The former NBA MVP isn’t waiting until retirement to start building an empire. With a team of billionaire advisors, the 14th-highest-paid athlete in the world is already scoring with his fashion brand, advertising agency and other lucrative investments. Next up, his un-sexiest business venture yet.
By Matt Craig, Forbes Staff
IN his office high above Avenue of the Stars in Los Angeles, Russell Westbrook makes an executive decision. Ditching his white dress shirt, he walks into his Forbes photo shoot with his bare chest peeking out from beneath his tan linen suit, accessorized with thick black boots and a gold necklace.
It’s hard to imagine too many other aspiring business moguls making a similar fashion choice, but then again, most don’t have the body of a nine-time NBA All-Star, or the flair for fashion. It’s a fitting look for the 34-year-old Los Angeles Clippers point guard, who is straddling two worlds, playing out the final years of his NBA career while working tirelessly to build a business empire that he hopes will eventually eclipse his triple-double records on the court. “I want to be a billionaire,” he says. “Sooner than later.”
“It’s not a sexy business by any means,” Westbrook says, “but it’s a very lucrative business. It clicked for me in my brain. It’s like, non-sexy is sexy for me.”
History says he won’t get there. Only three athletes have achieved billionaire status according to Forbes—Michael Jordan, LeBron James and Tiger Woods—and Westbrook has made it only about a third of the way. Across 15 NBA seasons, he has earned more than $336 million in salary (before taxes and agent fees) and nearly $200 million from endorsements and other businesses off the court, according to Forbes estimates. This year, he is the 14th-highest-paid athlete in the world, having earned an estimated $82.1 million over the last 12 months. Those earnings make up the bulk of his net worth, which Forbes estimates to be $375 million. But the likely Hall of Famer has been making money moves for years.
His passion for fashion led him to start a streetwear brand in 2017, Honor The Gift. The label is now in more than 300 retail locations around the world and opened a flagship store in L.A. last fall. Revenue was a very modest $5.7 million last year, but sales were up 75% from 2021.
Like many sports stars, Westbrook has also been investing some of his earnings—he declines to say how much—into a variety of consumer industries, including food (Magic Spoon, Luvo, Pizzana), drinks (Flow, Poppi), muscle recovery (Hyperice) and social media (Triller). And an early interest in cars led him to acquire minority ownership stakes in five Southern California dealerships. “Since I’ve been in the league, I’ve been trying to find my niche,” he says.
But Westbrook is done dabbling. He sold his stakes in the auto dealerships in late 2022 for at least $15 million and is now building up his three-year-old Russell Westbrook Enterprises (RWE), which includes a recently launched digital advertising business called RW Digital that specializes in helping brands reach diverse audiences.
“My mantra is ‘Why not?’ I live by that. It took 75 years for somebody to average a triple-double. Well, I did it four times.”
Next up, Westbrook is looking to buy an auto parts maker. “It’s not a sexy business by any means, but it’s a very lucrative business that grows exponentially,” he says. “It clicked for me in my brain. It’s like, non-sexy is sexy for me.”
After replacing his linen suit coat with a black Air Jordan T-shirt, he retreats to a conference room carrying a thick stack of printed notes and begins to outline his business ambitions. His attention to detail borders on obsessive. Texts after games at midnight or before workouts at 5 a.m. are common, say those who work with him, and the team plane often acts as a second office. “He is intimately involved in every transaction,” says one business partner. “I am amazed at how much he participates in all decisions.”
It’s a work ethic he brings from basketball, where the odds were similarly stacked against him as he grew up in a poor neighborhood in southwestern Los Angeles, 15 miles and a world away from Crypto.com Arena, where he now stars. “My mantra is ‘Why not?’ I live by that,” he says. “It took 75 years for somebody to average a triple-double. Well, I did it four times.”
Westbrook’s celebrity has also afforded him the opportunity to learn from an elite roster of American business magnates such as billionaire investor and Legendary Entertainment founder Thomas Tull, Banc of California cofounder Chad Brownstein, former Starbucks president Arthur Rubenfeld and Mickey Segal, managing partner of NKSFB, one of the Hollywood’s leading wealth management firms. In turn they have become mentors, investment advisors and business partners.
