By: Connor Oniki
Clay Allen is the chief lawyer for the Houston Rockets, one of the NBA’s 30 member clubs. I had the incredible opportunity to meet and learn from Clay. Among other things, he discussed his background and his work with the Rockets, while providing advice for future sports lawyers. He also expressed the gratitude and responsibility he feels representing both his Houston community and the LGBTQ+ community in his role. Check out his interview below.
Name, Position, and Location
Houston Rockets and Toyota Center
Current Practice Areas/Industries
My practice is primarily transactional-based, although as an attorney in a small legal department, I have to be a generalist. I handle legal, policy, and compliance matters for both the Houston Rockets and their home arena, Toyota Center, including areas relating to sponsorship agreements, arena use agreements, intellectual property matters, human resources issues, and risk management.
I received a B.A., cum laude, in International Studies from Trinity University, with a double major in German. After a brief stint working in marketing, I received a J.D., cum laude, from Baylor University School of Law, with a concentration in business transactions.
How did you get connected and begin working with the Rockets?
Like most good liberal-arts students, I graduated from college without a career plan. I moved back in with my parents in Houston and started the job hunt. I was open to anything. After a few months without much luck, my brother came across a job posting on rockets.com for a part-time marketing associate. I interviewed for the job and was hired along with a dozen or so other young, bright-eyed fanatics. It didn’t matter that the job paid minimum wage or came with no benefits—I was working for the team I grew up supporting (and just a few years removed from their championship runs). I couldn’t believe my luck. Before the end of that first season, I was promoted to a full-time position as events and promotions coordinator. By the time I left six years later, I was the head of the promotions department. Working for the Rockets was a great first job after college, but I eventually realized that marketing wasn’t the right path for me. For months, I secretly studied for the LSAT and applied to law schools, and after six years I resigned my job at the Rockets to attend Baylor. I thought my time working in professional sports had come to an end, but I left the Rockets on good terms and made sure to keep the door open.
After law school and working as a corporate lawyer for a few years, I started looking for other opportunities. At about that same time, a position became available in the Rockets legal department. I reached out to the Rockets CEO at the time and asked if he’d consider me for the job. A few months later I started the interview process. By the beginning of the 2013 season, I was hired as associate general counsel.
What work did you do following law school?
After law school, I joined the law firm of Locke Lord LLP in Houston, focusing on mergers and acquisitions and securities matters. I left Locke Lord to join the Rockets.
Did you always hope to work in sports law? What did you do in law school to prepare yourself for those opportunities?
I hadn’t really thought much about working in sports until I landed my first job with the Rockets after I graduated from college. Even after leaving my marketing position with the Rockets to go to law school, I didn’t think I would have the opportunity to return to a career in sports. Even so, I took the only sports-law class Baylor offered and attended a few on-campus presentations discussing careers in sports law. Most importantly, however, I maintained the connections I made while working at the Rockets. When the associate general counsel position at the Rockets became available, my former colleagues reached out to tell me about the opportunity and vouched for me during the interview process.
What does it mean to you to be able to work for your home team representing the Houston community?
It’s so much of a cliché that I hesitate to say it, but it really is a dream to get the opportunity to work not only in sports, but also for my home team. Looking back at my career with the Rockets over the past fifteen years, I’ve been a part of many historic Houston moments: drafting Yao Ming with the number one overall pick, the opening of Toyota Center in downtown, Tracy McGrady’s 13 points in 33 seconds, James Harden’s MVP season, and so much more. It’s important for me to work for a company that I care about, and working for the Rockets really fills that desire.
When you were promoted to this role, you spoke about being proud to be openly gay and working in sports. What does it mean to you to be able to represent not only the Houston community, but the LGBTQ+ community as well?
I’m proud to be a member of the LGBTQ+ community, but I haven’t always discussed that openly. When I was promoted last year, I wrote a short post online to announce my promotion, and I decided to take that opportunity to briefly comment on the lack of LGBTQ+ representation in sports—an issue that’s been on my mind for the last few years, but particularly since I became a board advisor for HomeField Alliance. That post was viewed over 100,000 times and showed me that I could use my new position and the momentary spotlight that my promotion created to advocate for increased representation in sports.
