LeBron James Scores $15M Warner Bros. Investment for Entertainment Studio (Exclusive)
The company and Turner Sports are putting millions into the NBA star's Uninterrupted platform as Gronk and others bypass traditional media to become showbiz players.
This story first appeared in the Dec. 11 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
On July 11, 2014, a few hours after LeBron James revealed in a Sports Illustrated letter that he was "coming home" to the Cleveland Cavaliers, the NBA star was on the Nike jet to Rio for the World Cup soccer final. He confided in longtime manager Maverick Carter that he wanted to create a platform where athletes could speak their minds "uninterrupted," he said, the same way he did in the SI piece. Six months later, Uninterrupted, self-financed by Carter and James, launched on Turner Sports' Bleacher Report site as a hub for a series of point-of-view video shorts from athletes.
Now the duo is deepening its partnership with Turner and Warner Bros. The Time Warner companies, led by Warner Bros., have invested $15.8 million in Uninterrupted with the goal of creating athlete-centric content for many platforms, including mobile, web and social, as well as linear television and film. The venture marks the latest move into entertainment for the NBA star and the further blurring of the lines between sports and entertainment figures.
James, 30, has been featured heavily in Uninterrupted video shorts, which offer a peek behind the curtain at athletes' lives away from the game. Others participating include fighter Ronda Rousey, Golden State Warrior Draymond Green of the NBA, tennis champion Serena Williams and New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski (talking about the media's handling of the NFL's Deflategate scandal). "It's giving athletes an opportunity to have a platform where they can speak about any issue," James tells THR. "They don't have to wait to be in front of a camera." Much like Kobe Bryant utilized Derek Jeter's The Player's Tribune Nov. 29 to reveal his retirement, Uninterrupted is "giving athletes a way to connect with their fans" without a traditional media intermediary, although the similarities end there.
Carter and James already have a partnership with Warner Bros. through their SpringHill Entertainment shingle, which produces Starz's Survivor's Remorse, the Disney XD series Becoming and the recent Victor Cruz documentary I Am Giant, which aired on Showtime. Warners has several other projects in development with SpringHill. Craig Hunegs, president of business strategy at Warner Bros. Television, notes the two deals "blend together."
"They are speaking to an audience — young men — that we don't reach easily or readily," says Hunegs. "When they started sketching out to us what they could do with more investment, it was a no-brainer."
Bleacher Report is among the most popular sports sites, with 50.7 million unique visitors in October, according to comScore. James already is a social media phenomenon with more than 63 million followers across platforms, according to HoopHype, exponentially more than the next NBA player, Bryant. Though Player's Tribune scored a coup with Bryant's announcement — the site crashed under heavy traffic — there are marked differences between the two ventures. "We're not necessarily the place where any player can come if they want to break news," notes Carter, who grew up with James in Akron, Ohio. "We're very selective on the athletes. We feel that they have to fit a certain criteria. We want athletes who can be insightful, who can speak intelligently and who can be authentic."
If athletes are prime drivers on social media, their day jobs naturally limit their extracurricular activities. But James is well on his way to forging a successful non-NBA career. It is an example that others are attempting to emulate. "One of the attractive things about the athletes participating in a platform like Uninterrupted is they get to associate themselves and benefit from Maverick and the team — one of whom is LeBron — and some of the expertise they have in talking to their fans," says Matt Hong, Turner Sports executive vp and general manager. "They also benefit from the scale of a platform like Uninterrupted, which is amplified in a pretty massive way via distribution through Bleacher Report and the Warner Bros. assets."
Turner Sports will serve as the primary sales arm of Uninterrupted. But Carter and James have brought on several new hires including Jamal Henderson, formerly of PepsiCo’s integrated marketing unit, as president and veteran journalist and former NBA.com writer Jimmy Spencer as head of content. James' financial advisor, Paul Wachter, was instrumental in the WB deal.
Uninterrupted will continue to feature first-person video on Bleacher Report. But new projects in development include Dear Football: The 2015 Elite 11 Story, a documentary series about the nation's top high school quarterbacks; 5th Quarter Club, an interview series in which recently retired NBA great Steve Nash interviews other retired athletes; and The Gronks, an animated comedy series about the life of the NFL star, who describes it as "a Family Guy-type of show." For Gronkowski, partnering with James is invaluable. "He's definitely a role model on brand extension," Gronkowski tells THR. "They're doing an A-plus job."
Uninterrupted is conceived as a platform agnostic content network that will reach fans where they already are — on mobile, web, and social streams. In December, Uninterrupted will release Striving for Greatness, a five-episode series featuring James' preparation for his 13th NBA season shot entirely in virtual reality with Oculus and airing on Uninterrupted's Facebook page using the platform's 360-degree feature. Content also will continue to be distributed on the Uninterrupted platform on Bleacher Report, where first-person video will remain core, and Verizon's go90 network. Uninterrupted also has forged a technology deal with Fuisz Media to create, manage and distribute interactive video campaigns, otherwise known as native advertising.
"We're going to be very strategic," says Carter. "We're going to take the content where it can be consumed the best."