The Insatiable Ambition of LeBron James

LeBron James is staking out a sprawling empire through his company, SpringHill. TYLER ROSS/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES
LeBron James is staking out a sprawling empire through his company, SpringHill. TYLER ROSS/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES

Summary

The basketball legend is building a business that includes movies and TV, podcasts and grooming products. It’s all part of his new model for how stars can cash in on their fame.

LeBron James is particular about his facial hygiene. He favors a Neutrogena pink-grapefruit wash.

“I love it, I love it, I love it," the NBA superstar says.

James, 39 years old, also loves the business potential. His company, SpringHill, is launching its own rival face wash in a men’s grooming line—part of a major expansion of his burgeoning business empire in the twilight of his career.

“I told them I want this face wash to resemble that," James said, “because I love how the crystals make your face feel super-washed."

Almost a decade ago, James helped create a new kind of company: one built around the personality of a sports superstar who can talk directly to millions of fans on social media. Entertainment was the primary focus. SpringHill has made movies like Adam Sandler’s “Hustle" and “Space Jam: A New Legacy," and TV series like NBC’s game show “The Wall" and the barbershop talk show “The Shop."

Now James and his longtime business partner, Maverick Carter, have a dizzying list of expansion ideas. Beyond the grooming line, SpringHill is making plans to expand internationally, with an eye on Western Europe, the U.K. and possibly Japan and Africa. The company is planning to bring a version of “The Shop" to the U.K., hosted and executive-produced by British actor Idris Elba. SpringHill is discussing launching a free, ad-supported streaming channel, and is hunting for acquisitions, with a particular focus on videogames and animation.

Success isn’t a slam dunk. Building a consumer-product brand is notoriously difficult, and in entertainment, SpringHill is competing with a crowd of companies that have similar ambitions, while a new era of austerity in Hollywood is clouding the prospects for production deals.

James, sitting in an airport hangar one December afternoon and awaiting a Los Angeles Lakers team flight, said he’s always wanted to excel in more than one area—basketball fans know him as not just a dominant scorer, but an elite passer, rebounder and defender. “I have always felt like I was a Swiss Army knife," says James.

He extends the analogy to the expansion of SpringHill into new lines of business. “We couldn’t just be a wine opener," he says, “We wanted also to be a pair of scissors and a fingernail clipper."

In its production business, SpringHill is trying its hand at a new format: a reality series following five National Basketball Association players, including James, through the season. The show is destined for Netflix.

SpringHill is looking to expand at a time when many streamers and advertisers are pulling back on spending, posing potential challenges for the company. The corporate owners of streaming services like Disney+, Peacock and Paramount+ are looking to burnish their balance sheets by culling their output and being more selective about which projects to pursue. SpringHill, like any creator in show business, could feel that pressure as it tries to sell programming in the coming years

“Many of the potential buyers for content and acquirers for their company are themselves in financial distress," said John Kosner, a former ESPN executive who now runs his own media-consulting company.

At 39 years old, James is the NBA’s oldest player—and the league’s all-time leading scorer. PHOTO: ERIK CARTER FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
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At 39 years old, James is the NBA’s oldest player—and the league’s all-time leading scorer. PHOTO: ERIK CARTER FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

SpringHill is competing with a number of production companies that are pitching sports content to the likes of Netflix, Amazon and Apple. Skydance Media, the company behind such hit movies as “Top Gun: Maverick," and several “Mission: Impossible" titles, teamed up with the National Football League in 2022 to create sports-related content. “When you dig into leagues, athletes and the history of games themselves, it has been an untapped treasure trove with stories that haven’t been told," said Skydance Chief Executive David Ellison in an interview last fall.

SpringHill is trying to distinguish itself with scripted content but hasn’t had many breakthroughs. It is in early development with Brad Pitt’s production company on a new show about sports agents that will be similar to Netflix’s popular show “Call My Agent," according to people familiar with the situation.

Some media investors who have looked at SpringHill question whether it is worth the $725 million valuation it was given when it raised money in late 2021—at the peak of the streaming-video boom.

