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LeBron James joins the big (media) players at Sun Valley

The NBA All-Star is mixing with industry luminaries this week at the exclusive Allen & Co. conference in Idaho.

July 07, 2009|Joe Flint

Kobe Bryant may have four championship rings, but it's the Cleveland Cavaliers' LeBron James who wrangled an invitation to hobnob with moguls at this week's Allen & Co. media-industry conference in Sun Valley, Idaho.

James, who already has ties to the New York investment bank and is busy building his own empire, will be in good company. One would think with the economy in tatters and layoffs and cost-cutting the order of the day, attendance at what's been described as "summer camp for billionaires" would be down.

Evidently there's still some money in the travel budget. More than 260 old- and new-media chieftains, investment bankers, venture capitalists, politicians, agents and academics have been invited to participate in the five-day event, where they get to talk, listen and freely exchange ideas about what's in store for the media industry.

Among those expected this year are Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, Jeff Bewkes, Sumner Redstone, Sergey Brin, Mark Zuckerberg and Cory Booker, mayor of Newark, N.J. (Maybe Booker's going to try to lure big media to his state; New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg appears to be skipping the conference this year.)

The Murdochs will make a mini-family reunion out of it, with oldest son Lachlan from Australia expected to pop in to visit with his father, News Corp. Chairman Rupert Murdoch, and younger brother and latest heir apparent James.

In fact, News Corp. may be the most well-represented company at Sun Valley. Besides Rupert and James Murdoch, new Chief Operating Officer Chase Carey is on the list, as is Jonathan Miller, new chairman and chief executive of the company's digital media units, and Owen Van Natta, CEO of MySpace. Former News Corp. COO Peter Chernin is also expected to be on the grounds, albeit as a mere producer.

All four major pro-sports commissioners are usually there as well. Excuse NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, though, if he appears a little tired. He's scheduled to arrive in Sun Valley after finishing a climb up Mt. Rainier.

In between rafting, knitting, yoga, chess and bridge (Buffett and Gates are big bridge players), big deals are known to have been hatched during the conference's 26-year history. The most famous marriage with roots in Sun Valley was Walt Disney Co.'s deal to buy Capital Cities/ABC Inc. in 1995, which came out of a random meeting in the parking lot of then-Disney CEO Michael Eisner, CapCities board member Buffett and the company's CEO, Tom Murphy.

The gathering of the uberclass and the media who stalk it overwhelms Sun Valley and the neighboring town of Ketchum. If you are looking to rent a bike there this week, forget it; Allen & Co. has reserved them all. Tiny Friedman Memorial Airport will be overrun with private corporate jets and the streets will be filled with Lincoln Town Cars. As it happens, the name of the main street to the Sun Valley Inn, a resort that for the week houses a good chunk of the Forbes list of richest Americans, is Dollar Road.

Like "Fight Club," the first rule of the Allen & Co. conference is that you don't talk about the Allen & Co. conference. The event is closed to the press, and attendees are discouraged from acknowledging whether they're attending.

Even the agenda is shrouded in mystery, with the preliminary schedule that went out to attendees late last week providing scant details on which companies are making presentations. Nor is the conference cheap to stage: Allen & Co. has been known to spend as much as $10 million on the festivities in the past.

The secrecy fuels media attention and helps the conference keep its cachet as the place to be seen. In its early years, the event drew a few big-city reporters who would use it as an opportunity for some after-hours sourcing. Now CNBC and Fox Business Network have their cameras parked outside the lodge where most of the meetings take place.

Executives often hold court on the grounds in between sessions. Allen & Co. can't stop gabby executives from talking to the press -- but, interestingly, it does ask that if the moguls talk, they do so on the record. The whole place has been wired with Wi-Fi, clearing the way for reporters to blog and tweet the day away.

Photographers are at the ready to take less-than-flattering shots of executives dressed in their summer clothes. Many a mogul apparently has forgotten the fashion rule famously impressed on Tony Soprano: A don doesn't wear shorts.

Although Allen & Co. tries to discourage media scrutiny, the firm isn't above using big-name journalists to jazz up the program. Among the more famous scribes and TV personalities invited to take part this year are the New Yorker's Ken Auletta, the New York Times' Thomas Friedman, Washington Post columnist David Ignatius and CNBC's Erin Burnett. For a few years, celebrity photographer Annie Leibovitz shot the event for Vanity Fair.

The conference is still relatively short on women. The highest-profile female attendees are Susan Decker, former president of Yahoo Inc.; Hearst Magazines chief Cathie Black; and fashionista Diane von Furstenberg (aka Mrs. Barry Diller).

And it's really short on basketball players. LeBron will be challenged to put together a good pickup game while there.


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