Magic Johnson plays for keeps in business

LOS ANGELES Tue Jun 26, 2012 2:18pm EDT

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LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Sixteen years after the last jump shot of his Hall of Fame basketball career, Earvin "Magic" Johnson is playing on a new court as a media mogul.

He says he's chasing the successful career of Robert Johnson, the legendary founder of Black Entertainment Television and one-time owner of the National Basketball Association's Charlotte Bobcats.

Since February 2011, when the former basketball player teamed with billionaire investor Ron Burkle's Yucaipa fund to buy urban music and lifestlyle magazine "Vibe" and the fabled TV show "Soul Train," the 52-year-old has built a media empire aimed at African-American consumers.

"I always wondered what it would be like to be on those lists of best businessmen like Bob," said Johnson during an interview at the Beverly Hills offices of his Magic Johnson Enterprises.

Today, with partners, Johnson owns 20 radio stations, including WBLS, New York's top-rated African-American station and for years a top-10 station.

On June 27 his Aspire cable channel will begin airing in markets served by cable giant Comcast, which gave spectrum to four minority-owned channels to win federal approval of its 2011 acquisition of NBC Universal.

Sean P. "Diddy" Combs is starting a music channel, movie director Robert Rodriguez a Hispanic entertainment channel, and long-time cable TV executive Constantino Schwarz a channel for Latino parents and kids.

By next year, Aspire will be in 11 million homes, the channel said, providing family entertainment and programs that celebrate the achievements of African-American writers, directors, dancers and others.

"With Aspire, the Magic Johnson brand goes from 30 states and 120 cities and becomes a national brand," said Johnson. "This is a way to get a lot of eyeballs."

Johnson was also part of the group that paid a record $2 billion in March to buy the Los Angeles Dodgers baseball team, a move he said was motivated more by the need to insure local ownership than by its potential entertainment value.

Johnson, who owns commercial real estate in L.A., says the real value of the deal is in the 300 acres that surround Dodger stadium, although there are no plans to develop the property yet.

"The Dodgers used to be the most popular team in this city, but they've fallen behind the Lakers," said the former Laker point guard. "We're going to get the team where we think it should be before we think about the real estate."

As he did on the basketball court where he still holds the NBA record for assists per game, Johnson worked with partners to create his media holdings.

Sony helped him create a chain of inner-city theaters. Intermedia Partners, a media fund headed by former AT&T cable Chief Executive Leo Hindery, is an investor in the Vibe stations and Aspire.

GMC TV, the former Gospel Music Channel, manages the station and its marketing, but Johnson was the public face when it came to lining up advertisers.

Johnson said he "went door to door to every ad agency in New York," stressing the African-American community's buying power.

The channel's charter advertisers include Coca Cola, Wal-Mart, Chrysler and Nationwide Insurances.

Johnson said his team decided to focus on family entertainment because the sitcoms and music shows from TV One, a joint venture of Comcast and Radio One, and Viacom's BET have a lock on adult viewers.

Unlike Oprah Winfrey, Johnson, who had a short-lived talk show in 1998, says he has no intention of going before the camera again.

He's considering producing movies, as he did in 2009 when he produced "Obsessed."

He also sees more deals in the media world.

"I'm hearing some magazines already have me on their lists as the top African-American businessman," he said.

(Edited by Prudence Crowther)

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