After working at international firms in Beijing (in capital markets and mergers and acquisitions) for nearly four years, Sam Li, ’06, was ready to move back to the United States. But then, in 2012, NBA China came calling, and the course of his career changed instantly.
“I think sports was always in the back of my head as I progressed in my career. It’s very difficult to get into the sports world,” Li says. “I knew early on that many top people in the sports business are lawyers or have been lawyers, and that was a big motivator for coming to law school in the first place.”
Li became associate vice president for NBA China, a job in which he advised the business team on legal, business, and compliance issues; was responsible for legal matters involving TV, marketing partnerships, and more; and negotiated agreements with key marketing partners.
One of those partnerships was with Sina Sports, a subsidiary of Chinese Internet company Sina.com, which was established in 1998 as China’s first online sports platform. With Li’s strong background on the legal side of the sports world, it’s no surprise that Sina Sports contacted him in 2015. Li began as general counsel at the organization, but quickly transitioned to the business side and now is the head of content acquisition and strategic partnerships.
“We are somewhat similar to Yahoo Sports or ESPN,” Li explains. “There are distinct differences, though. We have been live-streaming sports since the mid-2000s, including the World Cup and NBA games. But we have no TV station; we are purely an Internet platform. Sina also owns Weibo, the leading open social media platform in China, so we have a uniquely powerful one-two punch in terms of digital media and social media platforms.”
Li says his job with NBA China prepared him well for his career at Sina Sports, though the positions are very different. “At the NBA, the lawyers are very hands-on. I was encouraged to go along with the business side to strategic meetings. I was already very much involved with many different aspects of the business.”
At Sina Sports, his work focuses even more on the business side. He is responsible for the acquisition of domestic and international sports content, as well as partnerships with teams and individual athletes. For example, Li has signed deals with NBA players Draymond Green and Tony Parker. He also helped secure the deal with swimmer Michael Phelps to provide content to Sina Sports before and during the 2016 Summer Olympics. Phelps published videos and columns on the platform in which he discussed how he trained for the Olympics and other topics.
“The day after he won his medals, he came to our studios in Rio to talk about his races,” Li says. “These are the partnerships we’ve been building with individual star athletes, and we’ve found them to be fruitful.”
In addition to the individual deals, Li also has worked on partnerships with organizations. The range of sports involved in these partnerships helps to underscore the global nature of sports and, in particular, sports fandom. They include the English Premier [Soccer] League, Ultimate Fighting Championship, the four grand slams of tennis, the China Volleyball League, and the Tour de France. Li’s legal background has helped him in many facets of acquiring and negotiating these deals, he says. “One of the reasons there are so many lawyers in the sports business is that the industry largely revolves around untangling an intangible web of rights.”
What Li loves about this work is the freedom it gives him to think big. In the business world, he says, “you have to think outside of the box. We are being trailblazers in a lot of different ways. Nobody hands you these projects. Creatively coming up with concepts and executing them allows me to take a project from beginning to end rather than just the negotiation process, as I experienced in the legal world. I get to see the whole picture, and it’s very rewarding.”