When Ed Kaufman accepted the job as general counsel, executive vice president and secretary for World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE), he figured things would be a little out of the ordinary. For one thing, the company didn’t have a legal department; he’d be building one from scratch. For another, the company is not exactly your typical media enterprise — its most valuable intellectual property are buff men in Spandex prone to smacking each other over the head with chairs. This would be an adventure. “The WWE is an entrepreneurial company driven by an entrepreneurial spirit, and we tend to go where companies have never gone before,” Kaufman says.
It’s been a wild ride. He’s been to Toronto, where he watched Wrestlemania with 68,000 screaming fans; Las Vegas, where he jetted in with WWE founder Vince McMahon to buy the Debbie Reynolds Hotel; and New York, where nearly 30,000 fans showed up when the organization held matches on Wall Street to commemorate its listing on the stock exchange. Not your typical media enterprise. “I try to focus on the job and learn what I need to learn — and not get caught up in the fact that I am living this dream,” he says.
Before he was a lawyer, Kaufman was a pro-wrestling fan. Growing up in Connecticut and New Jersey, he watched wrestling almost as religiously as he watched his beloved Yankees. The passion stayed with him through Stanford Law School and his six years at a labor and employment boutique in San Francisco. “When I was just out of school, I used to discuss matches on the phone with a close friend of mine,” says Kaufman. “We’d call each other up whenever a match was on and comment back and forth.” At the time, Kaufman thought he might get into sports law, maybe go to work for a league or serve as a sports commissioner, a path in which labor law is an important building block.
It was the mid-’80s, and the World Wrestling Federation (WWF), as it was called then, was entering its early heyday. Led by brash entrepreneur McMahon and his wife, Linda, the WWF had begun an aggressive national expansion that brought wrestling and headliner Hulk Hogan into the pop culture mainstream. (Kaufman’s favorite personality of the time was Brother Love, the red-faced Southern preacher.)
In 1985, the company broadcast its first-ever Wrestlemania event on closed-circuit TV, a forerunner of pay-per-view. Held at Madison Square Garden, it featured Mr. T., Cyndi Lauper, the Radio City Rockettes and Liberace — and it was so successful that it became an annual event, as did the Survivor Series, SummerSlam and Royal Rumble events that followed. The company invented opportunities (and pay-per-view) as it went along. As WWE CEO Linda McMahon says, “When Vince and I first started in this business, no one had ever done any of the things that we’re doing today.”
In the early ’90s, Kaufman headed to an in-house position as a labor attorney at Security Pacific Corp., and then to NBC in Los Angeles, where he served as director of employee relations and got what he calls a “tremendous education in entertainment.” Meanwhile the WWF had hit hard times. Ted Turner’s World Championship Wrestling (WCW) was wooing fans (and, in some cases, WWF wrestlers) to its popular Monday Night Nitro program. A Swedish organization, the World Wildlife Fund, tried to block the company’s use of the WWF acronym (the case is still pending). In 2000, McMahon reintroduced his enterprise as World Wrestling Entertainment.
Trial attorney Jerry McDevitt first met McMahon in 1987 when he represented a WWF wrestler accused of beating up a flight attendant. A partner at Pittsburgh’s Kirkpatrick & Lockhart, McDevitt won an acquittal on all counts, and he continued to handle cases for the company. “When I first started to represent [WWE], it had a department that handled legal issues, but it wasn’t what you’d really call a legal department — the person in charge had no legal training. They were there to help protect the intellectual property. As they got bigger in size and looked at going public, my firm was handling a lot of stuff that is usually done in-house. My view was that they needed to have an inside counsel to handle the everyday matters that come up that don’t warrant the cost and expense of outside counsel.”
As it happened, Vince and Linda had come to the same conclusion. Kaufman, who’d moved on to animation studio Hanna Barbera only to see the company acquired and then shut down by Ted Turner’s TBS Inc., was looking to move back East, preferably to a job that let him stay in the entertainment field. A former colleague put him in touch with the company. Kaufman insists he wasn’t looking for a job that would let him work in Stamford, just a few miles away from his boyhood home of Norwalk. And he wasn’t seeking a rematch with Turner, who had just shuttered his previous employer. But after interviewing with McMahon that’s just what he got.
