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LeBron’s Exulted Brand Takes Detour

I swore to myself before the start of the NBA free-agency period that I wouldn’t write about LeBron James. Sports media are putting in enough hours of coverage about his team status, for all of us.

I realized, however, that I work in and write about sports publicity and PR, and since James announced he would share his intentions of what team he’ll join for the next few years in an hour-long broadcast on ESPN, his story became a good PR/bad PR story.

The fact is that his brand took flight the day he was proclaimed “King James.” With no NBA championship rings on his finger, that name has taken a hit in recent days. If my Twitter followers are any indication, his brand is a punch line right now. (I have to thank the tweeps for keeping me laughing with one-liners that highlights this and their own fake announcements.)

If I were his PR agent, I would advise James to quickly announce a contract with his current team, the Cleveland Cavaliers, or a new one, a la Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh, and go about his life. Modesty goes a long way toward credibility and respect and right now, he’s not getting much of it. He might slam a mean dunk, but his individual, not team-minded leap to the NBA throne does little to stem the current reaction. Even his most ardent fans are talking about his ego, not his play.

James is a dynamic basketball player who even if he had a professional title, I would advise to keep his enormity in check. We have learned, every Superman, with the exception of the one created by DC Comics, could be here and gone in a flash – and not just the athlete on the field and court. Egos that grab the stage before their titles catch up – if they catch up – tend to fizzle.

To be clear, I thrive on creative and funky promotions as well as the most extensive media exposure available; earning that attention motivates me everyday. I maintain, however, that businesses enjoy credentials before we label them the best in their leagues. James is a business – a brand. I think people want to love him, not resent his ego.

Ken Fang, creator of FangsBites, reminded his Twitter followers that multi-ring earner Michael Jordan quietly faxed two words to announce he was returning to the NBA in 1995. Jordan had the hardware to announce his comeback from Mount Rushmore, but didn’t.

Maybe our society of reality television and entitlement has led to this LeBronisty. In my years of work in the sports industry, however, I think you have to earn it before you own it.

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Image by Shankbone

Image by Cavalierhorn

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13 Responses to LeBron’s Exulted Brand Takes Detour

  1. Dmitriy July 8, 2010 at 5:19 pm #

    I'd have to disagree with you here because I think LeBron made a brilliant PR move in televising his “decision”. First of all, his fame isn't necessarily unwarranted. He's a 2-time MVP and the consensus best basketball player in the world (sorry, Kobe). He may not have a championship ring, but it would be unfair to blame him for that when his best teammate was Mo Williams (even Jordan had Pippen).

    Secondly, it's the media and fans who are responsible for this LeBron hype. Millions will watch tonight's TV special because they do actually care about where LeBron goes. We enable him. It would be foolish of LeBron to not capitalize on this interest. He gets free publicity and the Boys & Girls Club will get a few millions dollars. It's a win-win situation, which is typically the goal of any PR campaign. If fans think he's spoiled now, they'll forget all about this stunt once LeBron gets back on the court and everybody remembers that he is that good.

    http://brandingsports.wordpress.com
    Note: I will be putting out a detailed blog post on this topic once LeBron announces his decision. Stay tuned.

  2. thejasonsadler July 8, 2010 at 5:38 pm #

    I'm with Dmitriy on this one. High School athletes have been making “timed” announcements and bouncing back and forth on decisions to sway and gain sponsors for years. You don't see it at this peak level because, quite frankly, LeBron James is the biggest name in sports right now. No one has enough money to trump anyone else. And no one has been in his position.

    I think the media, bloggers, writers, everyday people never even come close to having to make a decision like LBJ is having to make. He won't have another moment like this and should milk it for every single second and penny it's worth. In 2 months everyone will have forgotten about it and something else will be the topic of discussion. I do hope he stays with Cleveland. Going to Miami does nothing for his brand or his legacy.

