The duo’s startup has become a media and branding juggernaut that empowers communities and is built for the future.
By Jeff Beer and Nicole Laporte | Fast Company
The morning of January 8, just a day and a half after a mob stormed the U.S. Capitol, the nonprofit More Than a Vote released a response video. Less than a minute long, the montage depicts professional athletes taking a knee and wearing Black Lives Matter T-shirts and Black Americans casting votes in Georgia, alongside footage from the insurrection. With a sepia tone that evokes news footage of 1960s civil rights protests and dynamic graphics that convey urgency, the video presents a powerful contrast between peaceful political efforts by Black Americans and white barbarians at the gate.
More Than a Vote, which NBA star LeBron James and his business partner Maverick Carter launched last June, had initially planned a more celebratory piece of content for that day. It had partnered with Stacey Abrams’s Fair Fight Action and successfully mobilized voters in Georgia to elect Democrats Jon Ossoff and Reverend Raphael Warnock, the state’s first Black senator. But as the Capitol siege unfolded, James was reminded of playing basketball growing up. “There were always these entitled kids that would come to the park, and if things didn’t go their way, they would take their ball and leave and ruin it for everyone,” he recalls, a few weeks after the mayhem. “I began to think about what I can do, as an ambassador, as a leader, as someone who has a platform.” More Than a Vote promptly changed its video to offer a pointed commentary on the day. “We’re a 21st-century company, and in this time, you have to be able to react quickly or else you miss a moment,” Carter says, “and miss a chance to empower someone.”
Carter and James, who played high school basketball together in Akron, Ohio, have been improvising like this off the court for almost two decades. Their partnership has strengthened as each has matured—Carter as a thoughtful and strategic CEO; James as a professional athlete whose brand and identity extends into social justice. Together, they’ve built the SpringHill Company into a multipronged entertainment empire that furthers their goals to build a movement, empowering communities while striving for the excellence of Disney, Nike, and Apple. The company has married its mission of promoting people of color and other underrepresented groups with entertainment. “They want to make content that’s meaningful and rooted in the cultural conversation,” says Courtney Sexton, senior VP of CNN Films, which is a producer on SpringHill’s forthcoming documentary on Tulsa’s Black Wall Street and the 1921 race massacre.
Until recently, SpringHill was a loosely organized constellation of production and marketing arms, but last summer James and Carter unified the company under one banner, raising $100 million and intensifying its sense of purpose. In the months since, SpringHill has signed a flurry of deals with Amazon, Netflix, Sirius, and Universal, among others, cementing its position as a powerful player in Hollywood. “We’re always pulling that thread of our mission in everything that we do and bring to life,” says Carter, a boyish 39-year-old whose laid-back vibe belies what his many admirers describe as his deep commitment to understanding every aspect of the business.
SpringHill’s larger project is evident throughout its work—from the candid HBO talk show The Shop; to the Netflix series Self Made, which stars Octavia Spencer as Madam C.J. Walker, the trailblazing 19th-century Black haircare entrepreneur who was the first female self-made millionaire; to its financial literacy web series, Kneading Dough, for JPMorgan Chase. Even SpringHill’s highly anticipated Space Jam sequel, which stars James alongside Looney Toons characters and will bow in July, has “empowerment vibes,” says chief content officer Jamal Henderson.
SpringHill is also influencing other businesses that are looking to meld themselves better with—and reflect—our world. Disney executive chairman Bob Iger says he has turned to Carter for advice as Disney has “taken on more of a sense of urgency about diversity and inclusion.” (SpringHill’s staff is 66% people of color and 41% female, including its CFO, general counsel, and other key directors, while Disney was highly criticized, during the societal reckoning last year after the killing of George Floyd, for having an all-white executive leadership team.) Donna Langley, chairwoman of Universal Filmed Entertainment Group, says that she formalized Universal’s relationship with SpringHill last fall at a time when the studio was thinking about “the challenges of the future in our society” and “what types of content we want to be making, and what kind of content producers we want to be in business with.” Chase is leveraging its SpringHill relationship to discern how best to honor its pledge to commit $30 billion to advance racial equity.
