Naomi Osaka Starts a Media Company, With Help From LeBron James

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She is a four-time Grand Slam singles champion who ranks as the world’s highest-paid female athlete, having earned $57 million in 2021, mostly from sponsorships. Walmart recently began to stock products from her skin care company, Kinlò, in nearly 3,000 locations. Last month, she started a sports representation agency.

And now Naomi Osaka is pushing into Hollywood — with an assist from LeBron James.

Ms. Osaka, 24, has started a media company called Hana Kuma in partnership with SpringHill, a fast-growing entertainment, marketing and products company co-founded by Mr. James. Ms. Osaka said in a brief Zoom interview that her ambitions for Hana Kuma, which stands for “flower bear” in Japanese, include scripted and unscripted television series, documentaries, anime and branded content, which is entertainment programming that has embedded or integrated advertising.

“I honestly can’t say if I’ll personally be in anything right now,” Ms. Osaka said. “What excites me is being able to inspire people and tell new stories, particularly ones that I would have wanted to see when I was a kid. I always wanted to kind of see someone like me.” Ms. Osaka is of Japanese and Haitian ancestry.

Fans should expect Ms. Osaka’s advocacy to underpin at least some of Hana Kuma’s offerings, most of which are still in development. Ms. Osaka has been outspoken on topics that many elite sports stars try to avoid. She was an early supporter of the Black Lives Matter movement. Last year, she started a global discussion about mental health in sports when she withdrew from the French Open, citing a need to prioritize her own well-being. She also disclosed past struggles with depression and anxiety.

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Ms. Osaka’s candor has resonated with an audience far beyond sports — young people in particular — making her a sponsorship dream even though she has recently struggled on the tennis court. (She lost in the first round of the French Open last month. She said in a social media post on Saturday that she would not play at Wimbledon this summer because of an Achilles’ injury.)

One project in development involves cooking and the Haitian community. “I watch a lot of food-related shows, cooking competitions, because I like to cook,” Ms. Osaka said with a laugh. The first project with Hana Kuma credits will be a New York Times Op-Doc about Patsy Mink, the first woman of color elected to Congress. Hana Kuma is also working on unspecified documentary content for Epix, a premium cable channel now owned by Amazon.

SpringHill, co-founded by Maverick Carter in 2020, will serve as a financing, operations and producing partner for Hana Kuma. SpringHill has roughly 200 employees and was valued at $725 million when selling a minority stake to raise capital last year. Operations include a marketing consultancy and a media and apparel division dedicated to athlete empowerment. Another unit focuses on film and television production. There is also an events team.

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“Naomi can just plug into what we have built,” Mr. Carter said.

SpringHill wants to replicate the Hana Kuma deal with other athletes who have global appeal. “We want to do a lot more of this in the future,” Mr. Carter said, noting that discussions have started with other sports stars.

It must be asked: Isn’t this just a newfangled vanity deal? For decades, old-line studios gave favored stars funding to start affiliated companies, most of which never amounted to much — aside from keeping the star happy.

“Under the old system, sometimes those ended up being for vanity,” Mr. Carter said. “But the goal here is to build Hana Kuma into a real company and a real brand.” SpringHill’s emphasis on branded content sets it apart from old-line studios, he added. Hana Kuma has been hired by FTX, a cryptocurrency exchange, to produce branded content.

Mr. James said by telephone that Ms. Osaka’s “grace and power” on and off the court made her a good match for SpringHill, “which exists to empower athlete creators.”

“We don’t take for granted the position we are in to lend a helping hand, in this case to Naomi, to help empower her to do even more great things,” Mr. James said.

Ms. Osaka has 12 sponsors, including Nike, Mastercard, Louis Vuitton and Panasonic. Her longtime agent and business partner, Stuart Duguid, said some could be involved with Hana Kuma content. Mr. Duguid is a Hana Kuma co-founder.

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“We really want to bring that number down and have more in-depth relationships with the ones that continue,” Mr. Duguid said, referring to corporate sponsors. “We want to take bigger swings and start companies, invest in companies, things that might have potentially a bigger outcome than if you did a McDonald’s deal and got paid year to year. What will really move the needle?”

Building a portfolio of businesses — while still in the middle of her tennis career — makes Ms. Osaka something of a pioneer among female athletes. At least, it will if she succeeds.

“We haven’t seen any female athlete do anything like what we are trying to achieve,” Mr. Duguid said. “Serena has done well with her venture business. But she’s toward the end of her career and, you know, we’re in the middle.” He was referring to the tennis legend Serena Williams, whose venture capital firm, Serena Ventures, has raised an inaugural fund of $111 million to invest in founders with diverse points of view.

Because she is still playing tennis, Ms. Osaka will not be sitting in on many production meetings. “But everything creative and everything strategic, it’s obviously going to have Naomi’s stamp on it and her style and her input,” Mr. Duguid said.

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