Which LeBron James would the NBA get as a team owner?
James has ambition, business savvy to join ownership. Unlike current owners, he’s outspoken about social justice.
LeBron’s Power Plays is an occasional series examining LeBron James’ two decades in the NBA and how he has influenced both professional sports and the larger culture.
Back in October, after a meaningless preseason game in Las Vegas, Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James made it known for the umpteenth time that he wants to own an NBA team someday, perhaps even one in Sin City.
“I would love to bring a team here at some point,” he said after playing the Phoenix Suns. “[NBA commissioner Adam Silver] probably sees every single interview and transcript that comes through from NBA players. So, I want the team here, Adam. Thank you.”
James has the résumé, finances and capitalistic ruthlessness to make for an eventual team owner, following in the footsteps of Michael Jordan. But unlike Jordan, James has been very deliberate and opinionated about his social politics, even when they run counter to the typical white billionaire conservative sports team owner, seen most recently in his comments about Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones.
If James is to be the principal owner of an NBA team, making him just the third Black team owner in the country’s four major pro sports leagues, which LeBron James will the league get: the loud-and-proud activist or the “Republicans buy sneakers, too” business executive?
History of James’ interest in ownership
James began publicly talking about being an owner as early as 2016. He’s ramped up his plans over the past three years (2019, 2021), including tweeting about wanting to buy the WNBA’s Atlanta Dream after the team’s players pushed out former owner Kelly Loeffler. (The Dream were eventually sold to an ownership group that included former Dream guard Renee Montgomery.) He dedicated time to the topic on his YouTube series The Shop: Uninterrupted last year.
“Ain’t no maybe about it,” James told The Athletic in 2019. “I’m going to do that s—.”
James has had the necessary intelligence, confidence and business acumen needed to be a team owner since he was in high school, said Ryan Jones, the former editor-in-chief of SLAM magazine and author of 2003’s King James: Believe the Hype―The LeBron James Story. In 2001, Jones wrote one of the first national magazine profiles of James for SLAM when James was just a sophomore in high school.
Back before James was considered the consensus No. 1 overall pick ahead of the 2003 NBA draft, he wore a wide variety of shoe apparel brands. James’ high school, St. Vincent-St. Mary, had an Adidas contract, and James wore a variety of Adidas sneakers: the Pro Model 2Gs, the TMAC 2s, the “USA Flag” Adidas Kobe 2s, which were given to James by their namesake, Los Angeles Laker Kobe Bryant.
But as his name started ringing out more, and the shoe wars started between Nike, Adidas and Reebok, James began covering up the Adidas logos on his jerseys and wore other shoe brands (including the Reebok Questions and Jordan 9s). It was James’ way of taking control of his marketing power and not allowing a brand to profit off of him without his say-so. And he did that as a teenager.
“He started making it really clear, ‘I’m going to play this for as much as I can. I’ve got the greatest possible leverage,’ ” Jones said. “… He had his own sense of his worth already.”
Starting in 2011, James began investing in sports teams, which one could read as test trials for his future as an owner in the NBA. He bought 2% of English soccer club Liverpool with business partner Maverick Carter for $6.5 million. In 2021, he became a partner in the Fenway Sports Group, which owns the Boston Red Sox in the MLB, the Pittsburgh Penguins in the NHL, NASCAR team Roush Fenway Racing, and regional sports network NESN, making James and Carter the group’s first Black investors.
In 2022, he added Italian soccer club AC Milan (through New York-based private equity firm RedBird Capital Partners and Main Street Advisors, a Los Angeles-based investment firm James has helped fund for over 10 years) and a pickleball franchise.
“I look at him as having been building for this moment all along, to step up in the next part of his career,” said Gerry Cardinale, the founder and managing partner of RedBird. “And it’s very clear to me the next part of his career is to move from being a player to being involved in media and content and intellectual property monetization to then being an owner.”
Cardinale, who has been a partner with James and Carter for about 10 years, says James’ sports team investments have been calculated steps in preparation for the day he runs his own shop. James wants to be the best at everything he does, so he surrounds himself with the right people — his posse, you could say — and tries to absorb what he can from them. In the investing world that’s Cardinale, who was a partner at Goldman Sachs for 20 years, and Paul Wachter, James’ financial adviser. And from the ownership world that’s John W. Henry, the principal owner of Fenway Sports Group. James is more of a passive partner: He’s not involved in the daily operations of the Red Sox, Penguins or Liverpool, and he’s not on the phone with general managers swinging deals. (Don’t blame him for letting Red Sox outfielder Xander Bogaerts walk in free agency!)