Investors who did put money into SpringHill are optimistic, in part because it is stretching beyond the uncertain business of producing hits in Hollywood.

“Hits can be consumer products, a touring live show, partnerships with Fortune 100 brands, as well as TV and film projects," said Jason Stein, founder and managing partner of SC Holdings, an investor in SpringHill and adviser to the company. “By design, SpringHill is not focused exclusively on hits in the traditional sense."

‘Company Builders’

James ignited a movement in the sports world. Kevin Durant, Megan Rapinoe and Naomi Osaka are among the many other athletes that have launched media companies, hoping to control their own narrative, make a cultural impact and build a real business.

The list of such outfits keeps growing. The NBA’s Giannis Antetokounmpo in January announced a new production company, Improbable Media, whose first offering is a documentary about his rise for Amazon’s Prime Video.

It’s not only superstars: JJ Redick, a successful NBA role player, has launched his own firm built around podcasts like “The Old Man and the Three." Pat McAfee parlayed a career as an NFL punter—not exactly the most glamorous of positions—into a successful YouTube show, building a company that now licenses its programming to Disney’s ESPN.

“There are a lot of people saying ‘Why am I not doing it if LeBron is?’ " said Paul Wachter, CEO of Main Street Advisors, a SpringHill investor who has been an adviser to James since 2005.

Omaha Productions, the entertainment company started by former NFL star Peyton Manning, has gained significant traction—not just because its series “Quarterback" became a Netflix hit last year, but because it is intent on developing a robust pipeline.

“You don’t want to be a one-trick pony in this business," said David Nevins, a former head of Paramount’s Showtime, who is now CEO of North Road, which has a stake in Omaha. Having your company attached to a famous athlete only gets you so far, he said. “It’s the smart company builders that will win," Nevins said, adding that Manning is one of those executives.

SpringHill is the most mature, and the most diversified of the bunch—with lines of business that include advising brands on strategy and creating content for advertisers like Nike. The majority of SpringHill’s roughly $200 million in revenue comes from its studio business and advertisers hiring the company to create sponsored short videos meant to be shared on social media. For example, Toyota hired the company to create a short video about the importance of historically Black colleges and universities, starring former NBA player J.R. Smith.

When visitors enter SpringHill offices in Los Angeles, they are greeted with a neon sign saying, “I Am More Than an Athlete." It’s dawning on more companies—from media to sportswear to luxury goods—that athletes can have a much bigger footprint in the business world than just starring in ads and movies, Carter said.

There’s a long history of athletes forging lucrative careers in business: Magic Johnson became a billionaire not as a former Lakers star, but through investments in an insurance company, movie theaters and sports franchises, among other areas. Now social media has allowed athletes to develop a deeper connection with consumers, giving them even greater opportunities, Carter said.

“Talent and creators—and I am putting athletes in that bucket—mean more to consumers now because they have the technology to speak directly to them," Carter said.

SpringHill invests in and helps to grow other athletes’ production companies, including tennis star Osaka’s Hana Kuma, which recently spun off from SpringHill, and Miniature Géant Studio, started by NBA superstar Joel Embiid.

Guests on SpringHill’s talk show ‘The Shop,’ set in a barbershop, have included Drake, above, Tom Brady and Barack Obama. PHOTO: GEORGE PIMENTEL/GETTY IMAGES
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Guests on SpringHill’s talk show ‘The Shop,’ set in a barbershop, have included Drake, above, Tom Brady and Barack Obama. PHOTO: GEORGE PIMENTEL/GETTY IMAGES

‘The Decision’

James, the NBA’s all-time leading scorer and the league’s oldest player, was in a playful mood last year on the morning after a Lakers win. As he waited for his flight in December, he was icing his knees and joking with teammates barely half his age about videogames and their attire. “You look like you are going to Bermuda," he said to Anthony Davis, who was sporting tropical shorts.

James saw a need for athletes to tell their own stories before many of his current teammates were in the NBA.

The turning point came when James and Carter got panned by the press and fans for “The Decision," a live ESPN broadcast in 2010 in which James announced he was leaving his hometown team, the Cleveland Cavaliers, to join the Miami Heat.