It was 1997, the height of the WWF-WCW feud, and McMahon was reinventing the company. “Vince had decided to change the entire look of the company, from logo to dress code to mindset — it was all about attitude,” Kaufman says.
McMahon also entered the ring as a character in 1998, playing the evil owner who feuded with the wrestlers in his employ. He also sparred with Linda in the story line, which involved his demanding a divorce and her falling into a coma. The move to reality-based wrestling was new, and fans ate it up. The company’s revenues boomed as it regained its lead in the ratings, while Turner’s WCW folded a few years later. “Through the story line and what we were putting on the screen, we created this incredible buzz,” Kaufman says.
After that, things happened quickly for Kaufman. In 1999, after two years of explosive growth, the company went public and faced all of the legal responsibilities and issues associated with being a publicly traded company. That same year, McMahon launched a short-lived professional football league, the XFL, with the attendant legal work of starting an entirely new venture. Also in 1999, WWE negotiated and signed a major strategic alliance with Viacom. During that same period, the company was also grappling with several high-profile lawsuits, including one following the tragic death of wrestler Owen Hart, who plummeted 50 feet while performing a stunt.
“All of these were once-in-a-lifetime events — and they all coalesced over an 18-month period,” Kaufman says. “But, you know, it’s like anything else at WWE — you just roll up your sleeves and figure it out. The corporate culture is ‘Make it happen.’”
Culturally, the hard-driving, easygoing Kaufman fit right in. “When he joined the company, his wife was still in California, pregnant with their second child,” says Linda McMahon. “And she was bedridden for the last three or four weeks while he was here working for us. Clearly, he was torn emotionally, but it didn’t affect his work or how he rolled up his sleeves and just jumped in.”
After all, there was a legal department to build, contracts to negotiate and lawsuits to resolve — and this at a company where extraordinary devotion to one’s job appears to be the norm. Working until 8 p.m. quickly became standard practice for Kaufman — hours that expanded to 24/7 during crunch times. (Though he’s always home on Monday nights in time to watch WWE’s RAW with son Jason, 10 — a die-hard fan. Son Zachary, 8, is less interested.)
“Ed is a great attorney because he’ll throw himself in to figure out the business,” says Tom Barreca, executive vice president of WWE Enterprises. “I’m the guy who starts businesses from scratch here, and Ed’s the guy who has to draft complete agreements from a blank page. He’s always able to figure it out on the fly, balancing the business at hand with the larger relationship that’s in play.”
Barreca, who worked with Kaufman at Hanna Barbera, praises Kaufman’s organizational skills and his flexibility. “I could walk in and say, ‘We’re going after the Hula Hoop industry and we need a deal,’ and Ed would say: ‘Okay, let’s go,’” Barreca says. “These are deals from the ground up, with companies we’ve never dealt with before. Every letter on the page is subject to scrutiny. In regular corporate life, these deals usually take months — and we get them done in weeks, sometimes days.”
In recent years, WWE has explored new sources of revenue and continues to capitalize on the events and shows that built the company. Last year, more than 1.6 million people attended its 325 live events, 25 percent of which were held outside the U.S. The company produced 468 hours of original television, which were distributed to more than 100 countries in 13 languages. Magazines, books, action figures, WWE private-label breakfast cereals, video-on-demand and an Internet site — with 8 million visitors each month — have all contributed to WWE’s success.
And every single piece of business has important legal aspects that need to be channeled through Kaufman’s department. Unlike Hanna Barbera, which had two floors of lawyers, Kaufman has a staff of only 12 — which includes administrative employees. The job keeps him on his toes.
“I tell new lawyers here that when you open the door every day, you have to expect the unexpected,” Kaufman says. “You have to go in with a game plan, and you have to be ready to turn on a dime. The thing that’s served me well here is that I try to approach legal issues with a business eye. It’s not the kind of company where you can say, ‘Well, I’ll just be a lawyer.’ If I’d taken that approach, I don’t think I would have survived very long.”