GC Fireside

Expecting the Unexpected

Sunjay Mathews
January 14, 2021

GC’s are often placed in a position where they have to manage a certain level of unexpected chaos; it’s simply the nature of the job.  This reality has been magnified for many GCs amidst the unforeseen events of 2020.  However, it is the ideal opportunity for the GC to showcase their value and provide proper counsel during uncertain times and unexpected developments, of which there are no shortfalls in 2020.  

Today we are speaking with Sunjay Mathews, Senior Vice President and Head of Legal in North America for DAZN (pronounced “Da Zone”) – the leading global sports destination.  We cover how DAZN managed the challenges COVID presented to its business, the role he played, and his advice on how to not only operate but thrive amidst the unforeseen chaos.  

Tell us more about DAZN and how the business has managed the chaos of COVID

DAZN is an over-the-top sports streaming service betting on the cord-cutting trend, now live in over 200 global markets including the US and Canada.  It is an app where consumers either pay a monthly or yearly fee to access live sports, original sports documentaries, sports highlights and related sports content to watch on their connected devices.  The sports rights available to a DAZN consumer varies depending on their location.  In the US, DAZN is focused on providing live boxing and fight content and related original programming.  In Canada, however, DAZN provides multi-sport content, including live rights to NFL, EPL and UEFA Champions League (to name a few).

Given DAZN is a live and on-demand sports destination, and COVID-19 temporarily paused live sports, it is not hard to imagine the impact it had on DAZN’s business.  But with the unexpected, also came opportunity—an opportunity for people to voice their ideas on how to do things better.  For DAZN, it was a chance to reset, innovate, develop new initiatives and ancillary revenue streams while further curating its original sports content offering. 

COVID-19 has been a major challenge for the sports industry, but it has also accelerated long-term trends we see as opportunities, including, but not limited to the cord-cutting trend on which we are all-in.  2020 taught many lessons to those willing to pay attention, and from those learnings, DAZN has committed to more compelling original content to complement our premium live matches, new content formats and improvements on virtual production—emerging from the COVID-19 crisis stronger, more agile and more focused.  

Most relevantly for this TechGC group, 2020 also provided an opportunity for the legal function—because when things go wrong, everyone looks for the closest lawyer.  This year provided DAZN’s in-house lawyers a more important seat at the table to help advise on go-forward strategy and how to best manage the unexpected trials and tribulations of 2020 in accordance with contractual provisions, case law principles and sometimes general advice based on past experiences.  

How does one prepare for the unexpected?    

You don’t.  There was no way to predict 2020…any of it.  Sure, in hindsight, we lawyers could have spent more time and effort negotiating force majeure provisions, but can you imagine holding up a deal with pressure to close because you were negotiating the addition of the word “pandemic”, “epidemic” or both to a FM clause.  Or more comically, in 2018, asking the question, “well what happens to our respective contractual obligations if a global pandemic halts the playing of live sports or limits the attendance of fans?”  Of course, our job is to identify risk, ambiguity and raise questions that most don’t consider—but within reason.  We need to balance that responsibility with being viewed as a function that adds value to deals and decisions, not roadblocks.  And I believe trying to prepare for every possible unexpected scenario skews that balance we all as in-house lawyers are trying to achieve.

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If you can’t exactly prepare for the unexpected, then what should you do?

Instead of trying to prepare and predict the unforeseen, I think there’s more value in developing a mindset that allows you to help guide a Company through unexpected developments and circumstances.  Scientific research has shown that how we respond to an unexpected challenge or an unforeseen setback depends in large part on the mindset we have in that particular situation.  It is important to have what is referred to as a “growth mindset” in preparing for and managing the unexpected—a mindset that regularly embraces challenges and curiously seeks improvements, as opposed to always trying to maintain the status quo.  Such a mindset not only prepares you for the unexpected, but also has the added benefit of challenging the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” mantra that pervades many organizations.

It’s always about finding the calm in the chaos.  And your value as GC, is being the calm; the one in the room that reminds everyone to take a deep breath.  You won’t always have the answers but you can develop a frame of mind to always ask the right questions, in the appropriate tone and at the relevant time.  

Most importantly, you should always remind people to slow down.  When everything seems to be coming apart at the seams, everyone’s first instinct is to react and react quickly.  But patience is your best bet.  When dealing with the unexpected, it is critical to take your time to be thoughtful and deliberate in your response, and gather all the necessary facts and data before proposing a plan of action or even a solution.

What’s the best way to develop this mindset?  

Truthfully, the most obvious way is experience.  Prior to DAZN, I was Corporate Counsel at FanDuel, and when I joined, FanDuel was in the midst of numerous lawsuits with state Attorney Generals questioning the legality of daily fantasy sports.  Nothing more unexpected than having your core business deemed “illegal” by various states in which you operate, including NY, the state where the Company was headquartered.  But having learned to navigate that chaos over the next few months and years, along with other fire drills that often come up, helps foster that mindset to be an asset during chaotic and tumultuous times.

The silver lining of 2020 as faint as it might be, is that we now all have the relevant experience to develop a “growth mindset” to not just survive, but thrive in unexpected situations.  We’ve all unofficially gone through a crash course in crisis management.

And speaking of silver linings, staying positive and optimistic is a key part to developing this mindset.  It the midst of 2020, it is hard to find the silver lining, but I truly believe when we look back on this very difficult year, we will appreciate how much the challenges we faced gave us a new perspective, and an opportunity to reflect on what is most important and caused us to grow not only as GCs but also as individuals.  After all hindsight is 20/20 (pun intended).

Final thoughts?  

Expect the best. But prepare for the worst.  And when the unexpected happens—take a deep breath and remind everyone, this too shall pass. But most importantly, always stay positive and find the silver lining.  

Sunjay Mathews
Mr. Mathews is a sports, media and tech executive with more than a decade of legal experience in highly regulated industries such as video streaming, gaming, gambling and fantasy sports. He prides himself on maintaining an optimistic perspective no matter the situation – a mindset he has perfected as an avid Knicks fan. He has a proven track record of delivering creative solutions to issues of first impression. Speaking of creative, here’s a haiku: Sunjay loves the Knicks. He’s more than just a lawyer. He is here to help.