What efforts are being made in the world of sports to push for greater LGBTQ+ representation?
Sports has notoriously and publicly suffered from a lack of LGBTQ+ representation. Male professional athletes almost never come out during their careers, and only a handful of out executives work for sports teams. But we know that members of the LGBTQ+ community actively participate in recreational sports and make up a large portion of sports fans. How can we bridge this gap? Improving representation and visibility are the first steps. I’m not the first gay executive in sports, and it’s important that executives like me continue to speak up and show other members of the LGBTQ+ community that there’s space for them in sports. We also need to support and encourage other LGBTQ+ professionals, and that’s where organizations like HomeField Alliance can make a difference. HomeField Alliance is the first nationwide affinity group for LGBTQ+ professionals in sports and provides mentorship, connection, and resources.
What do you most enjoy about your work?
As a lifelong Rockets fan, I feel so honored to be able to represent my hometown team and contribute to its history. Beyond just being a fan, I enjoy the legal work itself. My colleagues often ask how I can “read all of those boring contracts all day.” But I’m an introvert by nature, so I actually enjoy the mundane drafting and reviewing agreements that’s a part of every transactional lawyer’s job. And as a bonus, I get to walk downstairs to catch a Rockets game at the end of the day.
What key issues in sports law are especially relevant right now, and what do you see becoming more prevalent in the next 5-10 years?
I’m a little reluctant to forecast key issues, for fear that my predictions won’t age well, but I’ll briefly mention some of the issues we are discussing today that may become more prevalent in a few years.
The legalization of sports betting in many states has led to numerous teams and leagues securing sports-betting partners. The novel revenue opportunities that sports betting will create are exciting, but the need to protect the integrity of the games will be a key concern moving forward. NFTs, fan tokens, and digital currencies have already seen rapid success and offer strong synergies in sports. Sports lawyers will have to navigate the new regulations governing that world as teams incorporate those sponsors and products. Finally, the broadcast landscape is rapidly changing. Just a few years ago, cable television was king. But as more and more Americans cut the cord, streaming appears to be the wave of the future. Over the next few years, sports (and sports lawyers) will have to rethink what broadcast deals will look like and how sports games will be delivered to consumers. Because broadcast rights are a key revenue driver for sports teams and leagues, the outcome of these discussions will affect many different areas, including sponsorship opportunities, salary caps, and the creation of new revenue streams.
What piece of advice would you give to a current law student looking to break into sports law?
Sports law is a small industry, but the number of lawyers looking to break in is huge. Open job postings are rare and typically elicit dozens—even hundreds—of resumes. If you want to work in sports, the key is to look for opportunities to build your skill set that will set your resume apart. Take relevant classes in law school and list them on your resume: not just sports law classes, but also classes focusing on contracts, drafting, and business transactions. Look for internship opportunities with sports teams, leagues, and agencies. Seek out connections in your network who might be able to help with introductions to sports professionals.
After law school, I highly recommend working for a law firm where you can gain broad-based transactional skills. Most sports-law departments are small and can’t compete with the excellent training you will receive at a law firm. So instead of training new lawyers ourselves, we seek out attorneys who’ve received training elsewhere. The legal experience you gain after graduation doesn’t have to be sports related, but don’t be afraid to ask partners and other lawyers you work with if there are any sports matters you can help with. If your firm doesn’t handle any sports matters, look around for volunteer opportunities. Here in Texas (where rodeo is a sport), the Houston Rodeo has a Legal Advisory Committee. Many cities host amateur sports tournaments that rely on the help of volunteers. Most state and local bar associations have a sports and entertainment law society. Again, anything you can do to gain experience and set your resume apart is important in landing that first job in sports law.
What do you like to do in your free time?
I’m a basketball fan, so of course you’ll find me at most Rockets home games each season (one of the great perks of the job!). Outside of basketball, I’m a setter in my local volleyball league and travel a few times per year to play in volleyball tournaments around the country (well, before the pandemic). Since the pandemic curtailed travel, I’ve taken up running and ran my first half marathon last year. I also enjoy reading and annoying my friends with useless facts about grammar and punctuation.