A hip-hop blueprint for Jay-Z's new agency
April, 4, 2013
By Steve Etheridge | Special to ESPN.com
When Robinson Cano announced Tuesday that he was dumping the mighty Boras Corporation for a new agency founded by Jay-Z, you immediately wondered about his motives, aside from the obvious perk of getting to be in the same room as Jay-Z. If it was money that mattered, he’d have stayed with Boras, but evidently he had faith that Roc Nation could better accommodate his real priorities.
Or perhaps more accurately, he had faith in Jay-Z.
Jay-Z, like no one else, is an embodiment of control, whether over the indignity of the streets or the staggering demands of ruling an empire. His rags-to-riches tale eschews the typical narrative of escape, as he never once left his roots -- he only fed off of them and thrived. The resulting dynamic is that his groundedness and his authority are mutually dependent, and those who confide in him aren’t treated merely as subordinates or clients. When he says, “This is La Familia,” he means it.
And when he says, “I’m not a businessman, I’m a business, man,” he’s not lying either. He struts into his business ventures with the same impenetrable confidence that animates his rhymes, and businesses adapt to him until they essentially become elaborate expressions of his tastes.
Though his ownership stake in the Nets amounts to only one-fifteenth of 1 percent, he has leveraged it with his local clout to seize a much more public role in sculpting the Nets’ identity. The Barclays Center features one of Jay’s 40/40 Club sports bars, as well as a store that exclusively sells his Rocawear clothing line. And all of the team’s advertising is handled by an agency in which he’s a part-owner.
From overseeing the new logo design to curating the music that’s played during games, nearly everything about the team now bears his distinct watermark. And he has managed all of this with only a fifteenth of a percent. But, from the outset, many people doubted him.
In order to claim his stake in the team, he first had to soothe the reservations of David Stern and some other old sacks of money whose opinions of rap music were entirely informed by an Andy Rooney segment. The general attitude was that Jay -- who sold drugs growing up -- wasn’t suitable; he wasn’t far enough removed from his criminal past.
He was only granted his sliver of the team when the majority owner realized he could utilize him as a Trojan horse to move the team from Jersey to New York. If anyone could sell the idea of plopping a massive new arena in the middle of Brooklyn, the borough’s most famous native son seemed like a decent pick.
Of course, the organization has now learned to revere his counsel. And players listen to him, too. They come to him for advice. They look up to him in the same way Mark Cuban imagines players look up to him. This kind of owner-player intimacy has little precedent, but it seems natural coming from the man who carefully nurtured the early careers of Kanye, Jeezy and Rick Ross. If anything, it makes his foray into sports management seem instinctive.
Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE/Getty Images Jay-Z, seen with Robinson Cano at the 2009 Eastern Conference finals in Cleveland, is expanding his empire.
Jay confirmed this much in a statement, saying, “it was a natural progression to form a company where we can help top athletes in various sports the same way we have been helping artists in the music industry for years."
That’s the sort of “we take care of our own” mentality that has bred such strong loyalty within rap labels, and, as evidenced by Cano’s sudden change of allegiances, it’s something that’s important to athletes as well. And just as rap feeds off of drama, Roc Nation Sports stormed onto the scene in devastatingly dramatic fashion, swiping one of the world’s most coveted clients from under the nose of the game’s reigning heavyweight champ (Scott Boras reportedly had no idea it was coming).
In addition to Cano, word is that Jay has Victor Cruz on lock, and chances are that more names will soon be added to the roster. And with the Roc Nation option now on the table, we can probably assume that the Jabari Parkers of the world will no longer be yearning for a phone call from Arn Tellem. It’s all about El Presidente now.
In interviews, Jay has described his brands as extensions of himself, and if this is even fractionally true, his agency will prove to be a bling ‘n’ sting powerhouse defined by ruthless efficiency and incredible hubris. Don’t expect any Master P/Ricky Williams déjà vu here. This will be a formidable operation, and its influence will reach beyond sports.
Jay is capitalizing on hip-hop’s enormous cultural influence in a way that no one ever has. Rap, like nothing else in history, has disadvantaged, under-educated kids hunched over notebooks trying to assemble words in meaningful ways. They’re doing it because they want to grow up to be like Jay, and now Jay’s showing them that the skill sets they’re developing are applicable toward more than just hip-hop. He’s showing them how to become their dreams.
And maybe he’s doing the same for his clients. Cano said he signed with Hova because he thought it was essential in order to accomplish his goals. That’s a lot of trust to put in a guy who, until Tuesday, had never signed an athlete.
But the best hitters know to always trust their instincts.