NBA Star Zion Williamson Secures Wins on the Basketball Court and in the Courtroom, After Defeating Claims of Trade Secret Misappropriation

NBA star Zion Williamson has more to celebrate than his recently announced five-year maximum rookie contract extension with the New Orleans Pelicans, worth up to $239 million. Williamson was also victorious in a lawsuit he filed against his former agent Gina Ford, and her agency Prime Sports Marketing LLC (“Prime Sports”). The case is Williamson v. Prime Sports Marketing LLC et al. in the District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina, No. 1:19-cv-00593.

Williamson entered into a marketing agreement with Ford and Prime Sports when he was just a freshman at Duke University. He brought suit in 2019, seeking to void the marketing agreement on the grounds that it violated North Carolina’s Uniform Athlete Agent Act (“UAAA”), by failing to include a “conspicuous” warning to the student athlete that execution of the contract would result in a loss of intercollegiate eligibility. In January 2021, the court ruled in favor of Williamson, holding that Williamson’s agreement with Ford and Prime Sports failed to contain the required warning, and also failed to meet the UAAA’s requirements in several other respects. The court thus deems the marketing agreement void and unenforceable.

The legal battle did not end there, however. Ford and Prime Sports brought counterclaims against Williamson, including breach of contract, fraud, and misappropriation of trade secrets in violation of North Carolina’s Trade Secrets Protection Act. Williamson filed for summary judgment on all of these counterclaims.

With respect to the claim of misappropriation of trade secrets, Ford and Prime Sports alleged that their “strategic, comprehensive and extensive marketing plan for” Williamson, that “included the numerous multimillion-dollar strategic branding and marketing endorsements, contracts and/or opportunities that Defendants had obtained” for Williamson constituted “proprietary” trade secrets. The court found that these allegations were too vague to establish that any trade secrets existed.

In their summary judgment briefing, Ford and Prime Sports attempted to identify their trade secrets with more specificity. They argued that their idea to the Williamson brand as “the First Zion Williamson,” rather than “the Next LeBron,” was a trade secret. The court quickly disposed of that argument, finding that the concept of “the First Zion Williamson” was both generally known and easily ascertainable, and therefore ineligible for trade secret protection under North Carolina law. In particular, such a branding plan was not new – in 2005, LeBron James’s agent publicly stated his focus was to make James “the first LeBron James” and not the “second Michael Jordan.”

The court likewise disposed of Ford and Prime Sports’s remaining purported trade secrets, including a Brand Management Strategy document that consisted solely of a list of companies sorted by category, such as “Footwear & Apparel” and “Luxury.” The court found that the Brand Management Strategy “does not appear to contain any information that could not be easily ascertained by watching the commercials during any televised NBA game.”

The court ultimately granted Williamson summary judgment as to all of Ford and Prime Sports’s counterclaims on July 18, 2022. In sum, July has proved to be a very fruitful month for Williamson, in both the legal and basketball courts.

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