Less than two years removed from his NBA playing career, Kobe Bryant held court at an April 2018 forum on the USC campus that drew a standing-room-only crowd of about 2,000 people to Bovard Auditorium.
They weren’t there to hear Bryant, the five-time NBA champion, discuss his 20-year career with the Los Angeles Lakers. The students in attendance were there to hear him talk about business.
“You have to sit and ask yourself: What is truly going to get you up in the morning, and what’s going to keep you up at night?” Bryant advised the attendees. “When you find what that answer is, you stay true to that. I’ve built a ... personal brand, which is great, but that is not where our focus is going to be for the next 50 years.”
Bryant was in the midst of expanding a business empire that included an investment firm, multimedia production company and more. And his presence at a forum that has hosted more conventional business leaders — among them Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban and Spanx founder Sara Blakely — is emblematic of how much Bryant had quickly accomplished as an entrepreneur, said Dave Belasco, an adjunct professor at the USC Marshall School of Business who led the discussion with the ex-Laker.
“I was really inspired by someone who was known to be an elite athlete shifting gears and trying to do something that was very different and very bold,” said Belasco, co-founder of the USC Performance Science Institute, which co-hosted the event with the Marshall School. “I think many of the skills and the mind-set that he used to excel in sports served him perfectly in business.”
Before Bryant’s Jan. 26, 2020, death in a helicopter crash in Calabasas, he’d established himself as a burgeoning mogul. He’d planted the seeds years earlier, creating Newport Beach-based Kobe Inc., a brand development firm that launched in 2014 by making a $6-million investment in sports drink company BodyArmor that was later valued at $200 million. Through his Costa Mesa-based Granity Studios production company, he became an author and an Academy Award-winning filmmaker. And in 2016, shortly after finishing a basketball career that saw him earn an estimated $680 million in salary and endorsements, Bryant unveiled the venture capital firm Bryant Stibel & Co., which went on to invest in companies including Scopely and LegalZoom.
Those initiatives helped Bryant, who was 41 at the time of his death, chart a unique post-playing career that eschewed more traditional avenues open to former professional athletes, such as coaching and broadcasting. And that has made him an inspiration to present-day stars eyeing their post-playing careers, said Eric Johnson, a former ESPN executive.
“Without a doubt, this generation of athletes is thinking more under those terms — they are businesspeople already,” said Johnson, who spent 18 years at ESPN and now consults with sports and entertainment companies. “The majority of them are much more aspiring to be in the business world, and he is an inspirational figure.”
Now the Bryant empire continues without him. One year after his death, Bryant’s companies have largely remained quiet, but his enterprises have not been dormant. A sports training venture with which Bryant partnered has been rebranded; Granity Studios has continued to release new projects; and a limited liability company bearing his name has filed for several trademarks involving his “Black Mamba” nickname, among other moves. However, there have been no sweeping announcements about the direction of Bryant’s companies and no major new initiatives have been unveiled.
Kobe Inc. and Granity did not respond to interview requests, and Bryant Stibel declined to comment. Some companies that worked with Bryant, among them Nike, declined to comment on the status of ongoing business relationships.
Those who followed Bryant’s business career are not surprised by the public silence. Besides any potential restructuring made necessary by Bryant’s death, his companies could be taking a page from his business playbook. Bryant quietly launched several initiatives with little fanfare in the mid-2010s, only making public unveilings or promotional pushes years later once projects were fully baked.
“The quietness doesn’t surprise me,” said Johnson, faculty director of UCLA Anderson School of Management’s Center for Management of Enterprise in Media, Entertainment and Sports. “From my understanding and experience it was always like that until it was launched and created. He certainly wasn’t a barker of all the things he was going to do; he just suddenly [revealed them].”
A desire to be respectful of an extended period of mourning for Bryant could also be a factor. Vanessa Bryant, his widow, has been open about the intensity of her grieving for her husband and daughter Gianna, who was killed in the crash too. But she has made moves, assuming a leadership role at Granity, and selling a $2-million Irvine investment home the couple had owned since 2013. She also filed a handful of lawsuits stemming from the accident, bringing one complaint against the helicopter operator and another against the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department over its handling of the investigation of the crash.
Among the most visible changes made since Bryant’s death: In May, it was announced that the Mamba Sports Academy, a sports training business that Bryant partnered with in 2018, would drop “Mamba” from its name.
It was, in a way, a return to the company’s beginnings, when it was founded in 2016 by former college football player Chad Faulkner and named the Sports Academy. Soon after its debut, Bryant began visiting the academy’s 100,000-square-foot training facility in Thousand Oaks as a coach of his daughter Gianna’s basketball team.
Bryant was impressed with the operation, Faulkner said, and joined the company in 2018, when it was renamed to include a nod to his nickname.
“He was an engaged partner, he really cared,” Faulkner said. “You add Kobe in the mix and we had a lot more light on us, we had a lot more opportunity to get recognition or open up other doors.”
