this time.”

William Roppolo, chair of Baker McKenzie’s North America trial team and the firm’s head of litigation and government enforcement, is also representing players along with Gibson Dunn antitrust co-chair Rachel Brass and Robert Walters, a seasoned antitrust litigator and former member of Gibson Dunn’s executive committee.

Quinn Emanuel partner Robert Feldman is also part of the legal team for the plaintiffs, which include Jason Kokrak, a golfer who saw Cozen O’Connor withdraw its sponsorship of him after he moved to LIV Golf.

The complaint filed by Kokrak and others calls the PGA “blatantly noncompetitive” and claims the Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla.-based organization’s “conduct serves no purpose other than to cause harm to players and foreclose the entry of the first meaningful competitive threat the Tour has faced in decades.”

LIV Golf, which is led by golf great Greg Norman, issued a statement praising the players for their stance.

“The players are right to have brought this action to challenge the PGA’s anti-competitive rules and to vindicate their rights as independent contractors to play where and when they choose,” LIV Golf said. “Golfers should be allowed to play golf.”

LIV Golf is not a party to the case but has paid hundreds of millions of dollars this year to recruit PGA players to its rival circuit.

Legal Challenges

Peters and Skadden partner Anthony Dreyer referred requests for comment to the PGA, which in a memo to players by PGA Commissioner Jay Monahan defended its decision to suspend those playing in the “Saudi Golf League.”

Dreyer, who co-chairs Skadden’s sports practice, has previously represented the PGA in fending off an antitrust case filed by golf caddies and resolving a long-running doping dispute with golfer Vijay Singh.

Bloomberg Law reported last month on the PGA paying $190,000 to DLA Piper during the first half of this year for the firm to lobby Congress on matters related to LIV Golf and other issues.

The PGA is also facing a Justice Department inquiry into whether it potentially violated antitrust law by suspending players who participated in LIV Golf events.

Mickelson, who reportedly received $200 million to join LIV Golf, has long been a vocal critic of the PGA’s operations. In an interview with Golf Digest in February, Mickelson criticized the tour for refusing to share media rights money with players.

The PGA is a registered nonprofit whose board is chaired by Edward Herlihy, a veteran sports industry dealmaker and longtime corporate partner at Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz. The organization also has a robust in-house roster of executives with legal expertise.

The PGA’s most recent federal tax filing for 2019 shows that it paid more than $2.1 million that year to its longtime chief legal officer, Leonard “Len” Brown Jr., as well as $1.9 million to attorney and chief administrative officer Allison Keller.

Richard “Rick” Anderson, the organization’s chief media officer and its former general counsel, received more than $2.3 million in total compensation during 2019.

LIV Golf, which has reportedly received at least $2 billion in financing from Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund, hired former Lagardère Sports global general counsel Louise Savage last year as its legal chief. She didn’t respond to a request for comment about the London-based company’s external legal advisers.

(Updates story with more information after eighth paragraph.)

To contact the reporter on this story: Brian Baxter in New York at bbaxter@bloomberglaw.com; Roy Strom in Chicago at rstrom@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Chris Opfer at copfer@bloomberglaw.com; John Hughes at jhughes@bloombergindustry.com