All of this is about gradually learning and understanding, both for James and the other Fenway Sports Group partners, so that when the day comes, James can be the equivalent of a four-time champion and four-time MVP in the ownership world.
“He wants to know how he can be LeBron James off the court,” Cardinale said. “But if he keeps playing at the level he is now, it could be a while.”
James would join a small list of Black NBA team owners. There have been only two majority Black owners in the league’s history: Robert Johnson and Jordan, who both owned the Charlotte franchise. Chicago business executives Bertram Lee and Peter Bynoe bought 32.5% of the Denver Nuggets in 1989, Magic Johnson was a minority owner (4.5%) of the Lakers from 1994 to 2010, and Isiah Thomas owned 9% of the Toronto Raptors from 1994 to 1997. There are currently at least 20 Black minority owners in the league.
This could happen sooner rather than later: James hinted last year that he only plans to continue playing until his son, Bronny, is drafted into the league, which can happen as early as the 2024-25 season. Not to mention, according to Article 29, section 11 of the most recent collective bargaining agreement, active NBA players can’t hold interest in teams.
“It’s very clear to me the next part of his career is to move from being a player to being involved in media and content and intellectual property monetization to then being an owner.” — Gerry Cardinale
How would the process go?
The NBA has expressed a desire for expansion in 2014 and 2020. As recently as last summer, Silver said that while there are no current plans for expansion, “at some point this league will invariably expand.” Locations that have been thrown out include Las Vegas, Seattle, and even Mexico City.
The previous five team sales have been:
- Milwaukee Bucks, 2014: $550 million
- LA Clippers, 2014: $2 billion
- Houston Rockets, 2015: $2.2 billion
- Brooklyn Nets, 2019: $2.35 billion
- Utah Jazz, 2021: $1.66 billion
(Business executive Mat Ishbia agreed in late December to purchase at least 50% of the Phoenix Suns for $4 billion. A group led by former baseball player Alex Rodriguez agreed to purchase the Minnesota Timberwolves in 2021 for an estimated $1.5 billion. Neither sale has been finalized yet.)
James, the first active NBA player to be considered a billionaire by Forbes, would have tough competition for grabbing a team. In September, ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne said on NBA Today that those interested in buying the Suns, which went up for sale in September following a workplace investigation into majority owner Robert Sarver, included former Amazon owner Jeff Bezos (estimated net worth: $121.3 billion); businesswoman and Washington Wizards minority owner Laurene Powell Jobs ($12.4 billion), Oracle founder Larry Ellison ($102.8 billion) and then-former Disney CEO Robert Iger ($690 million). Ishbia has an estimated net worth of $5.1 billion.
By the time James’ current contract expires after the 2024-25 season, he will have made $520 million in career earnings, already the most for any athlete in American team sports history. Forbes estimates James has made over $900 million through marketing and brand deals with Beats by Dre (which was bought by Apple for $3 billion in 2014), Nike, PepsiCo, Coca-Cola, Walmart, AT&T, his Blaze Pizza chain and Crypto.com (which hopefully he got paid upfront for).
In 2021, RedBird Capital, Fenway Sports Group, Nike and Epic Games purchased what was called a “significant” stake in James’ film and TV production company, SpringHill Co., which is now valued at more than $700 million by itself.
Based on the billionaires vying for the opportunity to snag a team, and the possibility of a $2.5 billion expansion fee (up from $300 million for the Charlotte expansion team), James would likely need partners to purchase a franchise. Two of the last five NBA team sales (possibly four of last seven depending on the Timberwolves and Suns sales) have involved more than one owner. Three years ago, when James’ estimated net worth was half of the $1 billion it currently is, Wachter told The Athletic that James would likely bring on three to six partners. If James were to win a bid, he’d have to go through a background check and be approved by the other league owners.
What kind of owner would LeBron be?
According to the 1999 book Just Ballin’: The Chaotic Rise of the New York Knicks, Jordan, still playing for the Chicago Bulls at the time, told Washington Wizards owner Abe Pollin during a collective bargaining agreement negotiation session that, “If you can’t make it work economically, you should sell the team.”
Years later, as majority owner of the Charlotte Bobcats, Jordan led a group of team owners wanting to cut players out of revenue shares, telling the Australian newspaper The Herald Sun, “We need a lot of financial support throughout the league as well as revenue sharing to keep this business afloat.”
