Many kids watch sports on TV and fall in love with particular teams and players. John Ruzich, however, got an early taste of what happens behind the scenes while everyone else was transfixed by what happened on the field.
“My father worked in the travel industry,” Ruzich says. “He and his friends would go to all the Super Bowls and all the parties. It was impressionable to me at a young age. I became passionate about the business of sports and getting to meet the team behind the team. It was so interesting.”
Now, as chief administrative officer and chief legal officer for Legends, Ruzich remains committed to the business side of the industry that he fell in love with all those years ago. Legends was formed in 2007 when both the New York Yankees, owned by the Steinbrenner family, and the Dallas Cowboys, owned by the Jones family, were pursuing new stadium deals. Both teams were building state-of-the-art experiences, and both teams realized that relying on standard stadium food-and-concessions would be a disservice to the fans.
The Yankees and the Cowboys formed Legends to provide premium culinary experiences for all fans. In the decade since, it has grown into a powerhouse company that includes more than seventy venues around the world, including stadiums in various professional and minor leagues, Live Nation amphitheaters, and One World Observatory located at the top of One World Trade Center in New York. Beyond concessions, Legends handles suites, skyboxes, personal seat licenses, and sponsorships for various NFL teams and Division-I college programs.
Ruzich is at the center of all those deals. He says it’s a dream job for someone like him, but it also presents its own unique set of obstacles.
“With Legends, the biggest challenge is that we grow so fast,” he says. “When I plan or consider staffing and resources, I never go for the now. I have to look out two years from now. This is a culture of constant growth.”
Of course, he’s up for the challenge. In fact, Ruzich’s tenacity is what has set him apart throughout his career. During his time as an undergraduate at the University of Miami, Ruzich was a public relations intern for the NHL’s Florida Panthers. After completing his undergraduate work, he attended St. Thomas University School of Law where he wanted to continue interning.
However, law school limited the hours he could work. To continue to stay working in the industry, the only option Ruzich had was to be an NHL off-ice official, which didn’t appeal to him. That, however, didn’t stop him from leveraging the situation into another opportunity.
“I would go to the old Miami Arena every Panthers game about three hours before the puck dropped,” he says. “I’d sit in the press box, studying and briefing cases, but I would also approach every visiting general manager that came to town and say, ‘My name is John Ruzich. I’m a first-year law student. I’d love to intern with you for free during the summer. If I’m great, you get free labor; if I’m awful, get rid of me any time you want.’”
The approach failed to work on the first thirteen tries. But when the New Jersey Devils came to town, the team’s former president and general manager Lou Lamoriello appreciated the approach, and it led Ruzich to two years of legal intern work. After graduating, Ruzich reached out to the organization for a letter of recommendation to send to the NHL League office, but instead, he received a counteroffer.
“They said, ‘Well, what if we created a position for you as staff attorney?’” he recalls.
So Ruzich began his full-time career as in-house counsel for the organization in 1999. In his first full season, the Devils won the Stanley Cup, which he says cemented his passion for the business. After a few years with the Devils, Ruzich followed an opportunity to work with World Wrestling Entertainment, where he got his first experiences in the entertainment industry.
That paved the way to his time with the television and movie company Classic Media, which was eventually acquired by DreamWorks in 2012. During his time with Classic Media, Ruzich found himself working through the legal aspects of new productions, television distribution agreements, live events, tours, merchandising, and home video and digital rights. He even worked on the contracts for CBS to run the classics Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Frosty the Snowman during the holiday season.
“It was fun space to grow,” he says. “When my contract came up, I was approached by a friend in the sports industry, who told me Legends was looking for a general counsel. The opportunity to get back in sports and work for two iconic franchises is something that I don’t think anyone in their right mind would pass up.”
The fact that he was approached for the job, he says, is a callback to the aggressiveness and genuine networking he started all those years ago in the press box at Florida Panthers games. It’s a message he stresses both to young people looking for their first job and C-suite executives looking for their next opportunity: Don’t just be a name on a résumé and hope for an opportunity to present itself. Instead, build authentic relationships with people, seek their input on situations, and, hopefully, find advocates that can help you when you go through adversity.
“When you’re in an office, knock on every door,” he continues. “Take people out for coffee, ask them about their experience, their successes, their failures. When an opportunity becomes available, they will hopefully think of you first as opposed to the need to send in a résumé and cover letter like everyone else. If you have an advocate in this business, it’s huge. I constantly know of several general counsel positions that are available, and most of them are not posted. People call and say, ‘My GC is leaving. Is there anyone you know?’ You have to get out and build your brand.”
Ruzich says when he’s hiring, he looks for authentic people that take that self-motivation to heart, not only because it can help create an effective team, but it can also help him—and Legends—further down the line.
“John’s colleagues enjoy being in the trenches with him,” says Irwin Kishner of Herrick, Feinstein LLP. “He’s a brilliant tactician who expects excellence at every turn—both as a team member and leader—and provides creativity, intellect, and vision that resonates with the people around him.”
And it’s his vision for the future that has poised him and Legends to continue to be leaders in their field.
“You always have to think ahead,” he says. “A lot of people look at their career like checkers—one move at a time. I think the really successful people look at it like a chess match—working four or five moves ahead, anticipating, and counteracting. Everyone is motivated differently. They communicate differently and react differently. Think ahead, and put yourself in the right position for success.”
Failure is never an option
Even when he was growing up, John Ruzich developed a passion for the business side of sports. Today as the chief administrative officer and chief legal officer for Legends, he says he has found his dream job, but others haven’t reached that same level yet. And as Ruzich explains, it’s not enough just to possess certain knowledge and skill sets.
In the sports industry, specifically, Ruzich says it’s not only one of the most competitive businesses, but it’s also saturated with an abundance of talented people vying for a small number of spots.
“For someone to be successful, they need to be passionate about this business because it is a long and tough journey to get to the place you want to be,” Ruzich says. “It’s something that you really need a fire inside of you and have a singular purpose in your mind: that failure is never an option. Ultimately, you realize it may take many years, but you cannot have any doubts that you’re going to achieve what you want. You have to believe in that.”
Additionally, Ruzich says there are no days off in the sports business, which is just another reason why only the most passionate survive.
“You have to understand that it’s a lifestyle commitment you’re making. It’s not a job. Not in this industry,” he says. “And more importantly, if you’re not that committed and not passionate about your position, then there’s a million people that would be happy to take your job for less pay who have the necessary level of dedication. So, that passion and that ability to wake up every morning and be enthusiastic and dedicated about what you want to do in your life is what carries you throughout your career.”
Photo: Jeffrey Holmes