He’s LeBron’s business partner. One of the famous Four Horsemen who grew up with King James in Ohio. And one of the only people on earth who knows if that lifetime Nike deal was really worth a billion dollars. Here, Maverick Carter shares his battle-tested tactics—and the big secret.He’s LeBron’s business partner. One of the famous Four Horsemen who grew up with King James in Ohio. And one of the only people on earth who knows if that lifetime Nike deal was really worth a billion dollars. Here, Maverick Carter shares his battle-tested tactics—and the big secret.
Like Clint Eastwood and Christopher Nolan, Maverick Carter has his office on the Warner Bros. studio lot. Once you get past security, you drive by pinup western storefronts to a section of cookie-cutter houses with vinyl siding. (Gilmore Girls was filmed here.) Even the grass looks like it’s from Milwaukee. Outside one of the houses are reserved parking spots that read: “M. Carter” and “L. James.” That and the shiny silver Maybach parked out front are the only tells that inside this unassuming house, the future of sports marketing and entertainment is being crafted. This is where Maverick Carter gets to work.
Carter is LeBron’s friend from Akron—he was a senior at St. Vincent-St. Mary High when ‘Bron was a freshman. He’s also the Cavs star’s business manager. But most important, he’s the creative director of all things King James. What does that entail? Well, NBA basketball and an apparel empire. A Hollywood production company. (The Starz show Survivor’s Remorse is Mav’s.) A scholarship program. And a media platform called Uninterrupted, where players tell their own stories.
Here, the man who just played a central role in the largest celebrity apparel deal of all time breaks down his negotiating strategies, his regrets—and how he turned a ballplayer from Akron into a billion-dollar global brand.
GQ Style: You’re really making a go of this Hollywood thing. Was this always the goal? Was 8-year-old Maverick Carter dreaming about Hollywood?
Maverick Carter: No. It was never my dream.
When did it become your dream?
When people ask what college I graduated from, I say: I didn’t graduate from college. I graduated from Nike. I started my career as an intern getting coffee. I was working in sports marketing, which means building the brands of Nike and the athletes. What I realized after I left Nike is that they tell stories. These shoes I have on are just shoes. Obviously, they put some technology in it. This is knit. This is lunar. Blah blah blah. But they tell you the best story ever about this sneaker. They tell better stories than anyone in Hollywood. So it was just a natural evolution: marketing, storytelling, building your brand, producing content. I’d been doing it my whole life already.
What do you think is the biggest mistake you’ve made so far?
[takes a moment to think]
When I first left Nike to go work with LeBron and manage him, I was really bullish about managing other athletes. I really wanted to get more athletes besides LeBron and build this big management practice. And in hindsight that was a mistake.
Why was it a mistake?
A couple of reasons. One is that there’s only one LeBron. Another reason is that other athletes always viewed me as LeBron’s guy. They thought: He can’t be my guy, too. It was a mistake because I lost time on it. And managing LeBron was enough. It was plenty to do.
Do you regret managing Johnny Manziel?
No, I don’t regret it. I met Johnny and liked him. He obviously was who he was coming out, which is gigantic. I feel like we did a great job with Johnny and helped him a lot. But he was his biggest opponent. He’s a very intelligent guy—he’s just his biggest opponent. Still is. But to this day, if he called me, I’d go help him in a second. So that’s another reason why I can’t regret it: I made relationships with him and his family that’ll probably last a lifetime.
When did you and LeBron decide Hollywood was the next frontier?
It was the natural evolution. Obviously, the goal was to figure out ways to take his talent, who he is, what he represents, and build businesses around that. Because being a great basketball player, there’s a very tight window.
So you guys have always been working on life after basketball?
Once basketball is over, you’ve got fucking 50 years left to live. So you gotta hit ’em while you got the muscle, as they say in The Godfather.
[pullquote align=”full” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]“Some people are more prepared to take risks. I grew up a gambler. That’s my name: Maverick. That’s what it comes from.”—Maverick Carter[/pullquote]
What did you want to be when you grew up?
Well, like every kid playing basketball, I dreamed of being an NBA player. It’s kinda like that Chris Rock joke: In the hood, there’s only a couple professions. My dad was a drug dealer. My mom was a social worker. In seventh grade, I was on an AAU team, and we went up to this neighborhood called Hudson. It was nice, with big houses. I was like, Holy shit, people live like this? And to the Chris Rock joke, the guy whose house I was at, his dad was just an athletic trainer. He was an athletic trainer for the Cleveland Indians. He wasn’t a basketball star or a musician. Chris Rock says the white guy who lives next door is a dentist. The black guy has to be the greatest in the world. So when I saw that, I wanted to be an athletic trainer.
Are you close to your father?
You have to have a knack for business to sell drugs successfully. Did any of your father’s wisdom rub off on you?
Yes, a hundred percent. He gave me the foundation, and I built on top of it. He dropped out of school in ninth grade to be on the street, but our foundations are the same. And that’s being passionately curious. Always wanting to know.
When I was a kid, being a businessman meant that you wore a suit every day and ate steak dinners. But you’re wearing sweats, drinking a green juice. What does being a businessman in 2016 mean to you?
The biggest thing it means is that you have to be infinitely flexible. Tech is changing every industry every single day. All the cards are on the table now. And when all the cards are on the table, the game changes. You have to play it a different way. So I think it means being curious and flexible while still having principles you live by and guardrails that you do business within.
