Ice Cube ex­pands Big3 league amid chal­lenges Mogul is in a big fight with an in­vestor and has lost Fox TV deal

Los Angeles Times - - BUSINESS - By Meg James

En­ter­tain­ment mogul Ice Cube’s Big3 bas­ket­ball league is look­ing for a re­bound.

Dur­ing a con­fer­ence call with re­porters Thursday, Big3’s back­ers had planned to tout their “in­cred­i­ble suc­cess” and am­bi­tious plans to ex­pand the fledg­ling league into new mar­kets.

But Cube and his busi­ness part­ner, en­ter­tain­ment ex­ec­u­tive Jeff Kwatinetz, also re­vealed some on­go­ing chal­lenges fac­ing the league, in­clud­ing the end of its two-year TV con­tract with Fox Sports. “It is re­ally time to move on,” Cube said. Big3 has been locked in a bit­ter le­gal dis­pute with a Qatari in­vest­ment firm and has strug­gled to re­cruit a deep-pock­eted in­vestor to help back the league’s hoped-for bid for the Fox sports chan­nels.

Cube and Kwatinetz pre­viewed their plans for ex­pan­sion: Big3 in­tends to grow to 12 teams from eight this year, and the league plans to widen its tour to 18 cities, up from 10. It will also have three games a week in each city, up from two games a week. And the league is low­er­ing the age thresh­old to 27 from 30 to al­low younger play­ers into the league.

“We’re in it for the long haul,” said Cube, whose given name is O’Shea Jack­son. “Our fan base is grow­ing — more and more peo­ple are re­ally get­ting into the league.”

But find­ing a

new TV part­ner has be­come a top pri­or­ity to keep the nascent Big3 league com­mer­cially vi­able. Al­though its games — which con­sist of for­mer NBA bas­ket­ball play­ers com­pet­ing three on three — have brought in large crowds to sports are­nas, TV rights deals are the lifeblood of pro­fes­sional sports leagues.

Big3, Kwatinetz and oth­ers say, has been field­ing in­ter­est from other sports broad­cast­ers and the group hopes to have a new TV home by June, when the league’s third sea­son tips off.

Cube and Kwatinetz down­played the ter­mi­na­tion of the Fox Sports TV con­tract.

“The com­pany [Fox] is go­ing to be a lit­tle dif­fer­ent” af­ter Walt Dis­ney Co. buys much of 21st Cen­tury Fox, Kwatinetz said. “It’s go­ing to be very heavy on Fox News — which is fine.”

Cube added: “We def­i­nitely want to work with peo­ple who see the world as we see it.”

Fox Sports, for its part, de­clined to say why it no longer wanted to tele­vise Big3 games. “Fox Sports en­joyed work­ing with Big3 dur­ing its first two sea­sons, and we wish them the best mov­ing for­ward,” the com­pany said.

Thursday’s wide-rang­ing, hour­long con­fer­ence call took sev­eral un­ex­pected twists, with the ex­ec­u­tives air­ing their griev­ances about their court bat­tle with the Qatari in­vestor. They even delved into spec­u­la­tion about whether spe­cial coun­sel Robert Mueller III’s in­ves­ti­ga­tion of 2016 elec­tion med­dling would reach the Qatari in­vestor, Ahmed AlRu­maihi, who re­port­edly met with for­mer Trump attorney Michael Co­hen.

‘We def­i­nitely want to work with peo­ple who see the world as we see it.’

— Ice Cube, en­ter­tain­ment mogul, on the ter­mi­na­tion of Big3’s Fox Sports TV con­tract

Last spring, Cube and Kwatinetz al­leged in a Los An­ge­les County Su­pe­rior Court law­suit that Al-Ru­maihi and an­other Qatari in­vestor failed to make good on a prom­ise to in­vest as much as $20 mil­lion in the 2year-old league — then tried to sow dis­cord among play­ers. Cube and Kwatinetz con­tinue to pur­sue the dam­ages and defama­tion claim. But since they filed suit in April, Al-Ru­maihi be­came a diplo­mat for Qatar — and has in­voked di­plo­matic im­mu­nity.

