”When you own the corporation, you’re not working for the man — you are the man,“ one prominent entertainment attorney says
Today’s sports superstars are no longer satisfied to limit their off-the-field endeavors to endorsing products or dabbling in guest appearances and cameo roles. Athletes are finding more creative freedom — and bigger dollars — as producers and content creators.
Sure, it’s still a professional coup to be the Olympian on the Wheaties box or the moniker on pair of Nikes like Michael Jordan. It may serve a career to move onto the screen as an actor, talk show personality or game show host — although a recent gig guest-hosting “Jeopardy!” did not turn into a permanent win for Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
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But agents, attorneys and analysts say athletes like LeBron James and Steph Curry are realizing that building their own film and TV production companies — or entering into exclusive production deals with ownership potential — is more likely to put them on the fast track to joining the ranks of Hollywood’s biggest players.
“This is a new trend, which I believe will continue to accelerate,” entertainment attorney Lindsay Conner, a partner at the law firm O’Melveny, told TheWrap. “Entertainers and athletes have come to realize they can make money beyond the traditional areas of their special talent… as the nucleus of corporate entities that are formed around them.”
Corporations, after all, can long outlive an athlete’s playing career.
“When you run your own corporation you are not working for the man — you are the man,” Conner said.
Producing roles and partnerships are also giving athletes more control over the stories told. Colin Kaepernick, who founded production company Ra Vision Media, serves as a creator/producer with Ava Duvernay on the Netflix drama series “Black & White,” which dramatizes Kaepernick’s high school years and the experiences that led him to a life of social activism. The series premiered on Oct. 29. Ra Vision entered into a first-look development deal with Disney in 2020. Also premiering on that date was the AppleTV+ series “Swagger,” from Kevin Durant and series creator Reggie Rock Bythewood, inspired by Durant’s youth basketball playing experiences on the AAU circuit.
WME sports agent Kelly Sherman said that athletes are turning to entertainment development to use their impact on society in a new and different way, with a significance that goes beyond product endorsements. Sherman added that, for athletes, moving into entertainment content is “an incredible way for them to build out their brand.”
Some industry watchers cite a recent flurry of investor interest in James and Maverick Carter’s SpringHill Company as a sign that Hollywood wants to tap the brand recognition a sports star can bring to a production company. SpringHill, founded in 2020 and comprised of SpringHill Entertainment, Uninterrupted and the Robot Company, is the entity behind the summer movie hit “Space Jam: A New Legacy,” which featured James mixing it up on screen with Bugs Bunny and other Looney Tunes animated characters.
SpringHill has raised a new round of financing that values the company at $725 million. Investors include RedBird Capital Partners along with a consortium including Boston Red Sox owner Fenway Sports Group, Nike, and Epic Games. James and Carter remain majority owners in the company.
Conner and others compare the interest in SpringHill to the recent acquisition of Reese Witherspoon’s Hello Sunshine production company for a whopping $900 million. Whether the “name” is an actor or an athlete, founding a company creates a pathway for investment.
“You can’t invest in an actor’s career or an athlete’s career directly, but by having an entertainer or athlete establish a corporate entity for content they are producing, or other rights they are owning or curating, can attract more traditional kinds of financing to their activities,” Conner said.
Other entertainment companies launched by sports figures in recent years include Steph Curry’s Unanimous Media, Dwayne Wade’s 59th & Prairie Entertainment (named after the Chicago intersection where Wade grew up), Chris Paul’s Ohh Dipp! Productions (which recently entered into a deal with Parker Paige Media for a competition series called “Playdate”) and Olympic speed skater Allison Baver’s Allison Baver Entertainment.
Other athletes are making content deals with existing entertainment companies, including Russell Westbrook, who partnered with eOne’s Blackfin to produce the documentary “Tulsa Burning: The 1921 Race Massacre,” which premiered on the History Channel earlier this year, and Serena Williams, who in April announced a first look TV deal for an autobiographical docuseries with Amazon Studios. Williams also sits on the board of directors for SpringHill.
CAA board member and co-head of Basketball Marketing and Servicing Lisa Joseph Metelus told TheWrap that sports figures’ recent moves into content creation has been fueled by social media.
“It’s just really allowed athletes to take ownership of their voice and stories; whereas, in the past, it’s always been narrated by someone else,” Metelus said. “Nowadays, and it’s been this way for some time, athletes don’t necessarily need to go to a journalist to tell their story. And I think that’s really allowed them to find their voice. And I think that has led to other opportunities.”
SpringHill’s Chief Content Officer Jamal Henderson said the company is excited by the possibilities of developing ancillary businesses through the SpringHill “shop” — but added that ultimately ownership allows the company’s leaders to concentrate on meaningful projects.
“What’s exciting about content is that it becomes another piece of that puzzle, but it’s also about things that we care about, like More Than a Vote (launched during the Black Lives Matter protests) or other efforts that we’ve gotten behind,” Henderson told TheWrap. “In the last few years, we’re really about empowering voices, and trying to do right in the world.”
Erick Peyton, co-founder and chief creative officer of Unanimous Media, said Curry’s foray into the production is grounded in inspiration. “I do think there is a trend of influencers and athletes, getting into content…I can only speak to why we do it,” he told TheWrap. “Steph wants to inspire through everything he does, and content is no different.”
Added Peyton, “Of course, we want to have a seat at the table when it come to creative control, when it comes to ownership and putting a project together, but it’s more about being authentic to the vision. We all think that profit will come, as long as you are authentic to the vision.”