Though SpringHill’s efforts feel incredibly timely, they weren’t generated overnight. “In the context of the last five years, they’ve been doing all the things that everyone in all of corporate America realized in 2020 that they should start doing,” says Jason Stein, a media and advertising entrepreneur turned investor who participated in SpringHill’s 2020 funding round. “Direct to consumer, streaming video, e-commerce, being community first, diversity, social justice, empowering your communities and all of your partners. They were ahead in all of these things.”
James and Carter weren’t always hailed as media innovators. In 2010, when James was the most coveted free agent in sports history, he and Carter created a TV spectacle, The Decision, for ESPN, to reveal James’s choice of where he’d next play basketball. The response was brutal. Critics panned the hour-long show—it took 30 minutes to get to James’s verdict that he was leaving Cleveland for Miami—and fans hated that James deserted his hometown team. Carter, who was his manager at the time, was cast as the heavy. “The actual production of the show wasn’t great,” Carter admits, “but the idea and the ideology is what’s at the heart of our company and what we strive to do today.” The Decision, after all, raised millions for Boys & Girls Clubs and represented the vanguard of a celebrity creating their own media.
By the time James returned to Cleveland, in 2014, Carter proved that he and James had learned a lot in four years. This time, James penned a heartfelt letter, published in Sports Illustrated, titled “I’m Coming Home.” He wrote: “I feel my calling here goes above basketball. I have a responsibility to lead.” It was followed up by what would become SpringHill’s branded-content approach, a stylish two-and-a-half-minute film for Beats by Dre called Re-Established, narrated by James’s mom, Gloria, that took fans on a tour of Akron. “That was the genesis of LeBron and Maverick deciding they were going to be much more strategic about accomplishing their goals and asking themselves, ‘How do we build on that?,’ ” says Paul Wachter, an L.A. investment adviser who’s worked with the pair since 2005 and sits on SpringHill’s board.
That same year, Carter moved to L.A. to learn the entertainment business in earnest. He launched Uninterrupted, a digital production company that made athlete-driven videos with an off-the-cuff, personal feel. The primary focus was giving athletes a voice in the conversation, a trend that emerged across the culture with websites like the Players’ Tribune and the rise of social media. “Are [athletes] getting that opportunity [to build a media brand] because of their notoriety? Yes,” says Steve Stoute, who is the founder of the advertising agency Translation and has known James and Carter for almost 20 years. “But do they have a Maverick Carter? Because if you don’t have a Maverick Carter, you ain’t building shit.”
Carter had been thinking bigger than just a digital media play. He, James, and Paul Rivera also cofounded a marketing and brand consultancy called the Robot Company to work with James’s endorsement partners on creating content and strategy around the superstar. They formed a movie and TV division, SpringHill Entertainment—named after the apartment complex where James grew up—and signed a production deal with Warner Bros. “They were the first to market with the idea that ‘We’re gonna create content that will drive [our] other businesses,’ ” says Josh Pyatt, a partner at entertainment agency WME which signed Carter and James in 2014. The pair also knew they needed to create things that weren’t built around James. “LeBron has a day job,” says Henderson, who was hired in 2015. “That forced us to think beyond, ‘Hey, let’s put LeBron in this.’ ”
Carter, a self-described Nike “graduate”—he dropped out of college to intern for the company—fused ideas he’d learned from the apparel giant with ones gleaned from a close study of Disney. If all Disney products emanated from the central theme of “happiness,” Carter reasoned, what if you switched that out for “empowerment”? He sought out Iger (whom he ran into at basketball games) and picked his brain. Eventually, they discussed the 1957 diagram commissioned by Walt Disney, which sketches out the Disney business model that still influences its strategy: theatrical films at the center, with spokes for theme parks, publishing, merchandising, and so forth.
