While serving as the Portland Trail Blazers’ general counsel, Ben Lauritsen was tapped to help finalize the terms of the NBA team’s first arena naming rights deal with Moda Health.
Thomas Bikales, Moda Health’s GC, started working on the deal at a similar time and suggested the two legal chiefs, who shared a mutual friend, grab breakfast.
Lauritsen said they discussed the naming rights contract during the meal, but also conversed about their experiences as legal leaders and their ambitions.
As a result, the two developed a relationship that proved beneficial to the negotiations.
“I didn't draft up a contract that was super one-sided and then wait for him to fight about it and then we kind of chisel our way down to some sort of middle ground,” Lauritsen told Legal Dive. “It was starting with momentum, the hope for a long-term relationship between these two companies and a long-term relationship between ourselves.”
The 10-year deal the two sides reached resulted in the Trail Blazers’ home arena being renamed the Moda Center and cemented a lasting friendship between Lauritsen and Bikales.
Looking back, Lauritsen said the naming rights transaction was a very good microcosm of the relationship-driven approach he took during his 13 years in-house with the Trail Blazers, including 10 as GC.
“With fans, customers, sponsors or anybody else, I tried to lead with that relationship lens,” Lauritsen said. “So sometimes playing hardball and being really aggressive could seem like the short-term, right solution for something but may not help us with our bigger brand goals and relationships.”
Lauritsen, who left the Trail Blazers in February 2023 to rejoin the law firm Stoel Rives, said the basketball team’s strong connection to the broader Portland community was also important for him to keep top of mind as the general counsel.
These community ties, he said, extend beyond just those who attend Trail Blazers games to others in the region who watch them on TV or discuss them at the office water cooler.
As a result, the organization aimed for a strategic legal approach that wasn’t always black and white.
“Because we're so connected, we're not going to be a company that starts and finishes with just the legal language,” Lauritsen said.
Additionally, the significance of the team to the community, including his family, was a major reason Lauritsen said he enjoyed his work with the organization.
“Really being part of something that mattered to people was very connecting for me, and it was pretty special,” he said.
Lauritsen, who was the only in-house lawyer during most of his tenure with the Trail Blazers, said he also appreciated the opportunity to learn about so many different parts of the organization.
For example, HR reported to him for a significant period of time and he served for years as president of the Trail Blazers Foundation.
Additionally, he built out the team’s community relations platform and executed two company restructures.
“Sports organizations are small enough that if you go in with a chance to contribute — and your eyes are wide open — you can learn an entire business,” Lauritsen said.
Landing a sports position
As for how a lawyer can secure a GC or in-house counsel position with a professional sports team, Lauritsen said there are varied paths.
For example, Lauritsen did not have any prior experience in sports before joining the Trail Blazers as an associate counsel.
Instead, he had previously clerked for a federal judge in Arizona and worked as a Latham & Watkins corporate associate in London advising issuers and underwriters in international equity and debt capital markets transactions.
He later became a corporate associate at Stoel Rives in Oregon, a role in which he handled restructuring and bankruptcy work, among other issues, during the financial crisis in the late 2000s.
In his interview with the Trail Blazers, Lauritsen said he highlighted how he had jumped into new areas of the law where a lot was on the line and performed well.
“Showing that you can be nimble, adaptable and grow is necessary to get in the door — but it's also necessary to be successful,” he said.
Rejoining Stoel Rives
After more than a decade with the Trail Blazers, Lauritsen said he was ready to spread his wings.
He will do so as a partner in the Corporate Practice Group at Stoel Rives, the Oregon-based firm ranked in the AM Law 200 where he previously worked from 2008-2010.
“I realized that I had a really unique skill set that came from my time as a GC that would be translatable to other sports and entertainment clients and businesses in a wide range of sectors looking for advice with commercial, licensing, and other core business matters,” Lauritsen said.
The types of clients he hopes to serve in other industries include those in the apparel, health care, food and beverage, manufacturing and technology spaces.
However, Lauritsen said he also looks forward to continuing providing legal advice to the Trail Blazers, this time in an outside counsel capacity.
Currently he is helping the sports franchise find a new GC to step into the role he held and also tackling day-to-day legal issues that arise.
“I hope that I can be a trusted resource for them for a very long time,” Lauritsen said.