Rudy Cline-Thomas: From NBA internship to ownership of Leeds United

The letters that Rudy Cline-Thomas sent to the NBA ran into the double digits, all but one of them sent without a response. A student at Providence College in Rhode Island, his senior year was about to start, and he hoped to fill the summer before it with an internship. Basketball floated his boat.

Reebok had also attracted his attention, and some work experience with the sportswear giant was easier logistically. It wanted to be based in Stoughton, within easy reach of Cline-Thomas’ home in Washington, and after a quick correspondence, Reebok invited him in. But the NBA and the lights of New York were what he wanted, and at the last minute, after weeks of silence, the association offered him his final placement. Cline-Thomas was given 24 hours to accept and struck.

At that moment, the door opened to sports and business – two subjects Cline-Thomas was equally and very curious about. His persistence and the break it gave him, through several other businesses, could take him into the boardroom at Leeds United before long.

Athletics has learned that as part of the pending takeover of Leeds by 49ers Enterprises, a deal due to be completed within the next few weeks, Cline-Thomas is among the candidates for a position on the club’s board, an executive role for a key figure in the investment group financing the purchase. His appointment, if it goes ahead as expected, will become official once 49ers Enterprises have approved the English Football League (EFL) for their 100 per cent buy-out.

Well known in US business circles, Cline-Thomas is a keen and savvy entrepreneur who worked as a basketball agent shortly after graduating from Providence with a degree in finance and accounting, and whose business ideas led him to co-found Mastry Ventures in 2021, a venture capital firm based in New York. He is a member of the pool of principal investors assembled by 49ers Enterprises in preparation for their takeover at Elland Road.

In England his name is less well known, although Cline-Thomas is believed to have family ties to the city of Leeds. His parents hailed from Sierra Leone before emigrating and settling long-term in the United States and Washington, where Cline-Thomas was born.

Cline-Thomas (left) at the Fast Company European Innovation Festival 2019 in Milan (Photo: Claudio Lavenia/Getty Images for Fast Company)

In America, his father worked in business, and through him Cline-Thomas caught the bug. He had been sent to study at Providence as a Martin Luther King Scholar, a scheme created to support potential students from ethnic minority backgrounds, and with financial qualifications behind him, set his NBA internship in New York in the early 2000s everything to roll. He would later tell an audience of students at Providence that a tentative step into basketball “changed his life.”

Cline-Thomas loved the sport but wasn’t good enough to pursue a career in it. He knew a player who had been drafted into the NBA, Steve Francis, and Francis — then minus an agent — asked Cline-Thomas if he had any advice on how to handle himself. That led Cline-Thomas to believe that working as a basketball agent would be a productive path to pursue.

After college, he secured a job at Williams & Connolly, a Washington-based law firm that had a specific department assigned to representing professional and emerging athletes. The model at Williams & Connolly was different from most player agencies. While the typical agency charged athletes a contingency fee—in effect, a cut of contractual or commercial deals they helped negotiate—Williams & Connolly charged per hour, making itself and its guidance more accessible. When Cline-Thomas joined, Grant Hill and Tim Duncan were two of the basketball stars on their books. Cline-Thomas became one of the youngest agents in the NBA.

What helped shape his future path was his success competing to represent Andre Iguodala. Iguodala, a four-time NBA champion, was young and on the roster of the Philadelphia 76ers. The competition to get him to an agency was intense. Cline-Thomas sold himself to Iguodala, and when Iguodala moved to the Golden State Warriors later in his career, the transfer took him and Cline-Thomas into Silicon Valley, the land where entrepreneurial energy is always white-hot.

More and more, Cline-Thomas began to mingle in the circles of venture capitalists and understand the investment potential presented by companies that were newly founded or developed there. He also noted a widespread lack of ethnic diversity at the top of these companies – something he is likely to see in many of the boards that run English football clubs.

Cline-Thomas’ response was to establish Blueprint, a wealth management company for basketball players and athletes in general. His intention was not just to look after athletes or do everything for them. His goal was to open their eyes to business and give the athletes he worked with, many of them black, opportunities they wouldn’t otherwise have.

Iguodala, a smart and fired-up character, had access to the Warriors’ locker room, and teammates were fascinated by what he was doing. He and Cline-Thomas began investing in various start-ups, injecting amounts from $25,000 (£19,500) into six figures. A large number of the companies they went after were consumer or technology based. Zoom was one of those targeted. Other players observed and considered spending their money in the same way. In 2017, Cline-Thomas was pictured on the cover of Bloomberg Businessweek with Iguodala and Steph Curry, the Warriors’ pin-up.

Iguodala has invested with Cline-Thomas (Image: Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports)

All three were responsible for launching the Players Technology Summit six years ago, a corporate gathering of entrepreneurs and venture capitalists that looked to guide athletes, particularly those from the African-American community, into the realms of big business. Cline-Thomas established himself in it, engaging with Gucci and contributing to the production of a basketball documentary, The Scheme, with HBO.

In 2021, he co-founded Mastry, an investment firm in the 49ers’ territory, San Francisco, that focused on early-stage initiatives and nascent entrepreneurial ideas. Uber was one of the companies it put money into, and Cline-Thomas’ investment in Leeds is believed to be through Mastry.

Mastry made major headlines in February this year when it acquired a majority stake in Athletes First, a company that represents American football players in the NFL. Cline-Thomas became president of Athletes First in one fell swoop and rose to the top of the NFL’s largest agency.

In the United States, his connections to the world of sports are obvious. But in England and away from Leeds, he has already been involved in another football investment, not unlike the process through which 49ers Enterprises originally bought into United in 2018. Last August, an American fund called Argyle Green negotiated the purchase of a stake of 20 percent of Plymouth Argyle for £4 million. Cline-Thomas was mentioned among the investors backing the purchase.

Argyle won promotion from League One in the season that followed and claimed the title, and they will share a division with Leeds next term. To comply with EFL rules and to avoid any conflict of interest as part of 49ers Enterprises’ takeover, Cline-Thomas is expected to cut ties by divesting his small stake in Plymouth and handing it back to the Devon club. It paves the way for Leeds to install him as a director.


Plymouth Argyle are back from the brink and one step away from the Premier League

Even with Leeds relegated and out of the Premier League for at least the next 12 months, the executive role at Elland Road will provide a new level of exposure for a man not known for courting personal publicity. 49ers Enterprises aims to propel Leeds back into the Premier League quickly, a competition with a profile like very few around the world, and with the prospect of securing a board seat under incoming chairman Paraag Marathe, is Cline-Thomas. on new territory again.

He can pinch himself when he walks into the club’s stadium for the first time, remembering the genesis of his career: letter after letter, knocking on the NBA’s door, refusing to be stonewalled or take no for an answer.

(Top photo: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

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