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  • LeBron James: The Brand That Crossed The Line

    LeBron James’s choice to leave the Cleveland Cavaliers for the Miami Heat is a major personal branding catastrophe. Not just because he’s leaving the place where he grew up, but because he did it on national TV to boost his own ego, at the expense of a team he’s been on for years. ESPN took complete advantage of this situation to get more viewers, and make more advertising revenue, while disrespecting Cleveland and basketball fans everywhere. The aftermath, in Cleveland, was that LeBron shirts were burned, riots broke out, and there were a lot of unhappy fans. In fact, this single event will close the window of opportunity Cleveland had at ever winning a championship, and put Miami at an unfair advantage. Note that a lot of the information covered in this article came from a conversation that I just had with my best friend, who pushed me to publish this.

    This quote by Dan Gilbert, owner of The Cavs, sums up his feelings after the decision was made on ESPN:

    “This was announced with a several day, narcissistic, self-promotional build-up culminating with a national TV special of his “decision” unlike anything ever “witnessed” in the history of sports and probably the history of entertainment.”

    LeBron James 1.0 vs 2.0

    LeBron James 1.0

    LeBron grew up in Cleveland, and was recruited in high school to play for the NBA. He dreamed of becoming a global icon, inspiring everyone to reach for their dreams, and was a great team player. He was the hometown boy, who wanted to rise to the top of the sports business world. All of the commercials he was in for the Cavs and for State Farm projected his brand of friendship and teamwork. His smile was consistent in everything he did.

    LeBron James 2.0

    His marketing company, LRMR, has completely taken over his brand and his brain. No longer is he a loyal teammate, hometown hero, and the friend we all wanted him to be. Now, he’s King James, and he’s going to do whatever he wants, regardless of the feelings of the people around him.

    A strategic business ploy

    You can bet that LeBron made his choice to leave Cleveland days before appearing on ESPN. Both him, and his management team, were very strategic and thoughtful on how the media would handle this story, and how they could prepare for the publicity. Here are four areas that they took advantage of:

    • Winning team: With LeBron James, Chris Bosh and, Dwyane Wade, there’s no doubt that Miami will be a top tier team for next season. Surely, if the Heat end up winning the championship, the franchise will be worth more, LeBron will make even more money, and his ego will grow at light speed.
    • Sponsorships: Nike is creating a commemorative shoe to represent his move to Miami. When LeBron was on ESPN, he picked the sponsors for the show, including Microsoft, McDonalds, and Vitman Water. These were all calculated business decisions that led to him profiting from his appearance.
    • Social media: Before James announced where he was going to go, he and his team created a Twitter account and started positioning his online media platform. They did this to take advantage of the amount of buzz, through traditional and new media, he was going to stir with the anticipation of his decision and the aftermath. In less than 12 hours, he amassed over 150,000 followers on Twitter (now over 400,000). He also has more than two million fans on Facebook.
    • Traditional media: His team also launched LebronJames.com, and a newsletter so that fans can keep up-to-date with the latest information concerning LeBron. Both were launched at the beginning of July.


    In my opinion, if LeBron had confronted The Cav’s directly, without appearing on ESPN, then there wouldn’t be as much of a backlash and his brand would have been saved. By creating a marketing engine around his choice to leave, he brand suffered. He no longer appears as the hometown boy turned superstar. Despite this selfishness, there’s no doubt that the Miami Heat are setup for success, and that his career will be taken to new heights, being on a stronger team.

    Your turn

    How do you think LeBron’s decision and the ESPN special impacted his personal brand? What would you have done differently?


    Dan Schawbel is the Managing Partner of Millennial Branding, a Gen Y research and consulting firm. He is the New York Times and Wall Street Journal bestselling author of Promote Yourself: The New Rules For Career Success (St. Martin’s Press) and the #1 international bestselling book, Me 2.0: 4 Steps to Building Your Future (Kaplan Publishing), which combined have been translated into 15 languages.

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    10 comments on “LeBron James: The Brand That Crossed The Line
    1. avatar
      Andrew davis says:

      I think you are wrong with this one. Yes if you are from Cleveland you will be upset cos you have lost your best player but miami will be very happy and the rest of the world won’t really care. What has happened and what you have described in your article are a number of great opportunities he has created for his brand. The only negative is if you are a cleveland fan. Yes he may have consulted the Cleveland management beforehand but how many times have players been traded without being consulted. Also he was a free agent and could do what he want.