By the start of last year, the academy had opened new facilities in Redondo Beach and Frisco, Texas, and counted star athletes such as the L.A. Rams’ Aaron Donald among its 50,000 clients.
“We were lined up to open up more facilities, we had a big digital play that we were working through, we were bringing ‘Mamba Mentality’ forward in a really interesting way,” Faulkner said. “Those are some of the bigger dreams and schemes we had that all tragically ended on the 26th of January last year.”
Faulkner and his staff were still reeling from Bryant’s death when the pandemic forced them to halt most in-person activities. In announcing the jettisoning of the “Mamba” name, the company said that it was “a mutual agreement made in accordance with the wishes of his estate.”
There has been some under-the-radar activity that suggests groundwork is being laid for new Bryant-related endeavors. In the months after his death, for example, a limited liability company controlled by his family filed to trademark several words and phrases associated with the late basketball player, including his name, Mamba, Mamba League and Lil’ Mambas. The filing to trademark “Kobe Bryant,” for example, said the mark could be used for a slew of purposes including headwear, computer game software, ear buds, loungewear, and “providing a website featuring entertainment information in the field of sports, children’s entertainment, action, adventure, animation, and fantasy.”
One component of Bryant’s empire that has remained visibly active after his death is Granity Studios, which released a handful of new projects in 2020. It also has new leadership: Whereas Bryant had served as the company’s chief executive, that role that is now held by Vanessa Bryant, according to a June filing with the California secretary of state’s office. She also serves as the president of Granity and recently appeared in a video on its Instagram page promoting a new book release.
The company, founded in 2013 and originally named Kobe Studios, is best-known for “Dear Basketball,” a 5½-minute animated short based on a poem that Bryant wrote to announce his retirement from the game. The film, which featured a John Williams score, won the Oscar for best animated short in 2018. After Bryant’s death, Granity made the movie available for free online. The company’s other notable projects have included the sports analysis series “Detail” for streaming service ESPN+ and the scripted kids podcast “The Punies.”
Granity was also the company behind Bryant’s various book projects, including 2018’s “The Mamba Mentality: How I Play,” in which he detailed his approach to the sport. Granity’s most recent release, in December, was the novel “Epoca: The River of Sand,” which is the second and final installment in a fantasy series created by Bryant and written by author Ivy Claire. It centers on an elite sports academy in a magical realm.
After Bryant’s death, Granity also released fiction books “The Wizenard Series: Season One” and “Geese Are Never Swans,” the latter about a young swimmer who must overcome a family tragedy while pursuing Olympic dreams.
The company also played a part in the rollout of ESPN’s hit docuseries “The Last Dance,” about Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls’ final NBA championship. The five-episode streaming series “Detail: 1998 Chicago Bulls” for ESPN+ served as a companion piece analyzing the Bulls’ games, hosted by Dennis Rodman, Steve Kerr and head coach Phil Jackson.
At the beginning of his basketball career, Bryant was known as a sneering upstart, feuding with teammate Shaquille O’Neal on the way to three championships together before a messy parting. In 2003, Bryant was accused of raping a 19-year-old woman, leading to a felony assault charge. Bryant denied raping the woman, and the criminal case was dropped 14 months later after she decided to not testify; in 2005 he settled a civil lawsuit brought by his accuser. Bryant spent years working to repair his image and left the NBA a revered statesmen.
Considering Bryant’s stature within the league upon his retirement, perhaps it should not be a surprise that his path in the business world would inspire his peers.
It’s not that Bryant was the only superstar athlete to pursue business in other arenas in recent years: LeBron James, for example, has also taken a diversified approach to investing and entrepreneurship, starting a production company and investing in a pizza restaurant chain and a tequila brand, among other endeavors. But the quick success Bryant found — his Academy Award, for starters — made him stand out.
Bryant’s path was somewhat similar to that of trailblazing retired athletes including fellow Lakers great Magic Johnson, known for his movie theater chain and Starbucks investment, and Dallas Cowboys quarterback Roger Staubach, founder of a national commercial real estate firm. Bryant, however, was embarking on his post-playing career in a vastly different business environment — a digital one turbocharged by internet. That made his road unique, said David Carter, principal of the Sports Business Group, a consulting firm.
“Was there a model [for Bryant]? To me, the short answer would be no,” said Carter, executive director of the Sports Business Institute at the Marshall School. “You have to think of the time he was operating. Social and digital media. A borderless world. You didn’t have that with Magic or Staubach.”
Bryant hasn’t just inspired other pro athletes — he has encouraged people like Justin Powell, who attended the USC forum featuring the former Laker in 2018.
Then a USC student, Powell said he’d long been a fan of Bryant — but he attended the forum to hear him share some of his business acumen. Powell, who graduated in 2019 and now works for Yahoo Sports as a video producer and writer, wasn’t disappointed.
"[Bryant] was someone who had reached the pinnacle in one field and was never content or rested on his laurels,” said Powell, 24, who met with Bryant backstage before the forum. “He’s had such a profound influence on me.”
Times staff writer Jack Flemming contributed to this report.