LeBron’s Power Plays is an occasional series examining LeBron James’ two decades in the NBA and how he has influenced both professional sports and the larger culture.
Todd Boyd has been watching athletes and the entertainment industry for decades. But he sees something different in LeBron James and SpringHill Company, the production entity at the forefront of James’ growing media empire.
“I’ve been in Hollywood since Superman was a boy,” said Boyd, a professor at the University of Southern California. For decades, he’s seen athletes get involved in the movie and TV business, typically on-screen. Think NFL great Jim Brown and NBA legends Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Shaquille O’Neal and Ray Allen.
At first, he had questions about whether SpringHill would be anything more than a vanity project featuring LeBron-centric content.
“LeBron made his name as a basketball player initially, so there’s no guarantee when he came into Hollywood that he was gonna have the same success in that environment,” Boyd said.
By now, though, Boyd has seen enough: “They’re seen as a legitimate entity as opposed to an opportunity to make a fast buck,” he said. “They’re taken seriously.”
That’s because of the breadth of SpringHill’s business interests, the stream of content it’s producing and the amount of money coming in from outside investors. Plus, there are two other factors: The number of pro athletes who are following James’ lead and SpringHill’s efforts to move beyond sports and, perhaps most interesting, James himself.
The TV and film studio was founded by James and lifelong friend and business manager, Maverick Carter, in 2007. Their entertainment businesses also include UNINTERRUPTED, an original content company focusing on athlete empowerment with shows such as the Emmy Award-winning The Shop on YouTube (formerly on HBO) and NBA champion Iman Shumpert’s Iman Amongst Men podcast, and Robot Company, a brand consultancy and marketing agency.
After raising more than $100 million last year, the parent firm, SpringHill Co., claimed a valuation of $725 million. But the studio is the most provocative element of James’ now decade-plus dive into storytelling and a case study in the shifting power dynamics of modern media.
When James started his NBA career 20 seasons ago, he consumed content. The idea of an athlete being not only an object of media attention but running his own media company while still playing wasn’t on anyone’s radar. For James, that started to change with More Than A Game, the 2008 documentary about his high school experience with his teammates. James and Carter were executive producers. They needed a production company and named it SpringHill Entertainment after the apartment complex where they grew up.
Over the years, the company would build a lengthy résumé of television shows, movies and documentaries. The animated series The LeBrons ran on YouTube from 2011 to 2014. Its first TV show, Survivor’s Remorse, aired for four seasons on Starz beginning in 2014 and earned positive reviews. They were followed, among many other projects, by Shut Up and Dribble (2018), which was nominated for an Emmy and an NAACP Image Award; the documentaries Student Athlete (2018) and What’s My Name (2019) about Muhammad Ali; the Madam C.J. Walker biopic Self-Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C. J. Walker (2020) on Netflix; and Say Hey, Willie Mays, directed by the Nelson George and released in November. Last year, Hustle, a film starring Adam Sandler, won critical praise and snagged an impressive 93% audience rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
That list of credits is important, said Boyd. In Hollywood, “Somebody’s [always] trying to make a quick buck. That’s not how they’re received. There’s a seriousness to how they’re taken,” he said. “That’s because they’re doing business in the way that good companies in Hollywood are able to do business … This is about consistency. This is a real production company. This ain’t just a vanity project for LeBron.”
As a result, high-profile studios have come calling. In 2015, the company inked a deal with Warner Bros. for film and TV projects. In 2020, SpringHill signed a first-look agreement with Universal Pictures and a two-year deal with ABC Studios (which is owned by the Walt Disney Co., which also owns Andscape).
Other athletes have seen what James has been doing and followed suit, some in partnership with SpringHill and others on their own.
Golden State Warriors forward Kevin Durant’s Thirty Five Ventures, Warriors guard Stephen Curry’s Unanimous Media and TOGETHXR, the lifestyle media company led by snowboarder Chloe Kim, swimmer Simone Manuel, former WNBA player Sue Bird and San Diego Wave captain Alex Morgan, are but a few of the media entities led by athletes.
In June, tennis star Naomi Osaka announced the launch of her own media company, Hana Kuma, with SpringHill helping with production and development. This gives the company, not just James, the power to forecast cultural shifts.
“To give someone like Naomi Osaka the chance to tell her story to people who follow her — to give her, in many ways, the infrastructure that you’ve built … I think it’s not only a smart decision, but if you talk about the societal impact, that’s a decision that could actually make a difference positively,” said Harvard Business School professor Anita Elberse.
While SpringHill’s projects are heavily focused on sports, there are notable departures. For instance, in partnership with New Line Cinema, a remake of the 1990 film House Party will have its much delayed release in January, the feature-length debut by veteran music video director Calmatic. (James has a brief onscreen appearance.) And it recently announced plans for a docuseries on rapper Nipsey Hussle.
“We think of sports as sort of a Trojan horse,” said Jamal Henderson, SpringHill Co.’s chief content officer. “If you look at our very first show Survivor’s Remorse, it’s about sports, but it’s really about a family. There was no basketball in that show. With something like Top Boy [the revival of a British crime drama] or House Party, we’re definitely leaning into stories that are beyond sports. But sports are always gonna be the lifeblood of this company. Mav says this all the time — to be the Disney for culture … The idea is that our whole slate really span through to everybody.”
Sports also is the lifeblood of the company’s finances. SpringHill sold what Carter described to The New York Times last year as a “significant” minority stake to RedBird Capital Partners, Fenway Sports Group, Nike and Epic Games.
By Hollywood standards, $100 million investment isn’t superexpensive. For context, indie studio A24 secured an equity investment of $225 million in March, which raised its valuation to $2.5 billion. Even so, no one in Hollywood is purposely throwing away nine figures.
“Especially at no Black company,” Boyd said.