That seeming hypocrisy is the crosshairs James will put himself in as a team owner, but not for the same reasons as Jordan. The Hornets owner has always been a stone-cold player and business executive, so the flip-flop on CBA negotiations is in line with who Jordan is as a person (and also the correct move to make as an owner of a team). But for James, he carries the weight of being an athlete “activist” (more on that later) among a group of owners who, until 2020, after the murder of George Floyd by police, didn’t seem to pay too much mind to racism against Black people.
Since donning a hoodie with his Miami Heat teammates in 2012 to bring awareness to the murder of Black Florida teenager Trayvon Martin, James has taken the mantle of Black athlete activist. From launching his I Promise School in Akron, Ohio, to advocating for the voting rights of formerly incarcerated people to calling former President Donald Trump a “bum,” James has put his stamp on being a man of the people. He has said that he’s standing on the shoulders of all the Black athlete activists who came before him, including boxer Muhammad Ali and basketball greats Bill Russell and Oscar Robertson.
“If things happen, and I feel like it hit home to me, and I feel it in my gut and my heart, if it’s something that happens in a Black community, no matter if it’s in my hometown of Akron, or Los Angeles, or Shreveport, Louisiana,” James said during an episode of The Shop last summer. “Whatever the case may be, I’ll speak about it right away.”
James did so last year when speaking about Jerry Jones. James said in October 2022 that he is no longer a fan of the Cowboys due to Jones’ previous public comments about not wanting his players to participate in demonstrations during the playing of the national anthem. James doubled down in December, calling out Jones’ presence in an anti-integration white mob in the 1950s.
While Jones operates in a completely separate sports league, it isn’t as if NBA owners — most whom donate to conservative politicians — disagree with Jones’ politics.
For someone with a track record of openly talking about anti-Black racism like James, it stands to reason that he will not stand for white team owners talking out of the side of their mouths about Black people. He proved as much in calling for the ouster of LA Clippers owner Donald Sterling (“There’s no room for Donald Sterling in the NBA”) and Sarver (“There is no place for misogyny, sexism, and racism in any workplace”), two team owners accused of making racist remarks.
So how will James handle potentially being in a room with a bunch of owners with similar sentiments as a Jones or Sterling or Sarver, and vice versa?
Joseph N. Cooper, a professor and the endowed chair of sport leadership and administration at the University of Massachusetts-Boston, has studied the activism of athletes such as Ali and actor Paul Robeson, whose passport application was denied by the State Department for his frequent criticism of the U.S. government. Cooper has also followed the fallout from Colin Kaepernick’s 2016 demonstrations during the national anthem that effectively ended the quarterback’s playing career at age 29.
Those men took risks with their anti-Black racism stances; they all lost some variation of their careers and freedoms. James, while outspoken and opinionated on issues pertaining to Black people, has never made that sort of do-or-die stance; he’s never risked his career by putting on a hoodie or building an elementary school.
So for that, Cooper considers James an “advocate” rather than an “activist.”
“He never took a knee or said, ‘I ain’t gonna play,’ or ‘Nike, I’m not gonna wear this no more, unless y’all do X,’ ” said Cooper, the editor of Anti-Racism in Sport Organizations, a series of research papers published by the Center for Sport Management Research and Education at Texas A&M University.
Cooper points to “interest convergence,” a theory coined by Derrick Bell, a lawyer and law professor who also pioneered critical race theory. Interest convergence is the idea that Black prosperity can only be achieved by converging Black interests with that of white people. White people need to be reassured that they stand to benefit from a policy or law intended to impact Black people. So if James pushes for a Rooney Rule-type hiring policy, he has to provide a financial benefit for those owners — including his co-owners, who may or may not endorse those sorts of initiatives.
“I think LeBron is gonna be more tactical with how he’s enacting the change, because at the end of the day, he’s gonna have to do it in a way where a majority of them, they’re gonna have to be comfortable with [that],” Cooper said.
“If they’re that uncomfortable with whatever he is trying to do, it ain’t gonna happen.”
James becoming a billionaire and an owner can be a net positive. It brings diversity to the ownership game, which, with the increasing numbers of Black NBA coaches and team executives over the past few years, feels like the final frontier of equity in basketball. “We play on the field, we play in the arenas, but we haven’t been able to go up to the ownership box,” Hall of Famer Magic Johnson told Yahoo Finance in 2020.