That was one of the reasons that led to James and Carter to launch “Uninterrupted," a website designed to enable athletes to speak directly to fans that was one of several companies that were combined to make up SpringHill.

Carter, who has known James since they were kids in Akron, Ohio, was working in marketing at Nike before going to work with his longtime friend in 2005. His office at SpringHill’s headquarters reflects his eclectic interests, with books ranging from “The Pininfarina Book," filled with photography from the Italian design firm, to “A Time Before Crack," another photography book about New York City in the 1980s.

Carter studied Disney’s business plan when launching SpringHill. His mentors include Walt Disney CEO Bob Iger, Verizon CEO Hans Vestberg and former American Express CEO Ken Chenault.

Many of SpringHIll’s early projects have origins in James’s upbringing. For example, he was a big fan of game shows growing up, and was at the 9 a.m. pitch meeting with NBCUniversal for “The Wall," in which contestants have the opportunity to win millions of dollars. NBCUniversal just renewed the show for a sixth season.

“The Shop," a talk show that takes place in a barbershop, was inspired by James’s and Carter’s youth. “I didn’t grow up reading newspapers. I wasn’t fortunate enough to be in a library so you gained a lot of your information and intel of things in the world of the barbershop," James said. “You can be unfiltered."

The show, which has featured such guests as former President Barack Obama, football legend Tom Brady and singer Drake, is now on YouTube after airing for the first five seasons on HBO.

SpringHill’s upcoming men’s grooming line is named for his show “The Shop," which spawned the idea, Carter said. James recalls that when he used to visit the neighborhood barbershop as a kid, you could get everything from incense to beard oil to hair gel, and envisioned something similar with the grooming line.

James has been involved in product development—he participated in focus groups of male employees at SpringHIll discussing their grooming routines. When it came to face wash, he wanted his beloved Neutrogena product to be a model.

The challenges for the grooming line, which is to be sold exclusively through Walmart, will include competing against consumer-product giants with deeper pockets and longtime connections to large retailers, and persuading more men to use such products in the first place.

‘I have always felt like I was a Swiss Army knife,’ James says of his on-court abilities and off-court business ambitions. PHOTO: JUAN OCAMPO/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES
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‘I have always felt like I was a Swiss Army knife,’ James says of his on-court abilities and off-court business ambitions. PHOTO: JUAN OCAMPO/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES

Basketball’s ‘Hard Knocks’

Every summer for years, James and Carter have gone on vacation together with their families on a yacht in the Mediterranean Sea. A question would pop up: Why aren’t we doing our own version of HBO’s “Hard Knocks"? It was a frequent conversation.

James, a lover of all things football, is a huge fan of the HBO show, which each year follows a different NFL team’s preseason training camp. When “Quarterback" became a big hit for Netflix, James saw an opportunity to press forward with a similar basketball show.

Getting the NBA to sign on was step 1. SpringHill had been cultivating its ties with the league for years. It cast a number of NBA players in “Hustle," which helped build trust between the two sides. After the NBA and Netflix signed up for the idea of an NBA reality series, it was time to find the players.

James was interested in participating, but he had one key question: How would this affect a documentary of his life if he decides to do that someday? “It’s the only question he cares about," Carter said.

Carter told him not to worry—the show wouldn’t preclude a documentary spanning his career. The NBA series, which will also feature Jayson Tatum, Jimmy Butler, Domantas Sabonis and Anthony Edwards, is being made in partnership with Omaha Productions and the Obamas’ Higher Ground Productions.

James has been featured in TV shows and films including Judd Apatow’s “Trainwreck," with Amy Schumer. He surprised many on that movie’s set with his deadpan delivery of lyrics from the song “Gold Digger," offered as relationship advice for a pal played by Bill Hader.

James hopes to be more involved in the creative side of SpringHIll when he retires. He says he would love to do a docuseries with his son Bronny, who plays for University of Southern California.

He also would like to do more acting.

“The next movie I want to do is a rom-com," he said.

Write to Jessica Toonkel at jessica.toonkel@wsj.com

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