How LeBron James Became A Billionaire
Updated: Aug 12, 2022
How LeBron James Wins On and Off The Court
Since becoming the most hyped up high school athlete of all time, LeBron James came into the NBA as a rookie in 2003 and absolutely lit up the league. The hyper-athletic 19 year old didn't skip a beat from dunking on high school seniors to dunking on NBA all-time greats from day one.
Now entering his 20th NBA season, LeBron has cemented himself as one of the best, if not the best, basketball player in history. A four-time NBA champion, four-time Finals MVP and 18-time All-Star selection, his accolades are a little too long to list here. However, just know that this winning on the court has translated to cash. A lot of cash.
Following a year in which he was the second highest paid athlete in the world, in July 2022, LeBron was recognized by Forbes as the first active NBA player to become a billionaire. He was the second all-time NBA player to reach billionaire status, behind Chicago Bulls legend Michael Jordan, but Jordan achieved that status after his playing days were over.
LeBron is actually the sixth global athlete to reach this milestone, joining the billionaire club alongside golfer Tiger Woods, boxer Floyd Mayweather, tennis player Roger Federer and global footballers Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi. He's also the wealthiest active NBA player by some margin, with Kevin Durant placing second at $580 million and Steph Curry in third at $430 million.
Presciently, LeBron actually saw this coming. In a 2014 interview with GQ, he said the following:
"It's my biggest milestone, obviously. I want to maximize my business. And if I happen to get it, if I happen to be a billion-dollar athlete, ho. Hip hip hooray! Oh, my God, I'm gonna be excited." - LeBron to GQ in 2014
But how did LeBron achieve billionaire status while still training year round for a sport that plays 82 games a year plus playoff games? Turns out, he's not just good at ball, but also in his off-the-court ventures. Today, let's chat about how LeBron made so much money, including some unbelievable investments, and take a look what his financial future may hold.
LeBron's Career On-Court Earnings - $390 million
On the court, LeBron's been a monster. Across his stints with the Los Angeles Lakers, Miami Heat and Cleveland Cavaliers (twice), he's made an absolutely staggering $390 million from salary alone. At least, that used to be a staggering number.
The NBA works on a salary cap-based system, like nearly every other American sport. The key difference, however, is in the percentages of revenue that star players can earn playing basketball.
While there's not enough room in this article to go through the INSANE nuances of the NBA salary cap system, where you'll hear sports nerd terms like "max," "super max" and "early Bird rights," just know that the star player on a team can make a lot of money. Like, whatever you're thinking right now, add a 0 and then double it.
These numbers change every year, thanks to the ascending year-over-year revenue that the NBA generates. The more money the league makes, the higher the salary cap for each team, which means that star players (who can sign to up for 25% of the total salary cap in total contract value) are making more and more money each year.
In 19 seasons in the NBA, LeBron James has made $390 million. However, here's how he compares to his peers, according to Spotrac:
Of the players included, Booker owns the highest average annual value on his recent contract extension, which comes out to an earth-shattering $56,056,000 per year. This stands to reason, however, as he's also the youngest on this list and signed his extension when the salary cap was at its highest (so far). Booker's age and career earnings have him on a collision course with being the first NBA on-court billionaire, thought there are four candidates younger than him that also have this goal in their sights.
Luka Doncic of the Dallas Mavericks, Trae Young of the Atlanta Hawks, Ja Morant of the Memphis Grizzlies and Zion Williamson of the New Orleans Pelicans, are all making around $40 million per year on their freshly-signed contract extensions, and the oldest of this group is Doncic at 22 years old. These three could all reach billionaire status, and then some, with their extremely young ages and extremely large contracts.
Lebron James' Endorsements - $300 million (rising past $1 billion)
Let's go ahead and start with the biggest and most famous one. The home of the G.O.A.T and the Shoe Dog, King James also makes a nice living from the famous check mark. Originally signed right out of high school in 2003, the Nike deal showed us what we would finally find out later: that LeBron is a fucking businessman and a business, man.
