Naomi Osaka starts a media company with the help of LeBron James

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Naomi Osaka starts a media company with the help of LeBron James

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

And now Naomi Osaka is pushing into Hollywood — with the backing of LeBron James.

Ms. Osaka, 24, has founded 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 TV series, documentaries, anime and branded content, that is, entertainment programs with embedded or integrated advertising.

“I honestly can’t say if I’ll be there personally right now,” said Ms. Osaka. “What excites me is the ability to inspire people and tell new stories, especially ones I would have loved to see as a kid. I’ve always wanted to see someone like me.” Ms. Osaka is of Japanese and Haitian descent.

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

Ms. Osaka’s outspokenness has resonated with audiences far beyond sport – particularly young people – making her a sponsorship dream despite recent struggles 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 be playing at Wimbledon this summer due to an Achilles injury.)

A project in development involves cooking and the Haitian community. “I watch a lot of food-themed shows and cooking competitions because I like to cook,” Ms. Osaka said, laughing. The first project with Hana Kuma credits will be a New York Times Op-Doc on 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 the financing, operating and manufacturing partner for Hana Kuma. SpringHill has approximately 200 employees and was valued at $725 million when it sold a minority interest to raise capital last year. Activities include a marketing consultancy and a media and apparel division dedicated to empowering athletes. Another area focuses on film and television production. There is also an events team.

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

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

You have to ask yourself: Isn’t this just a newfangled vanity deal? For decades, old-line studios funded favorite stars to create affiliates, most of which never mattered much — aside from making the star happy.

“Under the old system these were sometimes out of vanity,” said Mr. Carter. “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 legacy studios, he added. Hana Kuma was hired by FTX, a cryptocurrency exchange, to produce branded content.

Mr James said over the phone that Ms Osaka’s “grace and power” on and off the pitch made her a good addition to SpringHill “which exists to empower athletes”.

“We don’t take for granted our position, in this case, to help Naomi, to empower her to do more great things,” said Mr. James.

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

“We really want to bring that number down and have deeper relationships with those that endure,” Mr. Duguid said, referring to corporate sponsors. “We want to take bigger steps and start businesses, invest in businesses, things that might have a bigger outcome than you get a McDonald’s deal and get paid year after year. What will really move the needle?”

Building a portfolio of businesses while still in the midst of her tennis career makes Ms. Osaka a pioneer among women athletes. At least it will if she succeeds.

“We have yet to see an athlete achieve what we set out to achieve,” said Mr. Duguid. “Serena has done well with her venture business. But she’s at the end of her career and we’re in the middle of it.” He was referring to tennis legend Serena Williams, whose venture capital firm Serena Ventures has raised a $111 million seed fund to invest in founders with diverse viewpoints.

Still playing tennis, Ms. Osaka won’t be attending many production meetings. “But anything creative and anything strategic, it’s obviously going to carry Naomi’s stamp and style and input,” Mr. Duguid said.

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