Editor’s note: As the NBA embarks this week on a new season, Miami Heat superstar LeBron James stands as the league’s most iconic figure. In Part One of a three-part series on James and his place in the league, we take a look at the people behind James, who have helped shape him into an international marketing force and a difference-maker for at-risk kids in his hometown of Akron, Ohio.
In Part Two (Monday), we’ll examine how his on-court game has changed since he burst onto the scene straight out of high school in 2003, and how his early failures shaped the player he is today. And in Part Three (Tuesday), we’ll weigh in on where James stands in the greatest-of-all-time argument.
LeBron James has won two straight NBA titles with the Miami Heat. He is a four-time league MVP (and only the second to win it four times in five years), was the only player in the league to lead his team in scoring, rebounding and assists last year (he fell just one vote short of becoming the first ever to win the MVP with a unanimous vote) and is the youngest player to reach 20,000 points.
He is considered by many as the best player in the game today, and one of the greatest ever to play. And as dominant as he is on the basketball court, he’s just as successful off of it.
The NBA recently announced that, for the first time, LeBron has the NBA’s most popular jersey in worldwide sales. According to a recent report in Forbes, LeBron has the most popular sneaker in the NBA, “outselling his nearest rival’s signature sneakers 6-to-1.” (Nike recently debuted LeBron’s eleventh signature shoe, The LeBron 11.) His popularity extends into fields unrelated to sports. He’s currently producing a comedy series for the Starz Network, and he has hosted “Saturday Night Live.” James, an avid user of social media, has over 15 million Facebook “likes” and over 10 million followers on Twitter.
LeBron’s popularity has translated into runaway success in the business world: James has partnership and endorsement deals with many brands, from Coca-Cola to McDonald’s to Audemars Piguet. Forbes recently ranked James as the fourth-highest earning athlete in the world (behind Tiger Woods, Roger Federer and Kobe Bryant), while estimating James’ endorsement income around $42 million a year. If that’s accurate, that would make him the NBA’s endorsement leader.
As James recently told Rachel Nichols on CNN’s “Unguarded,” as they accompanied him on a Nike promotional trip to China …
“When I became a professional athlete I became a business as well, you know, so I couldn’t just worry about the game of basketball 24/7, without understanding the business side of it as well.”
VIDEO: LeBron in China
An NBA player supplementing his basketball income with endorsement dollars is nothing new. But doing it with the kind of global reach that James has demonstrated places him in rarified air. Longtime NBA executive Rick Welts, the current president and COO of the Golden State Warriors, points out that James seems to have taken the marketing template presented by a certain previous NBA superstar and expanded upon it.
“He’s obviously a great student because I think Michael Jordan was probably the first contemporary athlete that realized that he could create a brand around his own persona, surround himself with really smart business people who could guide him in that endeavor,” Welts says. “LeBron, if anything, has taken that to whatever the 2013-14 equivalent is of that, which is probably more sophisticated, more international in focus. He’s obviously a guy who listens to advice and has a good innate sense of where he wants to take his career. I think watching the evolution of the professional athlete, he represents to the contemporary athlete today what Michael Jordan represented to the contemporary athlete of his time.”
How has LeBron been able to transform himself into the NBA’s most marketable personality? Certainly, piling up titles and MVP awards and gold medals doesn’t hurt his popularity. But when it comes to his business dealings, James has surrounded himself with talented people whom he trusts. His inner-circle is a trio of men he grew up with in Akron, Ohio. And as James’ stature and skill-set have grown, the members of his team have grown along with him.
Maverick Carter is the CEO of LRMR Marketing, the company LeBron launched in 2006. (LRMR’s name is a nod to the quartet’s first names: LeBron, Randy Mims, Maverick and Rich Paul.) Carter oversees all of LeBron’s business partnerships, and has spearheaded LeBron’s ascendance as a worldwide marketing force. Part of Carter’s role includes putting together deals such as the strategic partnership between LRMR and Fenway Sports Marketing, a transaction that gave James part-ownership in the legendary Liverpool Football Club.
Paul represents LeBron as his agent. Before opening his own agency, Klutch Sports, in 2012, Paul spent several years working at the mega-agency CAA, learning the ins and outs of the agency business. Since opening Klutch Sports, Paul has signed several clients alongside LeBron, including NBA players Eric Bledsoe (Phoenix), Tristan Thompson (Cleveland) and Kevin Seraphin (Washington).
Mims is LeBron’s day-to-day manager, overseeing all of LeBron’s business relationships, meetings, commercial shoots and appearances. Of the LRMR group, Mims spends the most time with LeBron, and ensures that each day’s obligations are executed properly.
As James told Nichols, being able to build a successful organization off the court is made that much more meaningful precisely because he was able to do it with his longtime friends:
“I mean it’s the ultimate, you know. You grow up, throughout the struggles with your friends, and to be able to reap some of the benefits makes it that much more pleasant at the end of the day.”
Another person who plays an integral part in James’ off-court life is Michele Campbell, an Akron native who is the executive director of the LeBron James Family Foundation. For many years, James sponsored a Bikeathon in his hometown of Akron, a one-day event to unite the community and give bikes to kids. A few years ago, James decided he wanted to create something with a year-round impact. In 2011, they launched the “Wheels For Education” initiative.
“We call the Bikeathon kind of a one-and-done,” Campbell says. “Because it was a great event, but LeBron didn’t really know who the kids were after that. He was ready to make a difference and you can’t [do that] with a one-and-done. So this is a long-term commitment from him and foundation.”
Beginning in 2011, the LeBron James Family Foundation targeted 300 at-risk Akron third-graders. The kids go to a two-week summer camp and then are monitored closely throughout the school year. James regularly posts messages to them and sends them letters. If they miss a few days of school, they might get a phone message from him. Part of the deal is that the kids regularly recite a pledge called “I Promise,” vowing to be committed to doing their best. Aside from the constant interaction and encouragement from James, he shows the kids his support every time he takes the court: During games, he plays wearing an “I PROMISE” wristband.
It’s a massive promise: Each year, the program adds a new group of third graders while continuing to monitor the rising students. Since its start three years ago, there are now about 700 kids in the program. By the time the initial class graduates from high school in 2021, there will be over 3,500 kids at various levels.
“This is not just an athlete giving a check,” Campbell says. “LeBron is the force over this whole thing. He kicks off the program when they enter the program. He’s there, he welcomes them into the program. When they see the Foundation walk into the school or the after-school program, they see LeBron. It’s amazing how they feel his presence.”
His connection to community and the importance of family is obviously significant to James. This summer he married his longtime girlfriend, Savannah Brinson. Together they have two boys, LeBron Jr., and Bryce. LeBron’s mother, Gloria, is also still an integral part of James’ life.
[Even being family won’t save you from being pranked, as LeBron and his wife recently pulled an early Halloween trick on her father and posted it on Instagram.]
As the NBA embarks on the 2013-14 season, the Heat are favored to win another title and LeBron is poised to take home a third straight MVP. There seems to be no stopping James, on or off the court.
It is good to be the King.
“You draw strength from your own character and he has a great public persona now that is drawn from who he is as a person,” says Welts. “He’s not trying to be anybody else. Being able to kind of find yourself within that image is something he’s done as well as any player who’s come before and probably any player to go after. It creates a genuine personality around him, which I think attracts people and is part of the reason he’s been so successful.”