James’ ascendance is also important for representation.
“I’m OK having that pressure of my community and other Black communities across America that look up to me and look to me for inspiration or for guidance,” he told Bloomberg in 2020 when discussing SpringHill. “It’s just my responsibility, and I completely understand that. And so every day I leave my home, or I wake up out of my bed, I understand that it’s not just about me. I’m representing so many people.”
Representation is important, but James’ financial ascendance doesn’t have any tangible impact on other Black people.
There are more Black American billionaires now than ever, though the numbers pale cmpared with white people — rapper Jay Z name-dropped about 30% of all Black American billionaires in just one bar last year. That wealth hasn’t exactly trickled down to the rest of Black America: According to data compiled by the Brookings Institution, Black median net worth in 2016 ($17,000) equaled just 10% of white median net worth ($171,000).
“It’s an objective fact that their [Black billionaires’] presence at the top doesn’t help the bottom,” said Jared Ball, a communication studies professor at historically Black Morgan State University and the author of The Myth and Propaganda of Black Buying Power.
James becoming an owner is more symbolic than substantive when it comes to anti-racism work, Ball added. James speaks out against racism and champions pro-Black causes that are important to him, but as a spokesman for a slew of brands and the NBA, “He’s not offering any genuine radical analysis or political program or activity that’s going to intervene and interrupt,” Ball said.
Which is OK. Not everyone is built to be an uncompromising activist or disruptor. There are many people who feel strongly about certain issues yet aren’t willing to burn it all down to achieve their goals. First and foremost, James is a professional basketball player.
“He was a pro before he was a pro,” Ball said. “He was a kid, and he was already on the cover of every magazine. So when was he supposed to become Malcolm X?”
Criticism aside, Ball said it’s not fair to expect athletes or other celebrities to live up to the political standards or expectations of the more radical segments of society. There’s a major difference between political activists and athlete activists, and it should be understood that activism isn’t the main job of James and others.
“We can’t just expect him to, to reach our conclusions on his own in the context he’s in,” Ball said. “He’s an NBA player, he’s a businessman, he’s a corporation, he is a brand. He’s not an activist, he’s not an organizer. He’s never claimed to be a revolutionary.
“I’ve never seen him at any of the meetings I’ve been in,” he joked.
When it comes to race in business, Robert Johnson, who founded Black Entertainment Television in 1980, growing the small cable station into a cultural phenomenon that he sold to Viacom (now Paramount) in 2000 for $2.3 billion, is a man of multitudes.
On the one hand, Robert Johnson, who became the nation’s first Black billionaire after the BET sale, prefers to downplay — but not ignore — race in his business dealings. He’d rather show how equally or more successful he is than other white people than lean on the historical oppression of Black people.
“You don’t ignore the fact that there were no Black [NBA] owners,” Robert Johnson said. “But you don’t beat the drum on that.”
But at the same time, he takes certain pride in being the Black person who cracked the glass ceiling and made it into the space that was once restricted to people with that pigmentation. So when it comes to James, while Robert Johnson himself wasn’t as publicly opinionated on anti-Black racism when he owned a team, he recognizes the NBA is in an era of “increased activism,” and James would not have to change who he is to fit into the league’s culture.
If James were to say something that upset other owners, Robert Johnson said, the most that would happen is one or two owners would quietly approach him about reconsidering his statements. Regardless, nothing would actually happen.
“There’s no way the owners are going to try to eject somebody, unless they say something so egregious, i.e., Donald Sterling,” he said.
But overall, Robert Johnson says there are three reasons James would be welcomed with open arms by the league’s other owners:
- James can likely afford to purchase the team.
- Like Jordan, James is of the basketball culture, which makes him more relatable.
- James’ global brand will benefit the league (the Miami Heat, who James played for from 2010 to 2014, saw its valuation rise over 111% in those four seasons).
Turning in his jersey for a bespoke suit doesn’t mean James has to change who he is or the stances he takes. He’d be the first NBA team owner to have a background in openly speaking out against anti-Black racism, but it’s not as if James demonstrates during the national anthem or rocked a dashiki on the three occasions his teams visited the White House. As long as he helps grow the league, James’ stances aren’t seen as a hindrance.
“If he’s able to muster the money … he will be more than welcomed as an NBA owner and probably looked [to] for guidance and advice on how to deal with some of the things that impact players,” Robert Johnson said.