The King Extends His Court to TV

National Basketball Association superstar LeBron James may not have been able to repeat as league champion on the basketball court last spring, but that didn’t stop him from having a championship-caliber year in the entertainment arena.

“The King,” through his SpringHill Entertainment production company founded by James and childhood friend Maverick Carter, took several major steps in helping to secure his legacy off the court in the entertainment business with a number of content projects that cut across both the traditional television business and emerging digital platforms.

While the clock officially ran out this year on SpringHill’s first scripted series — Starz’s basketball-themed Survivor’s Remorse— the company is poised to take several more shots in the genre. SpringHill is reportedly working with HBO on a half-hour comedy about a Los Angeles sneaker store; with ABC on a comedy dubbed White Dave, starring actress Gabrielle Union; and with CBS on a comedy revolving around a sports agency.

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James has also played on the unscripted court with his CNBC series Cleveland Hustles, which provided local entrepreneurs a chance to realize their dreams while revitalizing a Cleveland neighborhood. James also flexed his game show muscles earlier this year, partnering with NBC for The Wall, which has earned a second season after averaging more than 6 million viewers during its freshman run.

On the digital front, James and Carter have created a platform for athletes to express themselves creatively through the Uninterrupted online network, which in 2015 received a re-ported $15.8 million investment from Warner Bros. and Turner Sports.

Network executives said the entertainment future is bright for the four-time NBA Most Valuable Player, now and when he finally hangs up his sneakers.

“LeBron James’s desire to excel in the entertainment industry is no surprise to those who have watched him work tirelessly to become a transcendent basketball player and NBA champion,” said Mark Tatum, NBA deputy commissioner and chief operating officer. “Television and movie executives view him not just as an athlete but as a creative force who has the ability to help shape popular culture.”

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Indeed, Carter was quoted in a February ESPN the Magazine article as saying he and James have their eyes on the prize of creating an entertainment empire.

“LeBron and I have always been interested in the long game,” Carter said in the story. "And the long game here is to build a media company. To really, truly build a media company."

James and Carter have begun to realize their entertainment aspirations by being aggressive and involved in all aspects of their projects. “From the first time I met LeBron and Maverick, it was clear that they saw media as a way to have an impact in society, and that a media company could help them to have that impact,” Starz president of programming Carmi Zlotnik said.

An All-Position Player
Arguably James and SpringHill’s highest-profile project to date is Survivor’s Remorse, which ended its fourth and final season last month. Zlotnik said he was initially impressed with the attention to detail James paid to the series, which follows the exploits of a pro basketball star and his family from humble beginnings as he transitions to a big pro-hoops star.

Zlotnik recalled that James was very hands-on with regard to the pilot script for the series. “The producers went to LeBron’s house and LeBron recruited friends and family to pick parts to read together from the pilot script,” he said. “I wish I could have been a fly on the wall because it sounds like one of those very interesting situations that happens in the development of a show that no one knows about.”

It also didn’t hurt the show’s marketing and promotion efforts to have the LeBron James brand associated with the series. “LeBron as a personality helped sell the show because it’s so hard to cut through the cacophony that’s happening out in the media space,” said Zlotnik. “The fact that he has this huge fan base in social media is an attractive part about being in business with LeBron, Maverick and SpringHill.”

NBC Entertainment president of alternative and reality group Paul Telegdy also said James’s star power helped build momentum for NBC’s game show The Wall, in which contestants build cash prizes by correctly answering questions. James’s popularity has also helped the network extend The Wall internationally.

The Wall is on in France, Italy, Poland and is being made in Brazil,” Telegdy said. “The success of the show is more than just the business in the U.S.; it’s about the rollout of a global brand.”

James was also heavily involved with The Wall, making sure the presentation on the screen worked to the benefit of both NBC and the James brand, according to Telegdy.

“The great thing about the partnership is that if at any point he had seen something that he had hated or that was against his brand, we would have found out about it immediately — he’s not a shy, silent partner,” Telegdy said. “He is incredibly down to earth and easy to talk to, and was able to communicate passion and the reasons why he was involved in a game show in a way we could communicate to our audience.”

With The Wall and several other potential projects lined up — Zlotnik said Starz is working with SpringHill on an unscripted series, Warriors of Liberty City, which chronicles the town of Liberty City, Fla. and its ability to turn out a high percentage of NFL football players — Telegdy said it won’t be long before content distributors are knocking on James’s door for a chance to play on the entertainment court with one of the NBA’s best and most exciting players ever.

“Get in line now,” Telegdy added. “We weren’t the first people to spot his talents, but we feel like champions for being in business with LeBron.”

R. Thomas Umstead

R. Thomas Umstead serves as senior content producer, programming for Multichannel News, Broadcasting + Cable and Next TV. During his more than 30-year career as a print and online journalist, Umstead has written articles on a variety of subjects ranging from TV technology, marketing and sports production to content distribution and development. He has provided expert commentary on television issues and trends for such TV, print, radio and streaming outlets as Fox News, CNBC, the Today show, USA Today, The New York Times and National Public Radio. Umstead has also filmed, produced and edited more than 100 original video interviews, profiles and news reports featuring key cable television executives as well as entertainers and celebrity personalities.