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LeBron James’s Agent, Rich Paul, Starts a Sports Division at a Hollywood Firm – The New York Times

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United Talent Agency, one of the leading representation firms in Hollywood, has joined with the influential N.B.A. agent Rich Paul to create a sports division for the entertainment company.

Paul, who represents LeBron James and 22 other N.B.A. players under his Klutch Sports Group banner, was named the head of U.T.A. Sports on Wednesday. The alliance calls for Klutch, with Paul as chief executive, to operate as United Talent’s sports division while retaining its own branding.

“We’ve been looking for the right sports opportunity for quite a while,” said Jeremy Zimmer, the talent agency’s chief executive. “We have taken a significant stake in Klutch, but Rich retains very substantial controls because we want it to be his business and we love what he’s doing.”

Neither side would divulge the amount of the stake, but Paul said “nothing changes” in terms of how Klutch’s basketball business operates and that the investment will enable him “to go out and further build Klutch.”

United Talent Agency represents several high-profile actors, including Angelina Jolie, Kevin Hart, Chris Pratt and Tiffany Haddish, as well companies such as Coca-Cola, General Motors and Delta Air Lines. Yet the firm, which restricted itself to off-the-field sports business until now, said it needs Paul’s muscle as it moves into direct competition with the established sports divisions at U.T.A.’s primary rivals in Hollywood: Creative Artists Agency and William Morris Endeavor.

U.T.A.’s move to recruit Paul to lead its sports division is the latest example of the rising influence that the biggest stars in basketball — and a power-broker like Paul — possess. Players and their representatives are exerting that influence more and more to orchestrate moves to the teams they want to play for, as seen repeatedly this off-season. Increasingly, they are carrying that influence into the entertainment industry.

Rather than try to start a sports division from scratch or seek a merge with an entertainment conglomerate to go head-to-head with C.A.A. and W.M.E., U.T.A. has taken the untraditional approach of aligning with the on-the-rise Paul to provide instant clout.

The growing resonance athletes — especially N.B.A. players — have in music, fashion and content creation made adding a sports division an “urgent” priority to Zimmer.

“All these things have a connectivity and a power in the culture today like we’ve never seen before,” Zimmer said. “And so, for U.T.A. to be a fully built media company, we had to be directly connected to the athlete — not just through sponsorships and endorsements but directly to them in every aspect of their life in a real way.”

The partnership also gives Paul, 37, an entree to Hollywood as his N.B.A. profile is expanding. In June, Paul became the first basketball agent to be featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated — with the magazine describing him as “the most discussed, admired, loathed, ridiculed, daring and feared” agent in the sport.

For years, Paul’s achievements were often dismissed as a natural byproduct of his close relationship with James, who was still a teenager when he befriended Paul. The criticism has occasionally included racial undertones. “Because he don’t wear a suit every day,” James told Sports Illustrated, “and he’s black.”

Paul, though, has largely tuned out such criticism to steadily build Klutch from a fledgling operation in Cleveland to the point that William Morris also expressed interest in a partnership.

After Paul’s preliminary negotiations with that agency, talks with United Talent quickly progressed over the past two months. Klutch’s deal with U.T.A. was initiated by the investment adviser Paul Wachter, who helped broker Fenway Sports Group’s 2010 purchase of Liverpool in the English Premier League, as well as James’s lifetime deal with Nike. Wachter suggested a union with Klutch to Jim Berkus, a U.T.A. co-founder, who took the idea to Zimmer.

Klutch represents all of its N.B.A. clients on and off the floor apart from James, whose off-court deal with William Morris to represent his media company, SpringHill Entertainment, will continue. James founded SpringHill with Maverick Carter, another childhood friend.

“The modern athlete thinks differently, and I, as the modern agent, think differently,” Paul said. “Guys want more. Guys want to build separate businesses. I tell our clients all the time that the most money you’re ever going to make in your life is probably going to be doing what you were born to do, but it’s O.K. to think outside the box.”

From a base of four clients when he broke away from Creative Artists Agency in 2012 — Tristan Thompson, Eric Bledsoe, Cory Joseph and James — Paul has established a reputation for connecting with players, fiercely promoting their interests no matter the fallout, and getting his clients what they want.

Two of the N.B.A.’s marquee players — Anthony Davis and Draymond Green — left their agents to sign with Klutch in the past year.

“He’s never afraid to hear his own voice — and neither am I,” Green said of Paul. Green, a Golden State Warriors forward, has emerged as one of the N.B.A.’s more outspoken players after slipping to the second round of the 2012 draft.

“Rich has kind of found that niche for empowering us as athletes,” Green said. “It’s also the underdog mentality — the ‘I’m not supposed to be here’ mentality. There’s a natural connection there.”

Paul has closed nearly $290 million in contracts this summer and in excess of $1 billion in contracts since he formed his own company — with $342 million through James’s deals alone. He has teamed with the veteran N.B.A. agent and sports lawyer Mark Termini, a fellow Clevelander who was recruited to Klutch at its inception to lead contract negotiations.

Davis finished the 2018-19 season with the Pelicans under a cloud after Paul made a request that he be moved just 10 days before the trade deadline in February. Trade talks with the Lakers went nowhere at first, but Davis ultimately got the trade he wanted in June — after Paul successfully persuaded the Boston Celtics and other suitors to back off.

Paul was painted as a villain as the drama played out.

“That just comes with the territory,” Paul said. “There’s nothing I can do about that.”

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