One of the most important days in the modern NBA happened on a day when no basketball was played.
This sport where so much of the action now takes place off the court fundamentally changed on July 8, 2010, when LeBron James announced in an ESPN special called “The Decision” that he was taking his talents to the Miami Heat. It was a radical act for the best player in the game to build a superteam with other stars in hopes of winning a championship, and the cold way he jilted his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers live on national television made Mr. James the biggest villain in sports.
But over time, viewed from the perspective of the future, that night looks very different. It marked a new era in professional sports in which athletes have leveraged their value to sixteen greater control of their careers. That idea of athlete empowerment is what Maverick Carter, Mr. James’s business partner and one of the architects of “The Decision,” says he is taking to talent beyond sports.
“We live and die by that,” says Mr. Carter, the CEO of SpringHill Co., the entertainment firm he co-founded with Mr. James, his childhood friend. “That’s the mission of our company.”
That company was valued at $725 million last year, when SpringHill sold a minority stake to a group of investors that included Nike,
“Fortnite” creator Epic Games and Fenway Sports Group, which owns the Boston Red Sox and Liverpool FC. The plan was to use the funding to produce new shows and license existing properties in foreign countries, a business that has proven lucrative since Mr. Carter and Mr. James merged their production company, digital-media firm and marketing efforts into SpringHill in 2020.
This move coincided with the proliferation of streaming platforms and increased demand for content. SpringHill was there to provide. Among its buzziest programming, which includes shows on Netflix,
Disney+, HBO, Hulu and traditional film studios and television networks, is talk show “The Shop,” which has hosted huge names in sports and culture. (Another high-profile SpringHill project, the 2021 movie “Space Jam: A New Legacy,” starring Mr. James, was smashed by critics but a success at the box office.)
Mr. Carter is betting that giving talent freedom and resources will cultivate a generation of younger creators. He spoke to The Wall Street Journal about the future of the entertainment industry and athlete-driven projects.
When it comes to sports, SpringHill focuses on what happens away from the actual games. What opportunity did you see in that business?
We felt like the idea of storytelling had always been around, obviously, but the athlete had never been treated as a creator. We thought athletes had always been treated as their human-interest stories but never as truly interesting humans.
What do you make of the streaming wars and SpringHill’s place in them?
They’re real and they’re serious, but it just proves once again that no matter what the technology is, from the days of the radio all the way up until now, storytelling is the most important. So that’s ultimately what this is about: who can tell the best stories.
Our movie “House Party” comes out on HBO Max this summer. Our director, Calmatic, this is the first feature film he’s ever done. But our thesis that creators like Calmatic, who made a bunch of music videos and commercials [winning a Grammy for his music video of the Lil Nas X hit “Old Town Road”] needed to feel empowered and part of the process, that’s how you get amazing content that’s different from what’s out there.
What will your job look like in 2030?
I root for technology. I root for the world to change because no matter where it goes, as the world ebbs and flows, from the days of the campfires all the way to Web3 and everything in between, you need storytelling. The idea of telling amazing stories and empowering talent and creators—I think that will be my job until I retire.
Recently “The Shop” moved from HBO to YouTube. Why?
We felt HBO had been a great partner, but for our business model, what we want to do that’s better for us is just do it ourselves and put it in a place that the world can see. We don’t just look at “The Shop” as a show. We look at “The Shop” much more in the way Disney would: “The Shop” as a brand. It’s much better for the brand to be in a place where a global audience can see it.
Do you see any generational differences with young creators today?
I think that the younger generation of talent and creators understand that with the speed the world moves at, you have to turn things pretty quickly.
What did the pandemic change in your business? What became more valuable and less valuable?
I think it once again proved that ours is a people business. It made good people—not good in the sense that they’re talented, but just good people—extremely valuable. That’s what you need as a company. If you’re not going to be together in the same office, you really need people who are willing to collaborate and work together and have a good healthy discourse to get to amazing ideas.
Our company is around 210 people. It’s exactly 50/50 men and women, and it’s 65% people of color. The truth is that people think of diversity as race and gender, but we’ve built a company that’s diverse in all forms. My grandmother had a line: If two people always agree, one person isn’t needed.
Interview has been condensed and edited.
Write to Ben Cohen at email@example.com
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