He famously rejected much bigger offers from both Adidas and Reebok because he saw Nike as "a better long term partner," and his faith in the company has paid off. In 2015, LeBron became the second athlete in history to sign a lifetime deal with Nike (following Cristiano Ronaldo in 2014). This deal reportedly nets him $32 million per year, which also includes revenue from his signature shoes. But why would Nike pay him all this money every year for the rest of his life? Because LeBron is one hell of an investment. Nike makes over $600 million per year from LeBron's likeness alone. Chalk this one up to marketing spend.
All Other Direct Sponsorships (Walmart, PepsiCo, Crypto.com)
Yeah yeah, I know, this isn't the full list. However, these are the biggest of the bunch where LeBron is more of a spokesperson than anything else.
When it comes to PepsiCo, LeBron has become the official spokesperson of the brand almost overnight. This is in stark contrast to his previous contract, in which he was the de facto ambassador for Sprite and the Coca Cola Company for the previous 18 years.
His relationship with Walmart is the one (weirdly) that has drawn the most off-court criticism. James partnered with the brand back in 2019 to help fight "food insecurity" with Walmart's "Fight Hunger/Spark Change" campaign. However, Walmart is the target of many food-oriented nonprofits that argue Walmart causes more food insecurity than it helps. Since the reports, the campaign has been quieter, though not silenced, and James hasn't been quite as close to it.
Finally, his newest endorsement on the list belongs to Crypto.com. Their partnership with James also coincided with their new naming rights deal for the famous Lakers basketball arena, previously named the "Staples Center." It also gave us, in my opinion, one of the coolest Super Bowl commercials in recent memory...
LeBron James' Business Investments - $400 million
Before diving into this section, it's worth giving a bit of background on why I split up "endorsements" and "investments." There are some companies, like Walmart or Pepsico, where LeBron is strictly a pitchman. However, LeBron's endorsement and business style have become popular over the years due to his ability to find companies to take a stake in, then pump the popularity to make his stake more valuable.
His secret weapons in all of this? His agent, Rich Paul, and childhood friend, Maverick Carter. Between the three of them, LeBron's business investments have skyrocketed in notoriety and value. Here are some of the bigger examples:
Beats By Dre
Remember these? The headphones that every athlete had, and every middle-and-high
school kid had to have, was founded by hip-hop legend Dr. Dre and record executive Jimmy Iovine back in 2008. They popularized the over-the-ear luxury headphone market before moving into the workout-specific headphone sector.
To do this, they enlisted LeBron as part of a marketing campaign in 2008 to launch the new brand. Part of this endorsement was a minority stake in the company by LeBron, which eventually netted him $30 million when Beats sold to Apple in 2014 for $3 billion. However, there is some speculation around that number after former NBA player and current ESPN analyst, Kendrick Perkins, told Business Insider that LeBron's cut of the Beats deal was closer to $700 million.
One of the more famous investments in LeBron's career is his stake in pizza chain startup Blaze Pizza. A Chipotle-style pizza chain where each pizza is made to order for the customer in quick-service fashion, the company was founded in Pasadena in 2011. LeBron took notice in 2012 and invested in the nascent business with a $1 million seed funding round.
Since that $1 million investment, Blaze Pizza has grown to over 300 locations across the United States and is the fastest growing fast-casual pizza chain in the country, outpacing competitors like YourPie or Mod Pizza. However, LeBron had a problem.
In 2010, LeBron began his endorsement contract with McDonalds, which reportedly paid him about $4 million per year. Due to the speed at which Blaze Pizza scaled, McDonalds told LeBron that he had a conflict of interest in endorsing both companies, and would have to choose. In 2014, LeBron chose Blaze and walked away from the rest of his McDonalds contract, which had about $14 million remaining in the deal. This turned out to be an excellent decision from James, whose stake in Blaze now sits at around $40 million.
The SpringHill Company and Uninterrupted
Here's the model that every professional athlete seems to want to imitate, with varying degrees of effectiveness. SpringHill and Uninterrupted are Lebron and Maverick Carter's production houses, creating and distributing media projects across pretty much all media.
Uninterrupted, founded in 2015, came out swinging with their first original series, "The Shop," which puts celebrities in a barbershop together to discuss anything from sports to race to politics. The series originally aired on Bleacher Report (owned by Turner), before moving to their HBO Max streaming platform from seasons 1-4. After their HBO contract ended, season 5 of The Shop aired on YouTube in July 2022.