Kwatinetz also sug­gested that Fox Sports failed to en­gage in ne­go­ti­a­tions to re­new the Big3’s TV rights deal be­cause Ru­pert Mur­doch’s me­dia con­glom­er­ate was miffed that Big3 also was try­ing to el­bow into the auc­tion for the Fox sports chan­nels. “We’re both com­pet­ing for a sim­i­lar as­set, po­ten­tially,” Kwatinetz said.

The league has been try­ing to scrape to­gether as much as $15 bil­lion to make a com­pet­i­tive bid for the Fox re­gional sports chan­nels that Dis­ney must sell af­ter the Bur­bank en­ter­tain­ment giant com­pletes its $71.3-bil­lion pur­chase of much of Fox. Kwatinetz said that ten­nis star Ser­ena Wil­liams, en­ter­tainer L.L. Cool J and for­mer bas­ket­ball star Julius Erv­ing were in­ter­ested in join­ing their bid for the re­gional sports net­works.

The U.S. Jus­tice Depart­ment is for­bid­ding Dis­ney from ac­quir­ing the 22 re­gional sports net­works as part of its pro­posed Fox pur­chase be­cause Dis­ney al­ready owns sports jug­ger­naut ESPN.

And, in a twist, Fox also is in­ter­ested in buy­ing back some of the re­gional sports chan­nels that it is sell­ing, in­clud­ing those in ma­jor mar­kets, such as Los An­ge­les, where Fox also owns TV sta­tions that broad­cast NFL foot­ball.

But even Cube’s and Kwatinetz’s ef­forts to re­cruit a backer to help fi­nance their bid for the Fox sports chan­nels ap­pear to have fallen short. In re­cent weeks, Big3 ap­proached me­dia com­pany Vi­a­com Inc. for help to buy the 22 re­gional net­works, ac­cord­ing to a per­son close to the sit­u­a­tion who was not au­tho­rized to com­ment.

How­ever, on Wednesday Vi­a­com Chief Ex­ec­u­tive Bob Bak­ish said dur­ing an in­vestor con­fer­ence at the CES show in Las Ve­gas that Vi­a­com had no in­ter­est in in­vest­ing in re­gional sports net­works.

How­ever, the com­pany, which owns MTV, Com­edy Cen­tral and BET, said it would help sup­ply pro­gram­ming should Cube land the prize.

There has been strong in­ter­est in the re­gional sports net­works. Pri­vate eq­uity firms, tele­vi­sion sta­tion owner Sin­clair Broad­cast­ing, Ma­jor League Base­ball and Ama­ all have ex­pressed in­ter­est. (Ama­zon ap­pears most in­ter­ested in ac­quir­ing the New York­based YES net­work, which tele­vises Yan­kees base­ball games.)

Dis­ney is hop­ing to raise more than $20 bil­lion in the sale, ac­cord­ing to knowl­edge­able peo­ple who are in­volved in the auc­tion but not au­tho­rized to speak pub­licly.

Sev­eral peo­ple close to the auc­tion say the odds are great that the 22 net­works will be split up be­cause that would gen­er­ate more money for Dis­ney.

Kwatinetz, dur­ing the con­fer­ence call, seemed to ac­knowl­edge that their bid for some or all of the Fox lo­cal sports chan­nels might col­lapse.

“Ice Cube and I don’t need a big as­set to prove that we’re cool,” he said.

Ron­ald Mar­tinez Big3

“WE’RE IN IT for the long haul,” said Big3 bas­ket­ball league co-founder Ice Cube, shown at a game in Dal­las in Au­gust. “Our fan base is grow­ing — more and more peo­ple are re­ally get­ting into the league.”

Maury Phillips Getty Im­ages for Vi­a­com

VI­A­COM CEO Bob Bak­ish has ended spec­u­la­tion that his com­pany might join Big3 in a bid for Fox’s sports chan­nels.

Grant Halver­son Getty Im­ages

THE BIG3 three-on-three bas­ket­ball league’s Ghost Ballers and 3’s Com­pany play a game in July 2017 in Char­lotte, N.C. Big3 in­tends to grow to 12 teams from eight this year, and widen its tour to 18 cities, up from 10.

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