“[Carter] puts a tremendous amount of energy into learning,” Iger says. He recalls telling his protégé, “The same values that go into the central product need to exist in all the ancillary products that stem from it.” Carter’s embrace of this advice is evident in how SpringHill has built the “More Than” brand. There’s an ESPN Plus documentary series, More Than an Athlete, as well as a Nike capsule apparel line, podcast, speaking tour, Nike sneaker—on which people can add their own identifier (lawyer, student, artist)—and, now, political nonprofit.
Carter has been just as intentional with how he’s grown SpringHill itself, hiring people from myriad backgrounds who understand sports and storytelling to develop content that resonates in the culture. “Every day we have to come up with the best ideas in the world,” Carter says. “In order to do that, we need people from all over the world, who have different points of view, feelings, sensibilities, emotions, and aesthetics, but who are all striving toward the same thing, which is empowering each other, consumers, and creators we get to work with. If you consistently have the same people that all went to these four or five schools, who grew up in these [same] parts of the country, how can you ever get to amazing ideas?”
The most powerful SpringHill ideas are the ones that combine the company’s pillars of entertainment, branding, and purpose—the “trifecta,” as Paul Wachter calls them. The HBO talk show The Shop is one of the best examples.
The seeds of the show came one evening in late 2015 in New York, when Carter, James, Stoute, Paul Rivera (now SpringHill’s chief marketing officer), and the rapper Nas were having dinner at Carbone, the luxefied paean to Italian red-sauce joints and a James favorite. “It had nothing to do with sports,” Rivera recalls. “It was just worldly stuff about how people felt, [sharing] points of view.”
Rivera, along with James’s chief of staff, Randy Mims, initially conceived of the idea as a podcast, but it evolved into a talk show akin to The View, though set in a barbershop. In Black culture, the barber is “your therapist and your community center,” says Ricardo Viramontes, SpringHill’s chief creative officer. “We were just naturally extending that idea.” The setting had been used comedically in Coming to America and the Barbershop movies, but no one had bottled it whole.
After an early life as branded content for Beats, SpringHill took the project to HBO. The first episode, in August 2018, featured a mix of athletes, rappers, and comedian Jon Stewart, who set the tone when, after being asked if he’d ever been in a Black barbershop, shot back: “Only to collect rent.”
“The place went crazy,” recalls Henderson. “Seeing the reaction in the room, I was just like, ‘We got it.’ ”
The Shop immediately established itself as a platform for “conversations that were serious but not just about politics or social policy but life, relationships, family, intimate things,” says former HBO chief Richard Plepler. James talked about having his house graffitied with a racist slur. Lil Nas X talked about coming out as gay. The show also explored politics, most recently with President Obama joining, days before the 2020 election. “There’s a lot of fabrication going on on television,” says James. “I just want to be real with my people that follow me.”
In keeping with the SpringHill ethos of “more than,” Carter and Co. are now exploring a Shop grooming line and even community centers, in order to transform a buzzy show into a cultural movement. When James is asked if he’s testing out any haircare products, such as combs, he laughs. “Have you seen my hair? If I’m selling hair combs, then I’ll be lying to the people!”
SpringHill’s insistence on keeping things “authentic,” a company buzzword, has at times led to head-butting with partners and deals coming close to unraveling. When Uninterrupted—which also creates content for such major marketers as Beats by Dre, Nike, and Google—was first collaborating with JPMorgan Chase about creating a video-interview series that would feature athletes candidly discussing financial well-being, the question of what to call the series came up. Uninterrupted’s idea was Kneading Dough, a line lifted from the 2007 Jay-Z song “Dead Presidents III.” JPMorgan Chase was not feeling it, coming back with, “How about something like Money Talks?”
