LeBron James is the first NBA player to lead 3 franchises to championships as Finals MVP, holds the record for most points in the play-offs, and became a champion again in his 17th NBA season.
It is not only on court where he has left a remarkable legacy. He has also grown the possibilities for athletes outside the sporting arena.
As a genuine global superstar, many brands are willing to pay a lot of money to be associated with him. On many occasions, he has turned down cash in favour of taking a small ownership stake in the companies he chooses to work with.
It is an approach that has proved very successful.
Beats By Dre first introduced their headphones in 2008 with a marketing strategy of getting celebrities to wear their products. LeBron reportedly agreed to take 1% in the company for his promotional backing. Apple bought the business for $3 billion a few years later, giving LeBron a windfall of tens of millions of dollars.
Another example is when he decided not to renew a multi-million pound deal with McDonald's to instead back an unknown pizza restaurant chain. He received shares and the exclusive right to open franchises in a couple of desirable territories. Again, several years later, his investment had made him tens of millions of dollars.
He applied this approach in 2011 to get a 2% stake in Liverpool Football Club in exchange for allowing their owners FSG to exploit his global marketing rights. He recently converted that percentage, which had grown massively in value, for a more valuable stake in FSG in return for becoming one of their partners. This gave him an interest in multiple sports teams and stadiums.
This equity over cash approach has been replicated by other athletes, including football players. It was recently revealed that England stars Harry Kane, Steph Houghton, Harry Maguire and Phil Foden have become minority owners of GPS tracking technology firm StatSports with Raheem Sterling doing the same a couple of years ago. For that, they help promote the products they often use for club and country.
As well as becoming a part owner of existing companies, he has used his position to build his own businesses too. These include production company SpringHill, marketing agency Robot Co., media platform Uninterrupted and health and wellness company Ladder.
Working for his Own Objectives
Breaking new ground comes with a risk of an adverse reaction. This is often what stops others experimenting with novel approaches.
In 2010, James arranged to reveal his new team on ESPN in return for selling the advertising on the programme. It generated millions in revenues, which were donated to charity.
Whilst he received a lot of criticism for this at the time, and it could have been handled better, many athletes now manage their announcements and stories strategically so that they receive the benefit rather than giving them away for free to the media.
Another way he has been at the forefront is with his social activism. In the past stars like Muhammed Ali and Billie Jean King spoke out on issues but, since the era of a major endorsement deals, it was thought advisable not to discuss contentious topics. Michael Jordan even joked about it with the quip “Republicans buy sneakers too”.
LeBron again help change the status quo. He started a new era of athlete activism when he and his Miami team wore black hooded sweatshirts to protest against the killing of Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old African-American boy who was shot dead.
Again, he faced backlash after doing things differently, with a well-known American news presenter in 2018 saying he should “shut up and dribble” after he spoke about political issues.
In recent times, it has become more common to see sport stars highlight social issues that are important to them. In football, we have had the Black Lives Matter protests and Marcus Rashford campaigning against child poverty. Athletes that take moral stances are now seen as more attractive brand ambassadors.
The four-time Finals MVP has applied his strategic intellect to his charity activities as well. After he moved to the LA Lakers, he didn’t do any press until he was at the opening of his I Promise school that supports at-risk children. By doing this, he leveraged all the attention that was on his basketball career to something that helps him achieve his objectives away from the court.
Leader & Learner
Exploiting his profile as a star athlete and being involved in all these different areas has the added benefit of providing LeBron with the skills, experiences and opportunities he will need to continue to have a successful and rewarding career when he stops basketball.
His former high school basketball teammate and current business partner described LeBron as an “avid learner”. This is the foundation for his innovative thinking and achievements, both on and off court. He is not only an excellent role model to young children, but sets the example for fellow athletes to follow.