LeBron James is a phenomenon.
Since Michael Jordan got basketball, no player has transcended the sport so much. James’ hardwood exploits will stand the test of time. Four NBA Championships with three different teams, over an 18-year professional career that has included countless individual accolades, create a remarkable legacy.
At 36, he still plays and still produces. The Los Angeles Lakers are the current beneficiaries of his almost supernatural talent, and while his appearance in Space Jam: A New Legacy may not live up to the Oscars for James, it’s another demonstration of his global appeal. It’s just another way he follows in the footsteps of Jordan, the great Chicago Bulls who was the first athlete to truly transcend the sport and become a brand of his own: something that turned him into a billionaire after the end of his own playing days.
James is considering a similar path. For some time now, he’s been considering building something major to fill that basketball-shaped void when he’s done playing. After building an entertainment business (SpringHill Entertainment Co) worth an estimated $ 750 million, as well as putting together many other lucrative business deals, James looks set to grow into an even bigger deal off the field than ‘it wasn’t.
He is, of course, an avowed Liverpool fan. After talking about the Reds’ accomplishments, wearing Liverpool (and Nike, obviously) gear and holding a 2% stake in the club from 2011 through March 2021, he had a long affinity with the Reds. But how could this manifest itself in the future? Could we see James in a position of power at the board level in the sport in the future, and will it be in Liverpool?
James is obviously stepping up his interests off the pitch.
Earlier this month, it was reported in the United States that Nike, which is sponsoring James in a billion dollar lifetime deal, was part of a group taking a “significant minority” stake. in James’ SpringHill Entertainment Co. The collaborators of this deal? The owners of Liverpool, Fenway Sports Group, and FSG partners, RedBird Capital Partners. The connection runs even deeper, given that James built Springhill with FSG partner and longtime friend Maverick Carter.
In March, James converted his 2% stake in Liverpool – worth more than $ 40 million in 2021 – into a stake of around 1% of Liverpool FSG owners. This follows the $ 750 million capital injection into RedBird’s FSG, and set the pieces in place for the future when it comes to the basketball icon. It’s a future that involves FSG, RedBird and Nike, and given the importance that Liverpool remain for FSG, being the most valuable asset in their portfolio (worth more than their Boston Red Sox baseball team), it seems likely that the Reds could be part of his vision, especially given his personal support at the club.
He’s still a world-class athlete performing at an elite level, and until that starts to slow down, basketball remains at the center of James’ thoughts. But when it ends, what happens? He has his business interests, but what about keeping his love of the sport close at hand – how will he marry those two things, and will Liverpool feature?
Main owner John W Henry’s FSG hierarchy and Reds chairman Tom Werner are both leading the operation for the foreseeable future, but with both men in the early 1970s and FSG talking about their plans for ‘FSG 3.0’, there’s a reasonable assumption that there will have to be an element of succession planning, albeit with a little less drama and better options available than what Logan Roy might have.
The potential SpringHill Entertainment Co deal is the latest clue as to the possible future direction, with the simpatico nature of the deal tied to all the parties that appear to be major factors behind Liverpool for years to come.
Jordan took the leap into sports team ownership in 2010, taking control of the Charlotte Hornets NBA franchise after taking a minority stake four years earlier. Like James, Jordan had an existing relationship with the team he became involved with, having moved to North Carolina and spent his formative years there starting in 1968 and then playing college basketball there.
Some see James’ foray into the FSG as an entry into the world of sports team ownership, to see how the appeal plays out, the challenges involved, what works and what doesn’t and how the change can be implemented. By owning a small stake in the ownership of FSG and, ergo, Liverpool, Red Sox and NASCAR Team Roush Fenway Racing, James can see it all while sitting at the table, watching and learning.
He has surrounded himself with a circle of trust and his connection to FSG and RedBird portends something in the longer term.
James conceived of himself as a savvy businessman as well as a remarkable athlete, and given his desire to make positive change, especially in the black community, the chance to make a difference, as he knows, just been inside and take a seat at the table.
There is a dearth of black owners in the sport. Jordan, owning the Hornets 11 years ago, became the first black owner of an NBA franchise, and given that the competition began life in 1946, it seems like a very long time to reach this point.
“I believe if I wanted to I could own a team or be part of a basketball team,” James commented in 2019.
There aren’t, at least not yet, any basketball franchises in FSG’s portfolio, although it’s something partner Sam Kennedy has said he would have an interest in, while one of the FSG’s minority partners, Arctos, took minority stakes in the Golden State Warriors and Sacramento Kings this year.
The future of FSG’s ownership structure is unknown, but there are some clues. Some believe RedBird and founder Gerry Cardinale will play a key role, while others see former Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein and current Red Sox chairman Kennedy as key players.
And there are those who believe that James, with his global appeal and solid business background that has grown tremendously in recent years, could play a bigger role as well.
Will this see him play a bigger role in the sports teams that already exist in FSG’s portfolio, namely Liverpool, or does their desire to add an NBA franchise match the plans they have for James at? the future?
He has one foot in the door with ownership through his stake in FSG, but that, for now, is limited.
Either way, it looks like James is destined for a bigger sports property role, and the ties between some of the key players behind the scenes at Liverpool are continually growing stronger.