Tongues were wagging in early June when LeBron James and the LA Lakers got bounced from the NBA playoffs in the opening round. It was the earliest exit of the 36-year-old’s career, and the fizzle by the defending champions fueled speculation about James’ future as he approaches his 19th season as a pro.
Conveniently, there were plenty of projects to focus on off the court. One of the biggest: the release of the long-gestating Space Jam: A New Legacy. The film’s better-than-expected opening this weekend, at almost $32 million, did more than burnish James’ credentials as an onscreen draw. It added validation for the SpringHill Company, the entity that James and longtime business partner Maverick Carter founded in 2020.
Last week, in the days leading up to the release of Space Jam in theaters and on HBO Max, reports surfaced that investors were looking to take a stake in SpringHill. A source familiar with the discussions told Deadline that there are “a number of active conversations” with investors, among them Nike, at a $750 million valuation. The likeliest scenario is an infusion of cash but no change of management control.
While a number of athletes have recently embarked on a range of initiatives in the media business, SpringHill is a more evolved entity. Founded with a $100 million initial funding round last year, it now has 120 employees across three main business units: marketing agency Robot Co., SpringHill Entertainment and Uninterrupted, described as an “athlete empowerment” effort. Operations span branded content, marketing services, podcasts, and scripted and unscripted film and TV projects. The company’s board includes Elisabeth Murdoch, Serena Williams and several other notable finance and business figures.
In a July 19 appearance on the Smartless podcast hosted by Jason Bateman, Will Arnett and Sean Hayes, James said he intends to play another four to seven years. He is under contract with the Lakers through 2023. During his rookie year in the NBA in 2003, James said he realized, “I wanted to be a businessman. I wanted to be in control of my business.”
He formalized business ties with a group of friends he grew up with in Akron, OH, creating an entity called LRMR, short for LeBron James, Rich Paul, Maverick Carter and Randy Mims. Even though James was still a teenager when he made the move, he felt certain it would bring him control over his own destiny, albeit with a steep learning curve.
“I didn’t give a damn about what they were talking about,” he said of the skeptics who questioned his decision to put his future in the hands of industry outsiders. “Who are people to trust more than the people that I know? We can all learn together. … Let’s takes bumps and bruises together. Let’s fail at the same time we go along this journey.”
James, who starred in Trainwreck and hosted Saturday Night Live, has long been active as a producer. SpringHill Entertainment long predates the larger corporate entity. Diversifying well beyond the confines of Hollywood is the plan. The company has overall TV and film deals with Disney and Universal, but fashion, advertising and technology are also all very much in the mix. In the runup to opening weekend for Space Jam, SpringHill played a role in forging more than 200 marketing partnerships.
“We want to continue to climb. We want to continue to build relationships and build great content for everyone,” James said.
“Those guys are great,” WarnerMedia Chief Revenue Officer Tony Goncalves told Deadline. “Mav is a great partner for him.” Of the film’s overall marketing effort, Goncalves added, “They’ve done an incredible job taking the IP and really sort of building a flywheel around it in sync with the movie, all the way down to the basics — Amazon boxes wrapped in SpaceJam, showing up in people’s homes — all the way to these AR experiences.”
While the ambitions for SpringHill are broad, it helps that it is anchored by a leader of undeniable charisma. Critics’ reviews of Space Jam were not universally kind, but even the harshest notices included positive notes about the star and producer.
James told the Smartless hosts his interest in entertainment has run in parallel to his involvement in sports. “When I was a kid, not only was the inspiration coming from sports figures but from TV shows,” he said. “I always felt like, ‘I wish I was the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.’”
Comedy has been the best fit for James as an actor thus far, he said becoming an action star à la Dwayne Johnson is not out of the question. “I’m not against that,” James said.