To brag about his street-level business savvy, Jay-Z once chalked it up to a mere numbers game. “If Jeezy’s payin’ LeBron, I’m payin Dwyane Wade,” he breathed in coded language on “Empire State of Mind,” meaning that he’d basically gotten a discount on some “product.” In the Rick Ross song “So Sophisticated,” Meek Mill boasts that his lifestyle and work ethic are so distinct, they could only be compared to fellow Philadelphian and Cleveland Cavaliers guard Dion Waiters. In another song, those attributes belong to Bulls’ Derrick Rose; a favorite allusion in rap verses. The Bulls guard was randomly praised by Kanye West in something of a scatterbrained, oversexed verse to Chicago in the remix to Chief Keef's song “Don’t Like.”
The paths to success in sports and music mirror each other in myriad ways. Both take inordinate amounts of luck, knowing of the right people, and the ability to perform under pressure, often before large crowds. But opportunities to actually utilize the force of their popularity appeal for profit are rare for stars in both worlds.
It’s part of what makes Jay-Z’s relationship with Yankees infielder Robinson Cano – and now, reportedly, with Victor Cruz – so significant. The blueprint is Roc Nation Sports, which has, for now, partnered with CAA. If successful, Roc Nation Sports could offer its athletes something the Falks, Borases and Rosenhauses could never offer their athletes: brand recognition with one of the biggest stars in the world.
Robert Familetti, an expert on celebrity for the Marketing Arm, which uses its Davie Brown Index to rank celebrities’ and athletes’ popularity and marketability, says the move is absolutely a game-changer.
“First thing I thought to myself was that it’s brilliant,” Familetti says. “What if the phone rings and you’re an athlete, and you pick up and it’s Jay-Z saying, ‘I want to represent you.’ What are you going to say? He’s a person who’s going to get doors open more quickly than any agent.”
“The impact of Roc Nation Sports has to do with the ‘brouhaha’ that surrounds celebrity in this country,” Familetti says.
“Celebrities are brands and here’s a brand that’s going to represent a brand. It’s a situation with a celebrity we know who ranks really high on the celebrity DBI. There’s a fundamental shift in this country because all things celebrity is big. So when someone of that caliber does something like this, everyone is going to lean forward to pay attention.”
Denrick Romain, an insider who is senior vice president for Manhattan-based sports and entertainment PR company Buzz Brand Marketing, says he began hearing rumblings that Jay-Z would get into sports management back in November. “I think with Jay coming into the game, those guys won’t be able to focus on just contracts anymore,” he says. “They’re going to also have some sort of influence in entertainment in order to get more brands and other companies familiar with their clients.
Because soon, he’s going to have the pick of the litter.”
For artists, the allure of referencing NBA players in lyrics lies in their potential to carry messages to (mostly young and impressionable) listeners, pregnant with coded language and innuendo. The result is often a complementary relationship between the two worlds, an even exchange that negotiates notions of influence and power, popularity and fame.
And that’s why Roc Nation Sports should be thought of less as narrative of business ingenuity (it is), and more as a natural evolution of the longstanding courtship between athletes and musicians.
Amber A. Hewitt, M.A., a Ph.D. candidate in Counseling Psychology at Loyola University of Chicago whose research focuses on gendered racial identity development of young African American boys, believes references to achievement limited to music and athletics are ultimately destructive because they minimizes success. “A rapper and an athlete are two stereotypical roles and images of black men that are deemed as acceptable by society for young black boy to live up to,” she says.
“My hope would be that those men retain ownership of their business [dealings] and provide a service or good that uplifts their community. Black male bodies have been owned and controlled over the course of history. So in that sense, it would set a good precedent.”
Romain says that while CAA will handle the legal aspects of business related to contracts, Jay-Z will be instrumental in leveraging his access and marketing power to get the best opportunities and endorsement for players signed under the Roc Nation umbrella.
“He’ll eventually have the pick of the litter,” with athletes, he says.
But why? Part of it has to do with the timing of Roc Nation’s signing of Robinson Cano: He’s in a contract, and he’ll be looking to land a deal of about $25 million a year over the course of six years. “As a first signee and likely, the first negotiated contract, that’s a big thing.”
Romain predicts Jay-Z will eventually recruit and cultivate the best agents. “He doesn’t do anything without thinking long term. And once that happens, it’s a wrap.”
Jay-Z reportedly invested $1 million with the Nets. If he gets into representation of NBA players, he will have to sell his stake. Which he could do “after he’s made a couple hundred million,” Romain said, adding the caveat that he could one day vie for majority ownership.
Jay-Z will probably never walk Victor Cruz through the particulars of the Rights section of his next contract with the Giants, or any other team. But it’s a brilliant marketing ploy. It positions Cruz and Cano as not only friends of Jay-Z, but as business associates; a brand association in the highest order.