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

She is a four-time Grand Slam singles champion and 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 launched a sports representation agency.

And now Naomi Osaka is pushing in Hollywood — with some help from LeBron James.

Ms Osaka, 24, started a media company called Hana Kuma in partnership with SpringHill, a fast-growing entertainment, marketing and product company co-founded by Mr James. Ms. Osaka said in a brief Zoom interview that her ambitions for Hana Kuma, which means “flower bear” in Japanese, include scripted and unscripted TV series, documentaries, cartoons and branded content, which are entertainment programs incorporating or incorporating advertising. .

“Honestly, I can’t say if I personally will be into anything right now,” Ms Osaka said. “What excites me is being able to inspire people and tell new stories, especially ones that I wish I had seen when I was a kid. I’ve always wanted to 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 was candid about topics that many elite sports stars try to avoid. She was one of the first to support the Black Lives Matter movement. Last year, she sparked a global discussion about mental health in sport when she pulled out of the French Open, citing the need to make her own wellbeing a priority. She also revealed past struggles with depression and anxiety.

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

A project in development concerns the kitchen and the Haitian community. “I watch a lot of food shows, cooking contests, because I love to cook,” Ms. Osaka said with a laugh. 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 Hana Kuma’s financing, operating and production partner. SpringHill has around 200 employees and was valued at $725 million when it sold a minority stake to raise capital last year. Operations include a marketing consultancy and a media and apparel division dedicated to empowering athletes. Another unit focuses on film and television production. There is also an event team.

“Naomi can just connect to what we’ve built,” Carter said.

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

One has to wonder: isn’t this just a cutting-edge vanity deal? For decades, old-line studios funded favored stars to start affiliates, most of which never amounted to much — other than keeping the star happy.

“Under the old system, it ended up being conceited sometimes,” Carter said. “But the goal here is to make Hana Kuma a real business and a real brand.” SpringHill’s focus on branded content sets it apart from traditional 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 court made her a good match for SpringHill, “which exists to empower the creators of athletes”.

“We don’t take for granted the position we’re in to lend a hand, in this case to Naomi, to help her achieve 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 may be involved in Hana Kuma’s content. Mr. Duguid is co-founder of Hana Kuma.

“We really want to reduce that number and have deeper relationships with those who continue,” Duguid said, referring to corporate sponsors. “We want to take bigger swings and start businesses, invest in businesses, things that could potentially have a bigger payoff than if you did a deal with McDonald’s and got paid year after year. What will really move the needle? »

Building a business portfolio – while still in the middle of her tennis career – made Ms Osaka a trailblazer among female athletes. At least, it will be if she succeeds.

“We haven’t seen any female athlete do anything like what we’re trying to achieve,” Duguid said. “Serena has done well with her venture capital firm. But she’s towards the end of her career and, you know, we’re in the middle. He was referring to 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 still plays tennis, Ms. Osaka will not attend many production meetings. “But anything that’s creative and anything that’s strategic, obviously there’s going to be Naomi’s footprint, her style and her input,” Duguid said.

Cathy W. Howerton