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?