The Business And Brand Of Kobe Bryant by Kevin Dowd, PitchBook
A few short months ago, Kobe Bryant ended his NBA career with a 60-point outburst in the Los Angeles Lakers’ season finale. After the game, he took the floor to thank the fans at Staples Center for their two decades of support. Bryant ended the speech with a catchphrase: “Mamba out.” Hours later, Bryant was selling “Mamba out” T-shirts on his website.
Sunday night, The Wall Street Journal reported that Bryant has teamed up with Jeff Stibel to launch a new $100 million venture capital fund focused on technology, media and data companies, becoming the latest athlete to venture into VC. The new firm will be called Bryant Stibel, and the two partners will themselves contribute the full $100 million. The duo have already made a series of investments, including home-juicing business Juicero, legal-services provider LegalZoom and sports media website The Players Tribune.
The news is on the one hand eyebrow-raising. But on the other, it’s hardly a surprise to anyone who has followed Bryant’s off-the-court career. From branding pivots to international expansion, from PR damage control to learning from and imitating an older mentor, Bryant’s time in basketball has already exhibited many of the twists and turns familiar to the world of VC. Few professional athletes in recent memory have been so focused on building the business of themselves.
It started when Bryant was a teenage phenom leading up to the 1996 NBA Draft, when he and agent Arn Tellem made clear their desire for Bryant to land in the major media market of Los Angeles: “There are no ifs,” Tellem was quoted as saying in a 2007 New York Times story. “He is going to be a Laker, and that’s the only team he’s playing for.” The Charlotte Hornets drafted Bryant, but Tellem promptly orchestrated a trade to LA.
As an up-and-comer, Bryant modeled himself after Michael Jordan. He imitated the distinctive, jaw-jutting scowl that Jordan often employed after hitting a big shot. Jordan played hero ball at the end of close games, so that was what Bryant did, too. He won a dunk contest, just like Jordan did. Bryant shaved his head just like Jordan’s. He signed a shoe deal with Nike. When Bryant and the Lakers won three straight titles from 2000 to 2002, he appeared well on his way to following in his idol’s footsteps.
That went out the door forever in July 2003, when Bryant was accused of sexually assaulting a hotel employee in Colorado. Sitting next to his wife at a press conference, Bryant admitted a sexual encounter but said it was consensual. The criminal case was later dropped, and Bryant settled a civil suit brought by his accuser. The enduring controversy was, for a player who makes millions of dollars selling shoes, a disaster. Five years later, a similar event would destroy the career of Tiger Woods. But Bryant found a way to bounce back, both as an athlete and as a pitchman.
He decided to become the Black Mamba. Bryant told the story to The New Yorker in 2014: “After the Colorado incident, I had every major sponsor drop me, except Nike,” he said. “So I’m sitting there thinking, ‘What am I going to do now?’ My vision was to build a brand and do all these things.… If I create this alter ego, so now when I play this is what’s coming out of your mouth, it separates the personal stuff, right? You’re not watching David Banner—you’re watching the Hulk.”
For the first 10 seasons of his career, Bryant wore the number eight. In 2006, he changed to No. 24, another concerted effort at personal rebranding. He won two more NBA titles. Most importantly for his business interests, Bryant started making regular trips to China, a basketball-mad country where he became a combination of Jordan and Elvis Presley. He’s now the most recognized player in the nation. In 2015, Bryant inked a deal with Alibaba to develop Kobe-branded products and collaborate on a social-media platform, with the hope of “connecting China’s young people directly with Kobe and his philosophies.”
Bryant’s recent career has been full of such ventures. He embraced Twitter and Facebook as ways to disseminate his message directly to fans. In 2013, he launched Kobe Inc., an investment platform that served as the precursor to his new partnership with Stibel. Located in California, Bryant began to display a clear interest in the inner workings of Silicon Valley. He used Chris Sacca as an entrée.
As Sacca told media mogul Bill Simmons in an interview earlier this year, Sacca gave Bryant a lengthy list of things to read and videos to watch to learn about investing, anticipating he’d never hear from Bryant again. Instead, Sacca’s phone began ringing off the hook at all hours of the night as Bryant inquired about the specifics of Y Combinator Demo Day.
“He was bringing the same obsessive work ethic to learning about startups that he does to training, to rehab, to his thousand makes a day, to everything,” Sacca said. “So I ended up becoming really enthralled by him because this is a very unique personality type that I only kind of see in some of our very best entrepreneurs.”
Which brings us back to the final game of Bryant’s basketball career. After spending the past 20 years of his life with the Lakers, Bryant ended his parting address to the franchise with an attempt to sell some T-shirts promulgating his self-created nickname. If that level of dedication is any indication, there’s a lot more money to be made for the Lakers legend in his second career as a VC.