Devin Johnson, who was then president of Uninterrupted and leading the discussions, held his ground. “We said, ‘If you’re trying to reach a different audience, it should not be called Money Talks. Money Talks is a show that you would find on CNBC,’ ” says Johnson, who’s now SpringHill’s chief operating officer. “Kneading Dough is something we can bring to the table.”
Carter followed up with a late-night call to then JPMorgan Chase CMO Kristin Lemkau. “[Carter] called me that night, and said, ‘Listen, dude, you weren’t in the meeting. I’m ready to walk if they’re going to turn this into some stupid corporate thing,’ ” recalls Lemkau, who is now CEO of Chase’s U.S. wealth-management division. “And I said, ‘We’re not, I’m with you. We’re going to make the idea we originally talked about.’ ”
Now in its fourth season, Kneading Dough has expanded to include a podcast (Branching Out) and live events (pre-pandemic), with interviews hosted in actual Chase branches. According to a Latitude Research study, the web series has attracted more than 5 billion earned media impressions and an 81% increase in the perception of Chase among its young Black and Latinx viewers. For SpringHill, it’s proof that its multiple arms can work together to create compelling content not only for itself but for others as well.
James, for his part, has always benefited from being sure of himself and thinking long term. As he recalls, “I was a 17-year-old kid, still living in the hood, as we call it, and was offered a $10 million check from Reebok on the spot if I never talked to Nike or Adidas at the time. For someone who was in the position that I was in, I have no idea why I did not accept that $10 million check. But I’ve always been someone who wants to play the long game.” His instincts proved correct. Shortly thereafter, he signed a seven-year, $90 million contract with Nike, and in 2015, he inked a lifetime deal valued at $1 billion.
Chase is now talking with SpringHill about other ways to connect more effectively with Black and Latinx consumers, who aren’t investing at the same levels as white Americans, across all wealth levels. “We’re terribly excited about SpringHill, because it opens up the doors for us to explore going broader than just having athletes’ voices,” says Lois Backon, head of corporate partner marketing at JPMorgan Chase. As the bank looks for ways to invest its promised $30 billion to address racial inequality and poverty, SpringHill could prove a valuable ally. Says Chelsea Carr, an SVP at SpringHill’s branded division Robot: “We have the ability to expand on our mission of empowerment if we’re engaging other partners to join us.”
It’s hard to get hold of LeBron James. Throughout the reporting of this story he was on the road, making sports headlines. Thirty-four points against the Bucks. Forty-six against the Cavaliers. Then there was the epic, no-look, three-pointer against the Houston Rockets, a shot that won him $100 in a bet with Lakers teammate Dennis Schroder. When we catch up, he’s in Boston on a rare day off, preparing to play the Celtics 24 hours later in what will be a nail-bitingly close game. The Lakers win, but barely.
At SpringHill, it’s okay that James is preoccupied. What’s important are the bona fides that James brings—and more and more that’s not just about being an incredible athlete. As both James and SpringHill lean harder into non-sports-related spaces, they feed each other’s credibility. As Henderson, the entertainment chief, says, “We can’t do Madam C.J. Walker’s story [at Netflix] if people don’t know where LeBron stands on equality, social justice—all those things.”
Over the past year, James has been vocal in his outrage over the police violence against George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Jacob Blake, and other victims, while also launching More Than a Vote and persuading NBA owners to open their arenas as pandemic-appropriate polling places. Simultaneously, SpringHill has been developing such projects as that Black Wall Street documentary and a feature film for Universal about Bruce’s Beach, a Black enclave in Manhattan Beach, California, that a century ago faced a racist backlash.
James often cites Muhammad Ali as an inspiration because of the way the boxer channeled his superstardom into activism—SpringHill produced a 2019 documentary on Ali for HBO. Ali, like Colin Kaepernick, paid a price, in his prime, for his activism. James, however, has forged a path that’s somewhere between Ali and his basketball idol Michael Jordan, who was notoriously apolitical, finding a way to, as James puts it, keep “his head on the swivel of both the game of basketball” and “what’s going on in real life.” There have been times he’s been chastised for this—Fox News host Laura Ingraham sniped that James should “shut up and dribble”—an insult that SpringHill turned into a 2018 documentary for Showtime and that also popped up in More Than a Vote’s January 8 video, yet again depicting SpringHill’s ken for message-infused media.
