Zion Williamson Wins Again in Lawsuit Against Ex-Marketing Agent

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Two weeks ago, upon signing a five-year contract extension with the New Orleans Pelicans worth as much as $231 million, Zion Williamson said he wants to “prove that I’m a winner.” A federal judge’s ruling on Monday suggests the 22-year-old forward, who missed the entire 2021-22 NBA season with a foot injury, is already a winner off the court.

Judge Loretta Copeland Biggs granted summary judgment to Williamson against his former marketing agency, Prime Sports Marketing and its president, Gina Ford, over counterclaims that the 2021 NBA All-Star misappropriated trade secrets—including her advice that Williamson be marketed not as the “next LeBron James” but rather as “the First Zion Williamson.”

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Williamson and Ford have been in litigation since June 2019, when the then-Duke star sued Ford in a North Carolina federal court a week before he was picked first in the NBA draft. Williamson demanded the court declare that a contract he signed with Prime was null and void. Six days later, Ford sued Williamson, along with CAA, in Miami-Dade County Circuit Court, claiming breach of contract, tortious interference and other unlawful acts that allegedly caused $100 million in damages. Both cases are still on the docket.

Although the parties offer conflicting narratives, the gist of their dispute centers on whether Williamson owes Ford, who has represented Usain Bolt and others in endorsement deals, money for the roughly five weeks of work she performed as Williamson’s marketing agent.

On April 20, 2019—five days after he declared for the NBA draft—Williamson signed a five-year contract with Prime declaring that Ford would be his exclusive agent for endorsement deals and that the contract could only be terminated for cause. Ford then developed a marketing plan on behalf of Williamson and discussed possible deals with EA Sports, 2K Sports, Activision Publishing, Burger King, Mercedes Benz, Harper Collins and other major brands. On May 31, a representative of Williamson emailed Ford to inform her he was terminating their agreement. Williamson had retained CAA to negotiate both his NBA contract and endorsements. Ford insists Williamson had no right to terminate their deal since he lacked cause, meaning a mistake by Ford so serious that it permitted Williamson to end the deal without penalty.

In January 2021, Judge Biggs held that the Williamson-Prime contract was void and unenforceable under North Carolina law. The contract omitted several required warnings, including that a college athlete will lose their NCAA eligibility by signing. Williamson, Ford insisted, had already relinquished his NCAA eligibility since he might have received impermissible benefits before entering Duke, had allegedly told those around him in spring 2019 he was turning pro and had declared for the draft. Biggs was unpersuaded, stressing that Williamson was deemed eligible to play college ball.

Biggs was similarly skeptical of Ford’s counterclaims, which were at issue in Monday’s order. Ford insists that Williamson misappropriated trade secrets, which under state law are business or technical concepts that derive “independent actual or potential commercial value from not being generally known or readily ascertainable through independent development or reverse engineering.” Williamson, Ford asserts, contacted companies for whom Ford had cultivated strategies on his behalf and relied on her designs to pursue deals.

Ford and Prime contend that the concept “the First Zion Williamson” is their trade secret. Ford testified she shared with Williamson and his parents her vision that he “be branded/marketed independently, distinctly and separate from being referenced as the next LeBron James” and “not be called or marketed as ‘the next LeBron.'” Ford elaborated that Williamson ought to be billed “not as the ‘next’ anyone, but rather to step out of the shadows of any other basketball player, actively playing or retired, and to be the ‘First Zion Williamson.'”

Biggs reasoned this “concept” was not a trade secret since “publicly available materials show that [Williamson] employed this exact concept” years earlier. For instance, in interviews in 2017 and 2018, he told reporters he was not attempting to become “the Next LeBron” but was instead determined to be “the first Zion.”

Biggs also found Ford’s advice unoriginal and generally known since other NBA superstars had adopted the same strategy. For instance, in 2005, James’ agent told journalists the marketing strategy for the young phenom would “focus” on ensuring James “is the first LeBron James and not the second Michael Jordan.” Biggs then cited media from the 1980s when Jordan “was compared to Julius Erving as ‘The Next Dr. J’”.

The judge was similarly dismissive of Ford’s contention that the so-called formula “1+1=3” constitutes a trade secret. In testimony, Ford explained that 1+1=3 refers to “every single branding / sponsorship / endorsement / business opportunity should yield [Williamson] triple the value for domestic, international, and global long-term branding to make him the ‘First Zion Williamson’, to make him a global brand, to step out from any other player’s shadow and to make and keep him as a global brand even after retirement from playing basketball.” Biggs concluded this equation was merely a rehash of “the age-old adage” that “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” She added the “more modern buzzword” is the overused “synergy.”

Biggs also found Ford listing Nike, Gatorade, McDonald’s and other major companies as potential endorsement partners unworthy of protection. The list, the judge knocked, “does not appear to contain any information that could not be readily ascertained by watching the commercials during any televised NBA game.”

Ford’s attorneys can eventually appeal the ruling, though Biggs held an appeal is inappropriate until other claims by Williamson are resolved. Meanwhile, a jury trial is set to begin in the Miami case on Jan. 23, 2023. Attorneys for Williamson and CAA have petitioned the judge, Alan Fine, to postpone the case “pending final resolution of all claims and counterclaims in North Carolina.” A hearing on that issue will take place next month.

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