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Cameo videos let NBA stars connect with fans during self-isolation

Lakers center JaVale McGee is introduced before a game at Staples Center on Jan. 13, 2020.
Lakers center JaVale McGee is introduced at Staples Center in January.
(Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times)

Lakers center JaVale McGee has done the autograph thing countless times.

Fans line up at a collectibles shop or at a convention booth with jerseys, basketballs — whatever — all to get a few seconds from an NBA player and his autograph.

For McGee, it was a grind. The same pleasantries, the same Sharpie marker, the same autograph, over and over.

Like a lot of NBA players, though, he’s found an alternative way to connect with his fans — to help wish your girl a Happy Valentine’s Day, to shame you for a fantasy draft performance, to embarrass you for jumping on bandwagons and to share a small slice of his day thanks to cellphone video and Cameo, a Chicago-based company that books and delivers personalized messages.

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“Sometimes, you’d go to signings and people would want stuff personalized and you’d have to say ‘No.’ If we personalized every one — we have 3,000 people waiting,” McGee said earlier this year before social distancing and self-isolation because of the COVID-19 pandemic. “With Cameo, it’s personalized.”

The Drew League in L.A. is famous for its star-studded tournament, but the threat of canceling the season has a ripple effect on the community.

The company, which has it’s roots in sports and includes athlete investors like Brooklyn Nets All-Star guard Kyrie Irving, is trying to modernize the autograph in the most millenial way possible.

Fans can book their favorite athletes or celebrities, sending them an outline of the message they want recorded. The talent sets their own fee and keeps 75%. Cameo gets the other 25%.

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“Literally the idea when we founded the business was that the selfie was the new autograph,” Cameo co-founder Steven Galanis said in a phone interview. “Cameo was a way to have that experience, that selfie experience, without actually meeting the person in real life.”

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How Cameo video platform works.

If you really want a message from Caitlyn Jenner, you can get that done — at $2,500 she’s the most expensive person on the site. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Dennis Rodman? Yup, they’re available. Your favorite reality stars? Singers from the 1990s? Internet sensations? Pro wrestlers? Athletes? All there too.

Cameo is a marketplace full of the people you’d walk up to ask for a selfie with if you were lucky enough to cross paths with Debbie Gibson, Jose Canseco, Troy Aikman, Snoop Dogg or Stormy Daniels.

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“It’s a great idea, a great platform,” McGee said.

Former USC star Jordan McLaughlin was 30 games into his first NBA season when the season shut down, coming back to California from the Minnesota Timberwolves. Without much else to do, he has sat in his home and stared into his cellphone camera, wishing fans happy birthdays and sending words of encouragement, 20 seconds at a time for $30 a video.

Beats doing nothing.

“That’s pretty much what it’s been,” McLaughlin said, knowing teammates like Karl-Anthony Towns would be way more in demand. “With times how they are now, it’s nice and convenient for athletes and people with a platform to make a little cash and make somebody’s day.”

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Cameo is not alone in this business. There are competing entities around the web, including Real Talk Live, a company where you can have live conversations with celebrities when you pay per minute.

The idea of personalized content has plenty of fans around the league. The site itself was born in the minds of Duke basketball fans, with former NBA veteran Lance Thomas being one of the first five people to utilize the platform.

More than 40 current NBA players are available for bookings through Cameo. More have tried the service and plan on returning. And with players like Irving and NBA champions like McGee, Pau Gasol and Miami’s Udonis Haslem on board, more are expected to join.

Between active players in the NBA, WNBA, G League and foreign leagues, plus retired players, Cameo has more than 400 basketball players on its roster. And with the NBA shut down, even more have reached out to try to get more information about the service.

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“By next season, it’ll be more surprising if someone is not on than if they are,” Galanis said.

Boston Celtics center Enes Kanter is one of Cameo’s most prolific basketball players — recording more than 500 messages for fans.

“I lost count,” Kanter said earlier this year. “Every three days, I was probably getting 17 or 18 requests. I do them right before I go to sleep, each takes about 30 seconds — mostly it’s a birthday shoutout. ‘What’s up Jack, it’s Enes Kanter from the Boston Celtics. Just wanted to say happy birthday and wish you the best. I hope you have the best year and best birthday ever. I hope to see you and your family at one of my games.’”

That costs someone $50?

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“There you go,” he said.

Having finished home quarantine, the Lakers announced no players have coronavirus symptoms.

There’s money to be made in this, even if your general NBA player doesn’t need it.

“It’s salary. It’s a grind. I did it,” McGee joked. “It’s my money and goes right into the bank account.”

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According to Cameo, Abdul-Jabbar is the most popular former player. He charges $500 per video, and, according to Galanis, fulfills between 15 and 20 per week. Dennis Rodman, at $300, was one of the first superstars to sign on.

Soon-to-be-retired Vince Carter ($300) does about 15 each week. Orlando’s Aaron Gordon, who just joined the platform in the wake of the league’s suspension, is doing close to 20 videos a week and is now charging $130 after raising his price.

“You get to send videos to fans, friends or families — people who just wanted a message. Maybe it’s to encourage them or something to make them feel better about their day. And that’s something I love to do. I like making people feel good,” said Celtics rookie Grant Williams, who charges $60.

“… I wanted to be available but I also wanted it to be something where I didn’t get a request every five seconds because it gets less genuine the more you do it. I didn’t want to do it for like $10 because then you’re getting hundreds of requests.”

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Especially in the throngs of the COVID-19 pandemic, Galanis wants his wealthiest talent to remember why, ideally, they got involved with this platform. Gasol, for instance, donates all of the money he makes from his Cameo videos to his charitable foundation.

“This isn’t about finding additional revenue so much,” he said. “It’s really about connecting with your fans. Don’t think about how much your time is worth. Think about how much your fans can afford. That’s really important.

“… Have empathy for what’s going on in the world. We feel as bad as anybody that everything has been canceled. But here’s an opportunity to engage with your fans. There’s so much ... going on right now — people losing their jobs — how cool is it to be able to sit on your couch and make somebody’s life [better]. That’s been the message and it’s been very well received.”


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