As social media and incessant coverage brings the athlete and the fan close together, the gap between yearly earnings pushes them further apart. It was not uncommon during the early and middle twentieth century for professional athletes to take off season work as supplemental income. As sports revenue and player salary exploded, so too did the way the athletes carried themselves. Perhaps more importantly, who they carried with them changed as well.
Sports writer William Rhoden wrote a piece for The New York Times in 1991 about the change in professional athletes. The article quoted psychologist Dr. Wilbert McClure, who doubled as a former Olympic boxer. “When you say sportsmanship, the first thing I think of is businessman-ship,” said McClure.
As salaries continued to rise in professional athletics, this sentiment became commonplace, and disconnect between athlete and society grew. Thus, professional athletes began to surround themselves with people who were “like” them. People who wouldn’t be turned off by their money, who would understand where they came from and perhaps more aptly, where they were going. We know them now as “entourages.”
While there is no set demographic for athlete entourages, trends begin to bleed through when observing the nature of certain professional sports. For example, the stories most commonly cited at sporting events involve athletes from the United States. It’s not easy, no matter what salary an athlete makes, to have 10-20 friends and/or family move from country to country, especially to America.
Due to the NHL filtering high levels of talent from Canada and Europe and MLB concentrating so many efforts on Latin and Asian markets, those leagues profile as having fewer athlete entourages.
On the opposite side are the entourage hot beds: NBA, NFL, and professional boxing. The three major entourage sports also support the with rags-to-riches stories. Not coincidentally, they also carry the highest concentration of athletes who feel the need and want to remain close to their roots—their mantra being, “Don’t forget where you came from.”
According to a 2009 Sports Illustrated piece, 60% of NBA players are broke within five years of retirement. That figure jumps to an astronomical 78 percent of NFL players within only three years. While other factors surely contribute to the losses, it’s clear that the influences around the athlete play a major role.
Bill Lyon, reporting for The Philadelphia Inquirer, summarized the sad tale of former NBA MVP Allen Iverson. Despite earning $154 million during his storied career, Iverson declared bankruptcy in early 2011. According to the piece, much of his money was washed away by the “Posse he had to support.” While the exact figures vary, it wasn’t uncommon to see 50 friends, along with a personal hair stylist, traveling to games. To Iverson and his ilk, money was of no object; it was merely a small price to pay in order to feel the comforts of home and to pay debts not measured by dollars and cents.
In fact, Lamar Odom, former Los Angeles Laker and current reality television star, once admitted to his wife, Khloe Kardashian, that he was paying rent for twenty friends and cell phone bills for thirty more.
While money may be a painful thing to lose, entourage trouble often ventures into far more dangerous areas. Adam ‘Pacman’ Jones, the troubled NFL defender, nearly took his career and life, not to mention the lives of innocent people, during a strip club shooting in Las Vegas in 2007.
According to warrants filed by the Clark County District Court in Las Vegas, it was one of Jones’ entourage, a female, who started a fight with a dancer at the club. When the altercation moved outside, a man who was also believed to be with Jones fired gunshots.
The NBA had it’s own entourage-gunshot headline later in 2007 when Jamaal Tinsley, along with a group of friends, were shot at several times leaving the Cloud 9 nightclub in Indianapolis. It would be unfair to classify all entourages as greedy, dangerous packs of hangers-on. Often, they more closely resemble a traveling support crew. Last December, Sports Illustrated ran a story on its longtime photographer, Walter Iooss Jr. During his 50+ years with the magazine, he met and photographed nearly every famous athlete in the world. Fifty-years as a photographer for the world’s foremost sports magazine surely brought about interaction with these groups, but nothing like what Walter described.
“I’ve seen a lot of entourages, but none like his (LeBron James). In July 2010, I got an assignment from Nike to shoot LeBron right after his TV special, announcing his move to the Heat. We rented the Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena, where the Lakers and the Clippers used to play, and there were 53 people on my crew—including hair and makeup artists, production people, a stylist.”
“I had $10,000 in Hollywood lighting. It was huge. When LeBron arrived, it was as if Nelson Mandela had come in. Six or seven blacked-out Escalades pulled up, a convoy. LeBron had bodyguards and his masseuse. His DJ was already there, blasting. This for a photo shoot that was going to last an hour, tops,” said Iooss.
The athlete-entourage relationship is easy to dismiss as phony or unnecessary for those outside the facility and lives of the superstars. But it remains an important component to who they are and how they perform. The evolution of athlete to mogul and media entity is fascinating to watch.
Sure, some athletes, like Luke Scott of the Tampa Rays, are throwbacks. Scott criticizes the government, loves to hunt and speaks his mind regardless of consequences. His demeanor represents the exception rather than the rule in professional sports today—a solitary man inside a tribal culture.
The ability to give the politically correct answer, not upset the fan base and remain an entity over a person is essential to the rise of the athlete as a businessman. While most fail from time to time, the pursuit of a non-controversial life makes the entourage vital. It’s with the old friends or family from back home that the athletes can feel like themselves instead of nodding along to a reporter’s question that will be aired to millions of potential customers.
Although the perception of entourages may take years to change, the tenor of these relationships has shifted over the last decade. What were once one-sided monetary relationships have shifted into unique business partnerships. It’s hard to pinpoint the star that truly begat the trend—LeBron James is often credited—but the changes are stark.
Floyd Mayweather, the WBC Welterweight Champion, is 42-0 as a professional. His nickname, Money, suggests he’s great at handling his assets, too. Mayweather Promotions is estimated to be a $140 million company. According to The Wall Street Journal, Leonard Ellerbe (Floyd’s friend and right-hand man) is the chief executive of the company. As Ellerbe told the WSJ, he starts his day at 5:15 a.m. “It’s no different than working for Xerox,” Ellerbe said.
Danny Granger, Indiana Pacers forward, created a one-man representation team when entering the NBA—his best friend. At $40,000 per year, his “entourage” acts as a personal secretary and pays his own rent. Carmelo Anthony, newly embraced by the lucrative New York market, heads up “Team Melo”, which is comprised of 10 members, bi-annual business venture meetings and a flow chart designed by Anthon.
Then there’s the case of William Wesley, better know to fans as World Wide Wes. A former Pro Shoes employee and nightclub doorman, Wes worked his way from fringe entourage member to business partner with high profile basketball stars. Milt Wagner, former South Jersey basketball star, embraced Wes and introduced him to Michael Jordan after college. In 1993, he partnered in a Chicago nightclub frequented by Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman.
Years later, Wes would influence Wagner’s son, DaJuan, to commit to playing college basketball at Memphis for coach John Calipari. Then came the seminal moment for World Wide Wes: LeBron James’ affection.
In the 2003 cover piece for Sports Illustrated entitled “The Chosen One,” LeBron James, the high school sensation, referred to Wesley as his role model. From his influencing most major free agent signings to attempting to restrain Ron Artest during the infamous brawl between the Pacers, Pistons and fans in Detroit, it is impossible to deny that William Wesley has become of the most important and influential figures in professional basketball.
The comfort of a support system and benefits of trusted business associates make the athlete entourage a vital part of the system in professional sports. It’s hard to predict how many horror stories will emerge in a given year, but rest assured that plenty of tales will remain.
But perhaps athletes like Floyd Mayweather and LeBron James have given a framework for the next generation superstar to use when it comes to managing their life long friends and colleagues. While the past generation of athletes was consumed by not forgetting where they came from, it would appear the current crop is far more concerned with not forgetting where they are and where they are going.