That instinct is only growing as the country slowly attempts to pull out of the political and social rubble of 2020. More Than a Vote, which was dreamt up by Carter and SpringHill’s longtime media adviser Adam Mendelsohn, is already gearing up for next year’s midterms, says executive director Addisu Demissie. “How do we lay the groundwork through a content play and advocacy to get ready for that moment, and to be able to go back with credibility to our audience and say, ‘It’s still worth doing. Voting is still worth it,’ ” he asks. “We’re already talking about movies, podcasts, TV shows, you name it. Last year was about voting. This year is about the ‘more than’ part.”
This may entail even more work. A couple of days before James’s game against the Celtics, Georgia state Republicans introduced a new voter suppression law, one of 165 such bills under consideration in 33 states. James immediately took to Twitter and wrote: “I hope y’all understand Black voter suppression doesn’t stop on Election Day. It’s just going to get worse because they know what we did,” along with the handle @morethanavote and emojis of a Black fist and hands in prayer.
Shut up and dribble? Never.
10 MONTHS AT SPRINGHILL
The projects and protests that elevated LeBron James and Maverick Carter’s entertainment/activism company
March 20, 2020: Self-Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker, the limited series chronicling the pioneering beauty entrepreneur—and the first female self-made millionaire—debuts on Netflix, where it’s one of the five most popular shows on the service in the United States for its first 10 days.
June 6, 2020: James erupts in anger on Instagram at the killing of Ahmaud Arbery. “We’re literally hunted EVERYDAY/EVERYTIME we step foot outside the comfort of our homes!” James wrote. “I’m sorry Ahmaud (Rest In Paradise) and my prayers and blessings sent to the heavens above to your family!!”
May 16, 2020: James helps curate Graduate Together, a virtual high school commencement event that aired on all the broadcast networks, featuring Zendaya, Malala, President Obama, and other luminaries.
May 18, 2020: The Hollywood trades announce that SpringHill will be producing a basketball-themed drama starring Adam Sandler for Netflix, called Hustle. When Netflix extended its deal with Sandler last year to make more movies, it reported that viewers had watched 2 billion hours of his films.
June 9, 2020: James launches More Than a Vote, a not-for-profit organization designed not only to register Black Americans to vote but also to call out suppression efforts. By Election Day, More Than a Vote had recruited over 40,000 poll workers across the country.
June 29, 2020: The SpringHill Company is formed with a $100 million investment, combining James and Carter’s projects including SpringHill Entertainment, which produced movies and TV, with Uninterrupted, their digital media brand for athletic empowerment.
September 29, 2020: SpringHill signs a four-year, first-look deal with Universal Pictures. Initial projects include an adaptation of the graphic novel New Kid and an original film about the 1920s Black coastal community called Bruce’s Beach.
October 15, 2020: More Than a Vote partners with Stacey Abrams’s Fair Fight Action. SpringHill produces the digital materials that animate Fair Fight’s mission, helping to make the presidential race in Georgia and its two Senate races competitive.
December 6, 2020: Warner Bros. shares first-look footage of Space Jam: A New Legacy, the highly anticipated sequel to the Michael Jordan–Bugs Bunny original, starring James and produced by SpringHill, preemptively blowing the internet’s mind.
January 8, 2021: More Than a Vote releases a video that would go viral, celebrating its electoral success and heightening the contradictions between Black activists protesting the killing of fellow Americans with the Capitol insurrection. The short concludes with the promise: “2020 was just the tip off.
”A version of this article appeared in the March/April 2021 issue of Fast Company magazine.