    I will say, the LBJ camp's use of social media is downright pathetic. If it is LBJ's twitter account he should be tweeting from it and it should sound like him. LBJ wouldn't use a bit.ly link. LBJ wouldn't be posting links to a landing page to capture emails on Facebook. That stuff is lame. His following on both sites could have been astronomical had it been him.

    Regardless, great post and great piece for conversation.

  3. lewishowes July 8, 2010 at 6:26 pm #

    I love your thoughts in this article Gail. However, I agree that this is a big opportunity to help take his brand to the next level, and also give back to a good cause with the Boys and Girls Club.

    I have always liked LeBron as I never felt he was too egotistical with the things he said or did (not like Rodman anyways) and I feel he uses his talents to maximize his brand/sponsorship exposure.

    I also agree that he could have made a small announcement like Jordan, but this isn't him coming back to the league, this will affect the entire NBA, the entire state of Ohio and many other people from the decision he makes for the rest of his life.

    I'm sure he had pressure from his agent and ESPN to air this decision because of the hype the media was giving it, and I think he is doing the right thing to make sure to give back to his charity so it isn't all just about his big decision.

  4. Ameer Carter July 8, 2010 at 6:52 pm #

    I believe that LeBron James's EGO isn't bad at all. The main issue here I guess is the fact that he's called “King James”. They call him that because he is the best bball player in Ohio. He's the king there in a sense. They called MJ the best player ever and he won his rings after 7 years of being in the NBA. I tend to believe that LeBron is going to do the same once he teams up with Bosh and Wade. Because frankly, that is what he wants. I don't think money would have too much of an impact on him at this point (even though an extra 30 million dollars is hard to pass up). Because he's not going to win a ring with the lineup he has now. There just no way unless they actually work with James- there's no more trying at this point-and win a Finals next year but that's a risk I don't believe he's willing to take.

    I really do feel bad for Ohio though because I feel that this is so much deeper for them than it is for outsiders like me. It would feel like a stab in the back if he left to go chase after something he wants and get it at another team. I think Ohio wants one of those preserverance stories where its like “After year after year of making it to the playoffs and just missing the mark to the finals, and with the opportunity to leave for a better team, he decides to stay and wins a championship.” type of thing. I'm just not sure if he still has the same optimism as his fellow fans do.

    This decision is a very important one. I just hope he makes the right one.

  5. Gsideman July 8, 2010 at 7:04 pm #

    Thank you guys for the conversation. I agree with you in that the Boys and Girls Clubs benefit with some dollars out of this, but including it was likely done to make the show look good as opposed to a greedy publicity stunt. (The Club still comes out a winner.)

    If you listened to Dan Patrick's Radio Show this morning, Jim Gray, who will interview James tonight, was actually the person who put this concept into motion. ESPN was offered the show and I can't blame it for grabbing the opportunity for this reality hour. (Dan Patrick.com: http://bit.ly/GXdOg)

    Yes, Dmiitriy, we have enabled this type of event. Hype bigger than we could have ever imagined now goes hand-in-hand with sports, off the field of play. That's why the likes of TMZSports and US Magazine are trying to get ahead of the story and break news before the special goes on the air.

    LeBron was seemingly enshrined right out of high school. I could almost see this show after he was drafted because like Jordan when he returned, he isn't new to the league anymore. This is LeBron's high school signing ceremony.

    And yes, there's major room for improvement on the social media side of all of this!

  6. Bear Heiser July 8, 2010 at 7:13 pm #

    Nice piece, great read…….
    If this all plays out as expected and James ends up in Miami, he will always be known as a fraud. The moment LBJ arrived on the scene, way back when he was still in high school, he made it known that Michael Jordan was his idol and he aspired to “be like Mike.” Didn't we all on some level aspire to be like Mike?
    Along the way LBJ never grew up, as a professional he has never faced any sort of adversity. He has never been forced to make a difficult decision. He's notorious for allowing his high school pals to run his business affairs. We've always compared him to the statue that currently sits outside of the United Center in Chicago without every doing anything substantial. Have we come to expect too much from LeBron?

