Wednesday, April 6, 2011
Basketball star LeBron James is joining forces with renowned hedge-fund manager John Henryand veteran Hollywood producer Tom Werner in a deal that brings together one of the biggest stars in sports and two of the world's most renowned teams.
The deal between Mr. James and Fenway Sports Group will give Mr. James a minority interest in the soccer club Liverpool, which FSG owns. FSG, which also owns the Boston Red Sox, is partnering with Mr. James's sports-marketing firm, LRMR Branding & Marketing to become the exclusive world-wide representative for Mr. James.
The deal marks the first time that a professional athlete at the top of his game has taken an ownership interest in a team with the size and reach of Liverpool, which is one of the most popular and powerful sports franchises in the world.
It also adds yet another dimension for Boston-based FSG, which became a global operation last October when it bought Liverpool for $488 million. The company was founded as New England Sports Ventures nine years ago after Messrs. Henry and Werner bought the Red Sox and 80% of regional sports channel New England Sports Network. In 2007 Fenway became 50% owner of the Nascar auto-racing team Roush Fenway Racing.
Its subsidiary, Fenway Sports Management, has since become a leading sports-marketing firm, selling $60 million in sponsorships annually for properties FSG owns or represents. By teaming up with Mr. James, Fenway will be representing the commercial interests of an individual sports star for the first time.
"We're not interested in talent or athlete representation but we think he is one of the most remarkable athletes of his time," Mr. Werner said in an interview Tuesday. "We believe we can open doors for LeBron and LeBron can open doors for us."
Executives involved with the deal declined to comment on the financial terms, but a person familiar with the details said FSG would receive a small commission on any deals it landed for Mr. James.
Mr. James said he was "humbled" by the deal and looked forward to donning a red Liverpool jersey and visiting Anfield, the team's legendary stadium.
"The first time I stepped on an NBA court I became a businessman," said Mr. James, who is 26 years old. "This is a great opportunity for me."
Maverick Carter, chief executive of LRMR and a high-school teammate of Mr. James, said partnering with Fenway was essential for them to gain access to international business opportunities that go beyond the typical athlete endorsement deals.
"These guys have unmatched skills when it come to marketing and selling on a global basis," Mr. Carter said of Fenway.
In addition to his $15.8 million salary from the Miami Heat, Mr. James earns an estimated $30 million annually from endorsements with such blue-chip companies as McDonald's, Nike, and Coca-Cola. His image took a major hit last summer when he was criticized by the media and NBA Commissioner David Stern for teaming up with ESPN to create "The Decision," an hour-long special during which he announced his choice to leave the Cleveland Cavaliers for the Miami Heat.
His new team has stumbled at times this season, leaving many to wonder if Mr. James will ever fulfill his promise and begin winning championships in the style of global stars like Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan.
According to executives involved with the transaction, the deal was conceived by Paul Wachter, a director of Time Warner who advised Messrs. Henry and Werner on their acquisition of the Red Sox before the 2002 season. Mr. Wachter has also grown close with Mr. Carter, who expressed his desire to build Mr. James' portfolio internationally and find opportunities for the Miami Heat star to gain equity in companies throughout the world. So far, Mr. James's commercial interests have largely been limited to his endorsement deals.
David Carter, who teaches about the sports business at the University of Southern California, said Mr. James was taking a risk by signing on with a company that had never represented an athlete before. He added that the opportunity to invest in Fenway properties like Liverpool was essential for Mr. James to mitigate that risk.
Mr. James didn't indicate what he wanted to do with his additional earnings, though he has never been shy about his desire to become as dominant in the business world as he is on the basketball court.
Mr. James wants to pursue partnerships similar to his deal with hip-hop impresario Dr. Dre. The pair last year launched a line of high-performance sports headphones known as PowerBeats. Coincidentally, Mr. James and Dr. Dre met Fenway Red Sox executives on Opening Day at Fenway Park in 2010 in a promotional event for the headphones.
In the fall, Mr. Wachter suggested LRMR begin discussions with Fenway Sports, which had just purchased Liverpool and were in the process of transforming themselves into an international company.
"One group was building a global powerhouse, and the other was looking to do things differently to really move the needle," Mr. Wachter said.
The parties gathered in February in Omaha at the annual meeting of Berkshire Hathaway and realized their goals for global expansion were similar.
"Without purchasing Liverpool, we never would have been able to have this conversation," Mr. Werner said.
According to Deloitte's 2010 Football Money League report, Liverpool is the world's eighth-biggest soccer team by revenue, with $320 million in revenue during the 2009-10 season. Liverpool and Manchester United have won 18 top division championships, the most among English teams, and both are wildly popular in Asia, where Liverpool will tour this summer.
"Eighteen championships," Mr. James said. "I see myself trying to do the same things they have."
NBA Commissioner David Stern said of the deal, "I think it is terrific that through this partnership and their newly acquired interest in Liverpool FC, LeBron and Maverick Carter will not only enhance their opportunities from the global sports marketplace but also gain a deeper understanding of all that is involved in the operation and valuation of sports franchises."
Write to Matthew Futterman at email@example.com
Posted by LP at 2:44 PM