      I don’t think this has hurt his personal brand in the long term at all

    2. avatar
      Tim says:

      I absolutely agree that whole situation negatively impacted his personal brand, in the short term at least, but also think there are two other reasons for this (beyond what you mentioned).

      1. Most experts you talk to/hear from will tell you that Chicago would likely have been the best move if his goals were purely to win and keep winning. No doubt the Miami team will be good. Really good eventually, but Chicago has all the pieces in place and really just needed to add a superstar to complete the puzzle (Miami is probably still a few pieces short of total greatness).

      2. It makes him look weak because he really is joining someone else’s team vs. being “The King” of his own franchise. Wade has already brought a title to Miami and has kept the Heat relevant since she’s been there (when healthy).

    3. avatar
      Jake LaCaze says:

      Nothing will boost LeBron’s brand like championships. He needs rings. Michael Jordan wasn’t the friendliest and he certainly wasn’t very charitable. But all anyone remembers is the titles he brought to Chicago. Maybe LeBron’s handling of this situation was bad, but if he wins a championship or two, it won’t matter in the end.

    4. avatar

      Lots of good points and valid arguments. But at the end of the day you have to wonder if anyone will care? Yes in Cleveland, and maybe Ohio, they will care. But the masses will move on and still get sucked into the Lebron merchandising world.

      Now if a brand has been hurt………let;’s talk about Gilbert. That’s been the bigger conversation in my world.

    5. avatar
      Derek Lackey says:

      Great Perspective Dan

      If by BRAND you mean the reputation LeBron James has with people in North America, I think he improved his brand with his fans and by staying in the news for days he generated awareness with millions of people who did not know him. My wife could not name and NBA players unaided, but aided, she might pick out 4 or 5 from a list of 10 – Kobe, Bosh (we live in Toronto), etc. Lebron just added himself to that list. Harold Ballard, the former owner of the Toronto Maple Leafs once said”any news is good news” and James made the best of this.
      For basketball fans it was over the top – egos gone mad. And I believe you are correct – he suffered major damage to his brand that can only be corrected by winning Championships. For the average consumer – they now know that Lebron James and Miami Heat are loading up to win the NBA Championship. Their take away is: Lebron James must be a great player if he causes this kind of buzz. Methinks there are very few role models in the NBA – hope as we may that the players show a little character now and then. James may have done more damage to the NBA brand than his own – this is what they are producing and promoting in today’s sporting world.

    6. avatar

      I agree, Rich. I think he did damage his personal brand – not by moving to another team as a free agent (which is his right and I would’ve wished him well under normal circumstances), but the television show was completely over the top in terms of selfishness and egotism. He’s alienated a lot of his fans, not just those in Cleveland.

      We all know how these things often turn out, trying to re-convene a group of superstars in some team. The New York Rangers are a perfect example. The Heat may have a good regular season, but I don’t expect them to go that far in the playoffs – those three guys have too much ego to work together to create a championship.

    7. avatar

      Dan, I think this is a really important topic to cover and you did so flawlessly. It can really be a major issue (and not just for athletes) to lose your brand identity, and this is a fantastic example as such. I’m gonna go ahead and call it – he won’t be getting his ring in Miami this year either.

    8. avatar
      Tirso Tromp says:

      As an NBA fan living in europe, I would not be so upset or shook up. We deal with these things on a regular basis in our European soccer leagues. Players changing to their main rival teams. Such as Luis Figo moving from BArcelona to Madrid. How about the move of Cristiano Ronaldo from Manu to Real MAdrid. Sure the fans left behind are outraged, but for Cristiano Ronaldo it has been a big step upwards marketing wise, even though he didi not win anything with Madrid. Also I think that people tend to forget the International reach athletes’ brands have. Lebron will still have and generate even more fans internationally with his move. Especially if the Heat will be winning the championship. So, marketing wise, it was a good step to make. HE might not be welcome in Cleveland restaurants anymore, but if he plays well, internationally and also in the rest of the US he will still generate a lot of PR and merchandise sales.

    1 Pings/Trackbacks for "LeBron James: The Brand That Crossed The Line"
    1. […] than anyone else where he would like to end up, and that’s as a winner. It’s probably too early to determine if his brand is permanently damaged, but he’ll shoulder the load anyhow. Hey, it’s not like Jordan was pristine either […]

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