Speaking of cards, how much of your job is actually risky?
It’s all a risk. That’s the beauty of it. Some people are just more prepared to take risks than others. I grew up a gambler. That’s my name: Maverick. That’s what it comes from. My grandmother ran an after-hours joint, and they played cards and shot craps. But you have to know: What’s my baseline? What’s the worst that could happen to me? And that’s what life is all about. Every decision you make, you’re simply evaluating risk versus reward.
LeBron being in Trainwreck was a risk. What if LeBron wasn’t funny? What if it was a disaster?
When we were thinking about doing Trainwreck, I asked myself, What’s the downside? The downside is LeBron does a movie, he’s bad at it, and everyone goes: He’s bad in a movie. But he’s still the best basketball player in the world. Also, it wasn’t his movie. He’s not on the poster. He didn’t have to carry the weight. Nobody was saying, I’m going to see LeBron’s movie.
It wasn’t Space Jam.
It wasn’t Kazaam.
It wasn’t Kazaam! It wasn’t his movie. He’s like a pleasant surprise. So if he fucked it up, no one was gonna go, LeBron’s terrible. But the upside was exactly what happened: He’s fucking great. Now his movie career could take off. If he never did another movie, at least people would know, Oh, he can do that. He’s multifaceted. And another thing is, we didn’t do that movie until he had four MVPs and two championships. He had movie offers in year two, three, four. I was like, No, you gotta establish yourself as the best in your craft first so no one can say you’re distracted.
A lot of successful businessmen are perceived as assholes. Is Maverick Carter an asshole?
That’s a very good question. You know, you hate to call yourself an asshole, but yes. You have to be. It’s very hard to get shit done while always being super-extra nice. And ultimately, what is an asshole? It’s a person who has supreme confidence and believes in what he’s doing. It’s hard to get anything done without being an asshole.
People always ask: Where do you see yourself in 10 years? But is that the right amount of time to plan out? How many years ahead do you set your goals?
These days, it’s hard to look super-far ahead because shit changes on you so fast. Like, you wake up tomorrow and somebody’s sold a business and that’s changing the industry, or somebody’s launched a new business.
[pullquote align=”full” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]“Nike feels great about the deal. As great as I feel, as great as Lebron feels—Nike feels fantastic about it. It’s the largest deal in the history of the company.”—Maverick Carter[/pullquote]
Yeah, you’re driving a taxi, happy with life, and then Uber pops up and now the game is different.
Yeah! So these days it’s hard to look forward, but you have to have the ability to look out over three to five years for yourself. Where do I want to be? I’m sitting here in an office in Los Angeles talking to you. Five years ago, I wouldn’t have known that. I had no fucking idea. Boom.
So you just negotiated an unprecedented lifetime contract for LeBron with Nike. What’s your secret to being a great negotiator?
You have to go into the room understanding a couple things. You have to know what you want. You have to know how to clearly articulate those things. You have to know what’s important to the other side and what they want. Be able to articulate those things, too. And then you have to be willing to not take everything. If you go into the negotiation like, I’m gonna get every dollar, every piece of real estate—I’m just gonna take this guy’s fucking pants off—you may be able to do that once, maybe twice, but after that, people aren’t going to want to do business with you. When you’re negotiating something like the Nike deal, it’s gonna last a lifetime, literally. The minute this negotiation’s over, we’re gonna work with these people every day. So you don’t want to leave them with a bad feeling.
How much was the deal for?
I can’t say.
Come on, Mav! Can you ballpark it?
What are people saying?
Kanye said a billion. So a billion.
[Maverick smiles and points one finger skyward.]
Yeah. It’s a fantastic deal. Nike feels great about the deal. That’s the most important thing. As great as I feel, as great as LeBron feels—Nike feels fantastic about it. It’s the largest deal in the history of the company. Their hope is he makes even more. And our hope is that, too, obviously.
How important is it to keep projects secret while you’re still hashing them out?
It’s just easier to get shit done that way. If you and I were in charge of Coca-Cola, it’d be hard to get shit done.
Because a lot of people would need to approve every decision.
Yeah. But if they give us Mello Yello, we can go do our motherfucking thing. Nobody would notice until we did something great or something fucked-up. And in the meantime we’ll have a budget and we’ll have a good time. People are just now starting to catch on to our planning a bit. I saw an article in Business Insider the other day that said LeBron’s gambling with one-year contracts is about to pay off. It’s like, Yeah, we thought about that, like, three years ago.
Why the year-by-year contracts?
Because…um…money. The salary cap is going up.
So you knew that would happen.
Yeah, I mean everybody kinda did. The TV deal tripled, right? So the salary caps had to go up, too. It kicks in next summer.
Last question: When people talk about pro athletes’ contracts, they always compare them with teachers’. “Why does LeBron make $90 million when a teacher in Cleveland gets $60K?” But the truth is that LeBron is making big corporations hundreds of millions of dollars.
He should make at least that!
So my question is, how much of what I make for somebody else should I get? If I make someone else $100, how much should I take home? Thirty? Forty?
There is no algorithm. There’s simply this: You never get what you deserve, you only get what you negotiate. So if you can negotiate for $99 after making someone $100—that’s what you’re worth