SpringHill was founded three years after Uninterrupted, in 2018, and was designed to branch out on media ventures. They took over the distribution of The Shop, as well as immediately signing first-look deals with ABC and Universal. The company is unfortunately responsible for Space Jam: A New Legacy, the travesty that that movie was, but they also have the Netflix smash hit Hustle under their belts, so they brought more balance to the Force than Anakin Skywalker. They also recently announced exclusive production rights with Hana Kuma, the media venture started by tennis star Naomi Osaka.
Fenway Sports Group
This one was a little out of left field (pun intended) originally, but is starting to make more sense as it ages. In 2021, LeBron and Carter took a minority stake in Boston-based sports ownership group, Fenway Sports Group. FSG owns the Northeastern Sports Network (NESN), Roush Fenway Racing and, more importantly, the Boston Red Sox and English Premier League team, Liverpool.
LeBron was previously an owner of Liverpool, having purchased 2% of the team during FSG's takeover in 2010. This further investment into FSG grew Lebron's stake in the multi-time English champions, as well as made him and Carter the first black co-owners in the group's history. So why is this one making more sense?
Because LeBron is an aspiring owner! Current collective bargaining agreement rules in the NBA prevent active players from owning stakes in NBA or WNBA teams while they play, so LeBron took another option and gained ownership in another league. Not to mention that, again thanks to skyrocketing TV broadcasting rights, everything FSG has touched has turned to financial gold in the last 12 years.
LeBron James' Financial Future
So where does a billionaire, hall of fame, championship winning player go from here? Well, according to LeBron, it's an expansion of his ownership. After he retires from his playing career, apparently his days in the NBA aren't finished:
If you were too busy to watch the above clip (by the way, welcome Mr. President. Thanks for reading), then LeBron dives into the next phase of his life which is potential team ownership via expansion. Specifically, he wants to own a team in Las Vegas.
"But there isn't a team in Las Vegas you IDIOT" I hear you bellow in between sips of Mountain Dew Code Red from your mom's basement. Correct my NBA loving friend, but there probably will be. And soon.
Recent rumors in NBA circles is that the league is looking to expand their footprint to 32 total teams, up from the current 30. This would result in two expansion franchises, of which the most likely destinations are Las Vegas and Seattle. Seattle is the no-brainer for the NBA since there's a built-in fan base of former Seattle Supersonics fans, before they got burned in the move to Oklahoma City and became the Thunder.
Las Vegas has been on every major sports leagues' map for a long time. The NFL talked for years about moving a team there, before finally moving the Oakland Raiders to Las Vegas and building them the colosseum equivalent of a Roomba for a stadium. The NHL beat them to the punch by installing the Las Vegas Golden Knights, which honestly looks like the most fun time you can have at an American sporting event.
So why would the league expand? Well, apart from the new franchises which means new markets and more TV money, the new teams would have to pay what's called an "expansion fee." This is the fee that the team owner (or ownership group) would have to pay in order to join the big boy's club.
Two years ago, this fee was reported to be in the region of $2.5 billion per team. However, a lot has happened since then: COVID decimated league revenue thanks to paused games and no fan attendance for 18 months, and the Utah Jazz sold to another upstart tech billionaire for an extraordinary fee. These drove prices up, which in turn, are driving up the need for an inflated fee. On his eponymous podcast, long time NBA insider(?) Bill Simmons noted that the number now stands at closer to $7 billion for the total of the two teams, meaning $3.5 billion each. Jesus.
But why would anyone own a team? Because, just like stonks, they never go down. In 2010, Michael Jordan bought the Charlotte Bobcats for $275 million. Now they're worth $1.5 billion and climbing. The golden child of the NBA appreciation game is Golden State (pun again intended). In 2010, Joe Lacob bought the team for $450 million. After their dynastic run over the last decade, the Warriors are now estimated to be worth a cool $5.6 billion, making them one of the richest sports franchises in the world. Not a bad ROI.
In fact, according to Statista, the only NBA team that was sold for less than $1 billion in the last 10 years is my hometown Atlanta Hawks, which sold for $730 million in 2017.
So this seems to be LeBron's future. Ownership, and even more riches, if he can assemble the ownership group to do it. Something tells me, however, that he probably has the business know-how to pull it off.