That Mary Kay Braza '81 is considered one of the leading lawyers in sports law in the nation is no secret. In her thirty-plus years in the business, she has won all the requisite awards-from being named a top lawyer in her field for the past eleven years in Chambers U.S.A. to getting cited in The Best Lawyers in America.
A dealmaker as well as a litigator, Braza-whose maiden name is Mullenhoff-is a partner at Milwaukee-based Foley & Lardner as well as founding member and co-chair of its Sports Industry Team.
In that role Braza says she has "had the advantage of working across a range of issues-from buying and selling professional teams, to litigating antitrust issues related to professional and college sports, to negotiating long-term broadcasting agreements and stadium financing deals, to advising on sports-related start-ups such as an esports league."
She was a strategic adviser to Major League Baseball under former Commissioner Allan H. "Bud" Selig for many years. And she has counseled leagues and teams, owners of professional sports franchises, and people who bid on owning a team.
One of Braza's favorite deals was litigated in a steaming hot Texas federal courthouse in the middle of summer-with the courtroom overflowing not just with the usual crowd of lawyers and litigators, but with sports fans and their families dressed in team-boosting T-shirts and regalia and toting picnic baskets and drink coolers.
The case involved the purchase of the Texas Rangers baseball team, and Braza has presented on it in Law School Professor Charles Whitehead's deals class.
"One of the leads in our ownership group was Baseball Hall of Fame pitcher Nolan Ryan, who was president of the club at the time," she says. "It started with a very reluctant seller, who had leveraged a lot of the assets that he owned in sports and could not repay the debts. He was being forced by his lenders to sell those assets."
The ownership group won a competitive bidding process. "But the price we'd negotiated wasn't going to take out all of the seller's debt, and the lenders weren't happy about that," she says. "We changed the terms to accommodate their requests, but we were still unable to reach a deal. So the team was put into bankruptcy and sold that way. We were the 'stalking horse,' the preferred bidder. Any other bidders would have to better our deal. It was a risk, but we thought we had negotiated a good deal- and obtained financing by then-and that it was unlikely somebody would beat our terms."
The lenders argued that because they had liens on the companies that owned the team, the sale could not take place without their permission. The issue in bankruptcy court was to what extent they could hold up the sale, Braza explains.
"The auction started at 8:00 a.m. and went back and forth until 1:00 in the morning, but ultimately our group won," she says. "When it was announced, the whole courtroom stood up and cheered. People threw their hats in the air, and it was a lot like having a walk-off home run."
Immediately after the sale, the team went to the World Series for the first time ever, and Braza and her family got to go. "It's one of the benefits of doing this work," she says. "You feel like you're part of their team."
"Mary Kay was an excellent presenter," says Whitehead, "making it clear to students that many of the issues and tools that arise in complex deal structuring apply across industries and transactions. The students were engaged, not simply because the deal was fascinating, but also because of the insight she brought to deals in general."
"I have had the pleasure of working alongside Mary Kay for over thirty-five years," says Bob DuPuy '73, a partner at Foley. "From the start, she was extraordinarily strategic and analytic, which made her a wonderful problem solver. In addition to being a brilliant advocate, she had the rare ability to disagree without being disagreeable."
He recounts a New York bankruptcy case Braza worked on as a senior associate, involving the Allis-Chalmers Company, an industrial machinery manufacturer. The bankruptcy judge was well known for taking lawyers to task for the positions they took in court. "She presented the firm's position, which prevailed in a ruling from the bench," he says. "On her way out, the judge told the assembled lawyers he hoped they'd paid attention because that was the way a motion should be presented," says DuPuy.
Of her Cornell experience, Braza says: "I liked the challenge of it and the small size of the classes." Her favorite course: Professor Faust Rossi's Trial Techniques, but "I really participated in almost everything the school had to offer, from the Cornell International Law Journal to Moot Court."
She also met her husband at Cornell. James Braza '81 is a lawyer in commercial litigation and construction law at Davis & Kuelthau in Milwaukee. The couple has two daughters, Laura, a New York City theater director, and Carolyn, a digital analytics manager at iHeartRadio. All are ardent Milwaukee Brewers and Green Bay Packers fans.