LeBron James has to be feeling the pressure about now, with game 3 of the NBA finals scheduled for tonight and the Golden State Warriors with a 2-0 lead over the Cleveland Cavaliers. But even should his team lose, he's still going to win -- in his media business.
James seems to be as much of a natural at business as he is at basketball, which is to say that he's got talent but put in the hard work necessary to succeed. At 18, he turned down $10 million from Reebok to refuse any meetings with Nike or Adidas. "I started thinking, like, 'If this guy... if he's willing to give me a $10 million check right now, what is it to say if Nike or Adidas isn't willing to give me $20 or $30 [million] upfront,'" James said on a podcast. And he's understood for a long time that the way to really big money was to create something that you own, not that you work for.
What could turn out to be his smartest move is Uninterrupted, his media business. He's created a channel that combines entertainment with the national hunger for sports news. Instead of using reporters and the standard media structures, James, his business partner Maverick Carter, and Uninterrupted have cut around ESPN's flank. They provide a direct conduit from the players to the fans, as the Wall Street Journal explains:
Uninterrupted's multimedia offerings include full-length documentaries, web series and a growing podcast network. Some of its shows have been licensed by traditional media outlets such as Fox Sports, which broadcast an Uninterrupted documentary about a mixed martial-arts fighter. Shows also appear on YouTube, Instagram and Uninterrupted's own website.
Athletes can create their own shows and productions, making them available through Uninterrupted. Because there's more in it for the athletes, you can guess which media company will get the most attention from the players and, therefore, from the fans. It doesn't completely cut out traditional networks and publications. Instead, James and Carter created an outlet that any of the established companies could have built, except that they didn't.
The success isn't accidental. Here are some lessons you can learn from LeBron James in pursuit of your own success.
- Be an owner, not a worker. Some people will make great money working for someone else. But there's always a ceiling over what you can do. Plus, no matter how successful you seem today, you could be tossed aside tomorrow for any reason. To be free, own your destiny, don't lease it.
- Plan to build. Expect to work hard and over time to build the business. The satisfaction of creation is at least as important as the money at the far end, and may be even more.
- Push to be innovative. Even with the $15 million in early investment that James and Carter got, they would have faced big problems had they decided to go head-to-head with existing outlets. Instead, they found an opening and approach no one had tried.
- Work your network. Of course James has an in with professional athletes. Many others in sports and media had similar connections. But he was smart enough to put together the connections with the ideas and not just use his network, but listen to the concerns of people in it.