LeBron James: The Next Warren Buffett? 

It took Buffett 50 years to hit $700 million. Yet, in his next 33 years, he’d bank an astounding $62.3 billion more wealth.

Buffett grew that wealth through a series of savvy business moves by buying great companies that found huge success in the years after he took a stake in them.

Now, imagine where Buffett might be if he had been worth hundreds of million in his twenties.

That’s exactly the position we find LeBron James. LeBron is only 29, has become an unexpected protégé to Buffett (seriously), and he’s quietly building sport’s most powerful business empire with the help of the Warren Buffett.

Buffett: LeBron James is savvy
While they’re an unlikely duo, sightings of LeBron James and Warren Buffett together are not hard to find. The two dined together (along with Bill Gates!) in Las Vegas and have been spotted golfing in Sun Valley together.

Get this, LeBron even sends his financial statements to Warren Buffett! Here’s an excerpt from an interview with LeBron in Sport Illustrated:

“I sent an e-mail about this to Warren Buffett. I'm a kid from Akron who lived in poverty for a long time, and I sometimes send financial statements to one of the richest guys ever. It's kind of scary. I'm like, 'Why is he talking to me?'

LeBron doesn’t need to worry why Buffett would spend time advising him, because Buffett has been nothing but glowing in his praise of LeBron. In an interview with NBA TV, Buffett described LeBron as “remarkably mature,” being “plenty smart about financial matters,” and saying “I was impressed with him right from the moment I met him.” 

As far as LeBron’s business sense, Buffett continued pouring on the accolades. He said, “LeBron’s not really talkative, he’s savvy,” continuing with, “he talked smarter about business deals than plenty of MBAs I’ve met … when I talked with him first, he was 21 then… He knew a lot more than I did when I was 21.”

Basketball’s first billionaire
So, LeBron has the stamp of approval from one of the world’s wealthiest men ever. But, can a basketball player really become a billionaire?

That’s certainly LeBron’s goal. Just look at what he told the Associated Press:

“In the next 15 or 20 years, I hope I'll be the richest man in the world." LeBroncontinued with, "That's one of my goals. I want to be a billionaire.”

Yet looking at another basketball player - one that LeBron is most often compared to - suggests that billionaire goal is attainable for LeBron. Michael Jordan, who hit the billionaire level within this last year at the age of 50, found the status at a younger age than Buffet did. 

How’d Jordan do it? For one, even though he’s been retired for 10 years, he still makes a remarkable amount of money. Last year he made $90 million, higher than any current basketball, football, baseball, or soccer player! Nearly all that money comes from endorsements, where Jordan still mints a small fortune getting a cut of Nike’s “Air Jordan” shoes.

The path to being a billionaire: build businesses!
Yet, Jordan’s jump to the billionaire’s club doesn’t come from his marketing, but instead from one savvy business move. In 2010, Jordan bought a controlling stake in the Charlotte Bobcats for $175 million. Today, the team’s value is estimated at over $600 million. Jordan owns 89.5% of the team.

LeBron James brought in $72 million last year between his salary and endorsements. That’s very impressive as it makes him the third highest paid athlete in the world. With LeBron’s feel-good story of “heading home” to Cleveland, his marketability – and earnings – will only increase in the years to come. Yet, that alone won’t get him to multi-billionaire wealth.

While LeBron parallels some of Jordan's wealth management moves, his maturity and financial smarts that Buffett pinpointed give LeBron a leg up.

LeBron has a game plan for huge wealth, and it’s about much more than basketball. As LeBron’s business manager told CNN way back in 2007:

"It's impossible to get to a billion dollars by endorsement deals. The biggest deals only take you so far. It's how you make money when you're asleep that's going to get you there."

LeBron knows that he’ll only reach his goals through being a smart businessman. He’ll need to keep learning from Warren Buffett.

Avoiding vice—build an empire
Yet, even before LeBron can build his business empire, he needs to be smart about not squandering his money.

An estimated 60% of NBA players are broke within five years of retirement, in spite of the average salary sitting at a whopping $5.15 million a year.

What causes these players to lose such remarkable wealth so fast? Poor money management for one, but also vices like buying expensive cars, and gambling. Jordan has a streak for gambling that’s so famous, whole books have been written on the subject! (Luckily, his $90 million in earnings can cover quite a cold streak)

Yet, once again we can turn to Warren Buffett to describe how – while still enjoying himself – LeBron avoids the vices of many athletes.

“LeBron just has his head screwed on right. If he goes to a casino, he may decide he’ll lose up to $500 – or some number – but, he’ll never do anything silly. And if you never do anything dumb, you’ll do fine in life.”

So, with LeBron being smart about the money he earns, where is he investing that money?

Following Buffett’s lead
He’s actually investing his money – the Buffett way!

Let’s look no further than LeBron's business manager, who said, “[Buffett] always says invest in what you know. LeBron, we invest in what we know, or we don’t get involved.”

Buffett built his business empire through his holding company – Berkshire Hathaway – which is now worth more than $300 billion and controls a number of well-known brands. These brands are centered on industries Buffett easily understands, like insurance (Geico), restaurants (Dairy Queen), and even Candy (See’s Candies).

LeBron has started building his own “mini-Berkshire,” filling it with brands he has a good understanding of. Like Jordan, James has taken a stake in a sports team (Liverpool FC) in a league where team values are rapidly rising.

He has also applied his savvy business instincts to smaller deals. Consider this, after taking a small stake in Beats headphones, LeBron convinced the rest of Team USA’s basketball team to wear the headphones during the Olympics. Thanks in large part to LeBron promoting the brand, Beats took off.

Earlier this year Beats was sold to Apple for a whopping $3 billion. LeBron’s profits from his Beats stake is estimated as the single largest equity payout for a professional athlete in history.

Nice move, LeBron.

Not quite Buffett yet
Obviously, LeBron isn’t quite at Warren Buffett's level yet. He’s the world’s best businessman, no one is.

However, LeBron’s stake in Beats shows that he understands his potential value to consumer brands like shoes, clothing, or even headphones, and is smart enough to command ownership (equity) in businesses he’s putting his brand behind.

By the end of this year, its likely LeBron’s fortune will stand at between $300 million and $400 million. Keeping that invested at 7% per year – below the long-term returns of the stock market – and LeBron’s fortune could grow to about $2.7 billion by the time he is 60.

LeBron’s already the world’s best basketball player. With Buffett advising him and a string of business successes behind him, it’s not crazy that his next stop is becoming the world’s wealthiest athlete.

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