Westbrook’s most successful investment to date was a $9 million stake in Tull’s holding company, Tulco—the largest stakeholder in insurance giant Acrisure—which is now worth more than 10x its initial value and has already earned him a $14.4 million payday after Tulco sold its stake in medical apparel maker FIGS during the company’s IPO.
“What I’ve always told him is, look, man, just about anybody will take a meeting with you because of who you are,” says Tull, who is worth $2.8 billion, according to Forbes estimates. “Use that so when you’re done playing, you’ve built a living, breathing network of people that you can call, rely on, do things with that don’t have anything to do with basketball.”
During the Covid-19 lockdowns, the perennially busy Westbrook had plenty of time to devise a game plan about life after basketball, and he hired Donell Beverly, a former teammate at Leuzinger High School in L.A., as president of the revamped Russell Westbrook Enterprises.
In rapid succession, RWE led a large investment round in the digital financial platform Varo Bank, with Westbrook joining the company as an advisor to boost financial literacy in underserved communities. He also partnered with Acrisure to found Evolution Advisors, which offers financial products for businesses owned by underrepresented entrepreneurs, and with Brownstein to make investments in healthcare and nutrition for at-risk communities.
With clients like AT&T, Nike, PepsiCo, American Airlines, Varo Bank and A+E Networks, Westbrook expects RW Digital to bring in $37 million in revenue this year and turn a profit. He’s also invested an undisclosed amount in a real estate fund focused on urban development in South L.A., which broke ground on its first project in late 2022. “When people think of Los Angeles and think of the underserved, the inner city,” Westbrook says, “I want the first thing that pops up to be Russell Westbrook and the things we’re doing in the community.”
This flurry of business activity comes as Westbrook enters a new phase of his NBA career. Since leaving the Oklahoma City Thunder in 2019, he has played for four different franchises (a fifth team, the Utah Jazz, acquired him in a trade and then waived him before he suited up for a single game). The 2022-23 season was his last under the “supermax” contract he signed shortly after being named MVP in 2017, and as he hits free agency this summer, his next deal will almost certainly be significantly smaller.
Then again, Westbrook expects to make more money in business than he ever did in basketball. Consider his unsexy dream to become an auto parts mogul. At least 32 automotive firms have already pledged to do $1 billion of business with minority-owned companies each year. If Westbrook invests his capital in a car-parts manufacturer, he can instantly unlock some of those opportunities.
The concept has also already been proven. Another former NBA player, Vinnie Johnson—who played for the “Bad Boys” Detroit Pistons teams in the 1980s—used the same playbook to build his Piston Group enterprise into a production juggernaut, scoring contracts with major auto manufacturers en route to nearly $3 billion in annual revenue.
Currently, Beverly says RWE is evaluating four potential options for an acquisition or joint venture deal in the automotive industry, which Forbes has learned are between $50 million and $100 million each. By underwriting a deal and bringing on additional investors—as Vinnie Johnson did—Beverly is confident RWE could expand its reach quickly.
Leamon Sowell, a mergers and acquisitions lawyer who specializes in minority business enterprises (MBE) within the automotive industry, says scaling up is key because it’s difficult for massive corporations to do business with small suppliers. Getting there requires two things: access to capital, which Westbrook has, and patience, which Westbrook admits he is still working on. A successful acquisition could take a decade or more to reach maturity, but after talking with Westbrook and Beverly about various projects, Sowell believes they are in it for the long run.
“I can tell you that Russell is extremely unusual,” Sowell says. “I’ve worked with a lot of athletes, and very often if they’re not ready—and by that I mean focused with a strategy—I recommend that they don’t do these types of transactions because it’s a good way to lose a lot of money.”
Westbrook plans to dedicate himself to this second career, one that needs to be roughly twice as successful financially as basketball if he’s going to join LeBron and Michael as NBA billionaires.
Given average market rate returns, even if he did not spend a single dollar, a portfolio of Westbrook’s current size would take almost 20 years to reach the $1 billion mark. Considering the $37 million home in Brentwood he purchased last October and his predilection for expensive cars and high fashion, Westbrook has an even steeper hill to climb. It’s fair to wonder why he would want to spend the coming years (and potentially decades) grinding toward the Three Comma Club in entirely new industries, but he says that becoming a billionaire is unquestionably the goal.
“It’s what I want to be,” Westbrook says. “In the business realm, that is a pinnacle that people where I come from don’t make it to.”