When free agents decide to sign with a new team, we tend to look at what is on the court when we analyze their choice: the players, the coach, the chance at another ring. But as players get older, they start to look off the court and into the future. LeBron James is no exception. While many basketball fans expected that James might head to a more talent-rich roster like Philadelphia, Boston, or San Antonio, people close to show business always expected that he would end up in LA.
If you’ve lived in Los Angeles for the last few years years, you have probably heard reports of a strange sight in Burbank. Thing like, “I was on the Warner Brothers lot and I think I saw LeBron driving around in a golf cart.”
No, your basketball fanatic pals weren’t dreaming. For the last decade, and especially since 2015, LeBron James has quietly been setting himself up to be a Hollywood mogul. With the recent expansion of his entertainment empire, the approaching twilight of his career, and the way athletes are moving into the media world, James’ move to the LA Lakers makes perfect sense.
Building an empire
In 2015, James’ company, SpringHill Entertainment, signed a massive overall deal with Warner Bros. “spanning all areas of creation,” according to the Hollywood Reporter. The deal provided James the opportunity to “touch all areas of the studio, with plans for projects in television, film, and original digital content.”
SpringHill was founded in 2008 when James and business partner, Maverick Carter, produced More Than A Game, a documentary about LeBron’s high school team at St. Mary’s High School in Akron. James had some Hollywood projects rolling with Carter prior to 2015 – including Starz’s critical darling Survivor’s Remorse and a 2011 animated series, The LeBrons – but the Warner deal opened the door for LeBron to become a full-fledged mogul.
One of the most interesting aspects of the Warner deal was a $15.8 million investment in a multimedia streaming platform for athletes called Uninterrupted. Essentially, Uninterrupted plans to do for video what The Players’ Tribune did for print articles, allowing athletes direct access to audiences.
Uninterrupted produces content like The Shop, a web series featuring athletes in free-flowing conversation at the barbershop, and Kneading Dough, which features athletes discussing their finances.
Carter, who serves as CEO of Uninterrupted, says that he asks his staff the same question every day “Can ESPN do this? And if they can, then we shouldn’t be doing it.”
James and SpringHill have been involved in an incredibly diverse array of television projects. His first attempt at television, Survivor’s Remorse, inspired by James’ life story, enjoyed a critically acclaimed four-season run before it came to an end in 2017.
Since then, SpringHill has dabbled in every kind of TV project imaginable. James and Carter have entered the game show and reality format, with shows like The Wall, Cleveland Hustles, and Do or Dare. The company has produced a number of documentary projects as well, including Student Athlete, a look at the hardships faced by NCAA players, while a forthcoming Showtime documentary will take a look at the NBA’s influence on pop culture.
SpringHill is poised to jump back into the prestige TV game with On Her Own Ground, a series that will star Octavia Spencer as America’s first black millionaire, entrepreneur and activist, C.J. Walker. The company also has a single-camera comedy in development set at an LA sneaker store for HBO.
SpringHill announced two big feature projects this year: a comedy project titled Public Enemy and a reboot of the 1990 cult comedy classic House Party. James has also been attached to a sequel of the beloved animated film Space Jam for several years.
Friends in High Places
James has achieved all of this from Miami and Cleveland. Why does he need to be in LA to oversee his entertainment empire?
One answer is networking. In addition to the chance to be closer to a variety of projects at SpringHill, relocating to Los Angeles will allow James to expand his network and further develop mentorship connections.
James is close with billionaire Warren Buffett, who has a home in SoCal. Buffett has spoken highly of James in interviews. He once said James “talked smarter about business deals than plenty of MBAs I’ve met…when I talked with him first, he was 21 then…He knew a lot more than I did when I was 21.”
Lakers great Earvin “Magic” Johnson is currently serving as President of Basketball Operations for the Lakers. Magic is also one of the most successful athletes-turned-businessmen of all time. It comes as no surprise that he reportedly played a key role in convincing James to play for the Lakers.
Johnson has turned his NBA stardom into a vast business empire. While he made his fortune in retail and real estate, as the owner of 125 Starbucks locations, a number of gyms and restaurants, and a slew of high-end condos, James couldn’t find a better person to ask for advice about transitioning from all-star baller to full-time mogul. Johnson is also the part-owner of two sports teams and has investments in soccer and e-sports leagues, so he is no stranger to the entertainment business.
Additionally, the strange reality of Hollywood is that even in the age of Skype and GChat, it is an analog town. The trades (Hollywood Reporter, Variety, Deadline) still curate lists of the top power lunch spots in town and one look at LA gossip blogs will remind you that business drinks are still an all-important ritual.
There’s a reason that even people with private jets maintain an LA residence. In show business, Hollywood is still where things happen.
A Hands-On Approach
A move to more closely oversee his entertainment interests is also in keeping with LeBron James the player. The NBA rumor mill has long been filled with articles about LeBron’s hands-on approach with his own teams. He has often been called the de facto GM of his various franchises, and he is said to have an opinion on every aspect of his teams, down to the uniforms.
As soon as his season ended in elimination from the 2018 NBA Finals at the hands of the Golden State Warriors, James was reportedly frantically placing calls in an attempt to woo players to build his dream roster. Some reporters attribute a number of the personnel moves the Cavs have made in recent years directly to LeBron. Others have gone as far as to say he built the Cavs roster himself.
This kind of control over all aspects of the game shows what kind of competitor James is, and it isn’t surprising that he would want to be able to exercise the same amount of control over his Hollywood empire.
Just as the ’90s were an era when restaurant franchises and infomercial products held the keys to empire, these days athletes are increasingly putting their resources in entertainment and media.
Derek Jeter’s Players’ Tribune has been wildly successful in creating a platform for athletes to tell their stories. Jeter and co-founder, Jayme Messler, not only rely on athletes for content, but their investors are largely sports stars as well. Kobe Bryant won an Oscar for producing the adaptation of his Players’ Tribune retirement letter “Dear Basketball” into an animated short.
Uncle Drew, a summer comedy release starring a number of current and former NBA players, has been a surprising success. Considering the film is based on a Pepsi commercial, and is, in some ways, branded content, it was also likely lucrative for all involved. Shaquille O’Neal, who stars alongside Kyrie Irving in the film, has had a relationship with Hollywood in front of and behind the camera for decades. In addition to his well-known forays into acting, O’Neal has been a producer on documentaries like Killer Bees and A Week in Watts.
A number of players are also becoming engaged with podcasting and social media enterprises. J.J. Redick has been working with the LA-based Ringer podcast and media network run by Bill Simmons. CC Sabathia and O’Neal have also launched well-received podcasting efforts.
In the ’90s, every athlete had a sneaker and a kitchen appliance with their name on it. Even when stars like Michael Jordan appeared on film, they didn’t tend to make the foray into development and producing. Now, the competition for investments has moved to the media landscape. James’ approach to basketball has been about tinkering with lineups and even coaching staffs to gain a competitive advantage. It only makes sense that he would move to LA so that he can maintain his edge on other athletes who aspire get into the entertainment game.
Putting Down Roots
A simple answer to why James is moving to LA now is that he is looking towards the future. Though he has built his production company from afar, a move to LA is a move towards permanence for The King. The journey towards this decision was marked by the purchase of a $23 million Brentwood home and a hunt for the right private school for his children.
For personal and professional reasons, Los Angeles is the perfect place for him to begin his transition from the locker room to boardroom. Only time will tell the full scope of SpringHill’s ambitions and just how many years James will try to balance playoffs and film production. But it’s clear James and his production company are in Hollywood for the long haul.