The belief in SpringHill to create projects that matter isn’t based on batting a thousand. It is, though, rooted in a trust of which subjects they tackle and who they trust to tell those stories. That, Henderson says, is left entirely to the company’s discretion. The big-time partners are necessary for growth. But the company’s mission remains rooted in the story and the storyteller.
“What it does is allow us to move the ball a little past the gatekeepers and do our own thing,” he said. “It doesn’t change the type of projects we wanna do. It helps expedite some of these projects that are urgent and we feel like need to be done correctly. It also allows us to work with partners and creatives that may not be deemed ‘the right person’ for a project. We’re able to say, ‘Nah, this is our person for the project.’ That’s where a lot of things get swirly around financing.”
A 2020 report by Color of Change on scripted crime shows in the 2017-18 season, for instance, found that 81% of showrunners and 78% of writers were white (compared with only 9% Black). Twenty of the 26 series had one Black writer on staff. And only 37% of writers were women. This means characters played by people of color, many of whom had runs-ins with the criminal justice system, were largely written from a white gaze. Part of what SpringHill is hoping to do is change those numbers. Nearly three-quarters of Spring Hill’s 200-plus employees are people of color and 51% are women.
For Renee Montgomery, co-owner of the WNBA’s Atlanta Dream, that sort of commitment was a selling point to bring her Think Tank Productions under the SpringHill umbrella.
“There’s a lot of people that say they wanna lead into diversity, equity and inclusion … but when you start to look at the books and what they’re giving to, where the funds are going, what they’re investing in, what they’re marketing, that’s when you’ll start to see who’s really invested,” Montgomery said. “That was huge. When we talk about equity or inclusion, it means women. It means minority women … There’s a lot of women over at SpringHill. I feel a sense of community.”
No media company always makes the right choices. The Decision, the ESPN special in which James announced that he would be signing with the Miami Heat instead of returning to the Cleveland Cavaliers, generated millions of dollars in charitable donations and proved to be a watershed moment in the history of free agency. But James “taking his talents to South Beach” to join the Heat in 2010 was blasted as the first public blunder of James’ career. While part of the backlash was due to elements of America uncomfortable with the audaciousness of young Black men taking control of their careers, Carter has taken responsibility for the controversy resulting from its execution. More recently, Carter and SpringHill decided to shelve an episode of The Shop in which rapper Kanye West made antisemitic and other inflammatory remarks (an ugly path that West continues to walk). Consider it a public lesson learned and a cost of being in this business.
“Most of the challenges we’ve encountered throughout the tenure of the company, you start to really understand a couple of things. You have to move quick but not fast,” Carter said.
“They’re gonna lay some eggs or some things won’t be as good — and that’s all right. Steven Spielberg doesn’t win an Oscar or get awards for everything he produces,” said Battinto Batts Jr., dean of the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University, who has followed James’ growth as a business executive. “I think it’s great [that LeBron isn’t in everything]. It shows that they’re open, and they really get this. They’re approaching this from a serious standpoint and that people will want to do projects with them.”
The question with SpringHill is often the same question James faces on the court as his basketball career hits its 20th year: What’s next?
Last month, SpringHill announced a joint venture with Marathon Films for the Nipsey Hussle documentary. The Shop debuted on Thursday Night Football on Prime Video. Fantasy Football, led and produced by actor Marsai Martin, (alongside SpringHill) premiered on Paramount+. And its Willie Mays documentary was released on HBO. October saw the appearance of the House Party trailer, and the Redeem Team documentary on the 2008 men’s basketball gold medal team debuted on Netflix.
Inevitably, some of them will be successful – and some of them won’t.
“I don’t mind that [pressure], because I judge myself hard. But that’s what pushes us always to be the most creative, and be thoughtful and change things,” said Carter, SpringHill’s CEO. “We didn’t decide to make a Nip documentary because it’s a good business idea. It’s the right thing to do and we have to tell this story right. So, when we do something like House Party, we knew we had the weight of, ‘Oh, specifically Black people are gonna see this and be a little skeptical about it.’ So we had to push for something great, which I don’t mind at all.
“The truth is, that’s all that matters,” Carter said. “You have to start with those people who really care.”
This reasoning, he said, goes back to SpringHill’s first TV show, Survivor’s Remorse. The series aired for four seasons, but the baseline for success wasn’t necessarily ratings or critical reviews. Those things mattered, of course. What Carter really relished, though, was traveling to NBA arenas throughout the season and hearing feedback from players. It was a cultural currency Carter cherished — and still does.
The word “legacy” might be one of the most overused in sports. What James has done, though, is expand his legacy from his achievements on the court and the debate over whether he or NBA legend Michael Jordan is the truly the greatest of all time, to changing the business of storytelling.
“What LeBron did was he told his own stories from his own lens with the people he did it with. That’s a beautiful thing, because when you look at the TV and the industry, a lot of times that’s how the culture is set,” said Montgomery.
Boyd puts the question of legacy in the context of the evolution of Black athletes.
“There’s Jackie Robinson’s era. There’s Muhammad Ali’s era. There’s Mike’s era. And now there’s LeBron’s era,” he said. “Their legacies are different based on the individual, but you can think about it as a collective whole. That’s everything that’s happened from 1947 to the present. What was possible for Jackie Robinson is different than what was possible for Ali is different than what was possible for Mike is different than what’s possible for LeBron.”
SpringHill obviously benefits from James’ fame and wealth as a professional athlete. And that relationship will matter whether he is behind the camera or in front of it. Some of the stories SpringHill will tell will involve James. But many won’t.
“As a company, SpringHill has become and stands with something that is not necessarily bigger than LeBron but is next to him now,” Carter said. “His name still resonates around the globe in a way that very few who have ever lived do. But so does SpringHill.”