    Seems that way.

  7. Dmitriy July 8, 2010 at 7:29 pm #

    Doing this TV special is also a good way to negate all the false information that will surely be floating around. Now, instead of reading a hundred different news report and leads about where he will sign, we get to actually see the man himself announce his decision on live TV. (This also serves as excellent justification for having the special in the first place, although I'm sure it's not the only motivation).

  8. Ameer Carter July 8, 2010 at 7:34 pm #

    Also, it would serve as a “Finally” as we will finally know where he's going. Now everyone can make predictions of the post season. But I know where ever he goes, there will be some negative feedback about his decision. Ultimately, you gotta let the man breathe and let him focus on the sport and not the HR, PR side of things.

  9. Gsideman July 8, 2010 at 8:15 pm #

    Bear – thanks for the comments. Passionately written/said.

    Dmitriy and Ameer — LBJ doesn't need a TV special to announce where he is or isn't going. Just ask Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh. Comments to the Worldwide leader and other media and you go on your merry way. Just sayin… His best PR move would be to stay with Cleveland because no one would blame him for loyalty. He is human, however… so the Monday morning quarterbacking began a year ago.

  10. El Hadji July 9, 2010 at 1:24 am #

    I'm just glad it will all be over soon, I am not sure it is safe to think that LeBron had anything to do with this media explosion he's been. Listen, I've been watching Basket-Ball very closely for years now and I've played with NBA pros in my lifetime but LeBron is a freak of nature. Jordan is the greatest of all time still but LeBron with the set of skills he got on him can actually bring in 7 or 8 titles once he gets in the right team. Cleveland is not where it's going to happen unless he gets real players on board with him. Chicago or Miami are the right places for him to get the job done.
    LeBron is just THAT good, this media mania about LeBron is just a measure of just how talented he is…Also it seems like Basket-Ball has gotten much bigger since the Magic-Jordan era, hasn't it? So we just have to deal with it, even though I am bias because I am such a fan of Basket-Ball…but honestly as someone who plays ball on a regular basis, I truthfully understand why there is such a big fuss about LeBron (the kid got some game on him).

    To the outside world, it may seem as if he is being crowned too early because he hasn't won any titles yet…but to win a title you need a very good team and LeBron just doesn't have that yet…besides when you look at his individual performances he deserves his king crown since he's consistently shattered individual records (scoring, assists, steals and the list goes on…) and as a last comment the thing I like the most about LeBron is his abiltity to make his team BETTER by his passing skills (that's unheard of since Magic…and frankly I'll take LeBron's scoring any day over MAGIC…no disrespect to MAGIC one of the greatests)

    So I'll be watching live when LeBron James makes his decisions…him going to Miami or Chicago will make me watch every single game of the team he lands in, it's going to be THAT GOOD.

    Thanks for the article though, it did make some sense.

    El Hadji Beye
    Performance Consultants

  11. Gsideman July 9, 2010 at 3:10 am #

    Basketball is pretty much the same as in the Magic and Jordan days (I've give you that it's more physical since Magic), but it's the media that has changed in huge ways. LeBron's been a media darling since his high school days and tonight amplified that.

    Glad I made some sense, El, and thanks for your thoughts.

  12. Jamie Favreau July 9, 2010 at 5:42 am #

    I did not watch any of the LBJ thing. I don't care about basketball or Cleveland for that matter! Not to sound too harsh but I love Detroit and that is where my loyalties lie.

    The Twitter account is a joke in itself. He has a ton of followers but is not following one single person. Very classy. Plus, I question who is running this horse and pony show. I mean are the players demanding to play together and thinking they would be a good fit because they are friends? I would still love to know who is in charge.

    I did not think he needed an entire hour to say where he is going and is this going to be a new trend with athletes?

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