In April 2016, just a few months before superstar LeBron James and his Cleveland Cavaliers defeated the Golden State Warriors for the franchise’s first NBA championship, a video featuring James posted online and quickly went viral.
It wasn’t a mix tape of his greatest plays or some salacious TMZ footage of him misbehaving. It was an advertisement for Blaze Pizza.
In the video, James goes undercover as Blaze employee “Ron,” working the line at a Pasadena restaurant. Customers stare bewildered as James (who is six-foot-eight and about 250 pounds) interacts with them and prepares their orders like any other team member.
If Blaze wasn’t on the map for customers across the country by then, the video made it so.
The light-hearted, two-minute clip was a coming-out party for James’ partnership with Blaze, which began in 2012. Along with other high-profile personalities (like Maria Shriver and Boston Red Sox co-owner Tom Werner), James and his business partner Maverick Carter were founding investors for Blaze. A 2017 report from ESPN noted that the investment was for around $1 million, and that James owned about a 10 percent stake in the business. He also partnered with Levy Restaurants founder Larry Levy as a franchisee in Blaze’s Chicago and Miami markets.
But James’ role in Blaze took on another layer in October 2015. That’s when the brand announced a multi-year endorsement deal with the superstar, one that the company noted would include activation through advertising, social media, in-store appearances, and other company campaigns.
“Blaze Pizza isn’t your typical pizza chain. Their model is literally changing the future of the fast-casual industry altogether,” James said in a statement at the time. “I initially invested in this company because I knew it was a special idea that offered something people would want. Now I’m excited to go all in with Blaze Pizza in this new role and continue to give people a whole new experience.”
The endorsement deal wasn’t just big news because of Blaze’s good fortune to snag James. It was also big news because the four-time NBA MVP walked away from about $14 million left on his McDonald’s endorsement deal, according to the ESPN report. And endorsements are no simple matter for James; an elite businessman and philanthropist, James is selective in his endorsements, which have also included Nike, Coca-Cola, Beats by Dre, and Kia.
“His group told us, ‘He only does one food, one restaurant, and he wants to throw in with you guys because he likes what you’re doing and he likes the food,’” Rick Wetzel says. “We love LeBron; he’s a great ambassador for us. He’s always been a big supporter, and he’s always talking about us on social media.”
Elise Wetzel says James’s posts on social media are always a boon to the business. He has about 42 million followers on Twitter and about 45 million on Instagram (@KingJames for both accounts), an exceptional reach for the 300-unit Blaze.
“What I love is he’s so authentic,” she says. “When he tweets or he posts, it’s 100 percent him. We don’t write things for LeBron to put onto his feed. This is exactly how he’s feeling, so it’s as authentic as you get.”
James’ relationship with Blaze took on a new dynamic in 2018, when he signed as a free agent with the Los Angeles Lakers, Blaze’s hometown team. Shortly after he signed in July, the company threw a pizza party at its Culver City location to honor his arrival. James tweeted about the party, leading many to believe he would be there in person. Hundreds of people lined up around the block for free pizza, but the King never showed.
The Wetzels didn’t mind. They know how lucky they are to have James in their corner—and not just for the sake of the business.
“I’m thrilled that he’s here, because I can go see Lakers games now,” Rick Wetzel says with a laugh.