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.”
Empowered CEO Maverick Carter has seized this moment to elevate SpringHill Company. [Photo: Joshua Kissi]
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