Openly gay attorney Clay Allen, 42, was recently named general counsel for the Houston Rockets and Toyota Center. In that role, he serves as the highest-ranking openly LGBTQ executive in the organization. He is hoping that his presence will inspire and influence others—including professional basketball players—to live openly and authentically.
Allen’s journey with the Rockets started 20 years ago when he became a part-time marketing associate in 2001. His support of the Rockets as a fan goes back even further than that.
“One year in high school, a friend of mine and I heard on the radio on the way to school that they were holding a banner contest in front of The Summit to win free playoff tickets,” recalls Allen. “As soon as school let out, we ran home and made a banner. We didn’t have time to let the paint dry on the banner before the contest started, so we couldn’t roll the banner up to carry it. We walked the unfurled 10-foot banner from my house, over the Edloe bridge at 59, to The Summit, and tried to keep the wind from ripping it. The banner made it in one piece, and we won suite tickets to the game that night! It was the first time I had ever been in a suite for a sporting event.
Allen found quick success working for the Rockets after graduating from Trinity University in 2001. After six months working part-time, he was promoted to a full-time role as the team’s events and promotions coordinator. He stayed in that job until 2007, but there was something about marketing that just didn’t seem like the right fit for him professionally.
“After working in marketing for a few years, I started to realize that I was in the wrong field. I had worked with our team lawyers a few times over the years on simple projects like sweepstakes rules and executing sponsorship agreements. I thought writing contracts sounded interesting, so I decided to go to law school and started studying for the LSAT. While I guess most people would describe me as a sports lawyer, I’m a transactional attorney by trade. Most of my work involves drafting, reviewing, and analyzing contracts,” says Allen.
He graduated from Baylor Law School in 2010 with a concentration in business transactions. “When I graduated from law school, I got a job at a big corporate law firm in downtown Houston. I thought that would be my career. However, after a few years I heard that the Rockets needed a new lawyer, and I immediately made a few calls to get an interview. I was hired as associate general counsel in 2013.”
Having worked with the Rockets previously, Allen already knew most of the people within the organization as well as the sports business in general—experience that was immediately beneficial when he was tasked with drafting his first sponsorship agreement and needed to describe the elements a new sponsor would receive. His knowledge of the business side of the organization, combined with his legal experience, allowed him to bring a unique perspective to his work and gain the trust of his co-workers.
“As general counsel, I am responsible for overseeing legal and policy matters for both the team and the arena, including areas relating to sponsorship agreements, arena use agreements, intellectual property matters, human resources matters, risk management, and compliance with NBA rules,” explains Allen.
He doesn’t take his professional good fortune for granted, though. “Our offices are located inside Toyota Center. Even now, after being with the team for over 14 years, I walk past the empty court in the mornings and can’t believe I’m lucky enough to get to work here.”
Allen also brings his identity as a gay man to the organization. He says he has received overwhelming support from the organization. His presence also serves as an example to other queer people who may have an interest in an organization like the Rockets, whether they be a fan, an employee, or perhaps one day, a player.
“The Rockets and Toyota Center is an open and inclusive workplace. While we don’t have an openly gay player—there currently aren’t any in the NBA—I believe that a gay player will feel welcomed and loved as part of the team.
“It’s important to me that I bring my authentic self to the workplace. When I was struggling to come out, I didn’t see a role model in the sports world that I could relate to. Perhaps if a gay staff member or player sees an openly gay executive working for a professional sports team, they’ll feel comfortable enough to be their true self as well,” says Allen.
The Rockets are making progress in other ways. In the spring of 2020 before the pandemic, the Rockets had planned to host their first Pride Night in conjunction with the Houston LGBT Chamber of Commerce. Allen served on the planning committee. COVID-19 had other plans, of course, and the event was postponed to 2021. Allen notes that the organization looks forward to celebrating Pride every season.
“As part of the inaugural Pride Night, I sat on a panel with several other sports professionals to discuss LGBTQ+ inclusion in the workplace. In the summer of 2020, our organization developed a Diversity and Inclusion Task Force, which I sit on. While our initial focus was the support of our Black employees in the wake of the death of George Floyd, we have broadened our scope and actively work to promote a workplace in which people of all genders, races, nationalities, and sexual orientations and identities are valued and supported,” he says.
But there is still room for progress in an industry where LGBTQ representation is mostly invisible. Allen continues to find new ways to change that.
“The LGBTQ+ community is still vastly underrepresented in American professional team sports—on both the business and the team side. I serve as an advisor to the board of HomeField Alliance, the first nationwide networking group for LGBTQ+ professionals in sports,” says Allen. “It is one of the organizations working to fight that and change it.”
For more info, visit nba.com/rockets.
This article appears in the December 2021 edition of OutSmart magazine.