Bigger than basketball: assessing the impact of LeBron’s homecoming

14 November 2014 | Posted in SportsPro Blog | By Michael Long | Contact the author

Bigger than basketball: assessing the impact of LeBron’s homecoming

When four-time NBA MVP LeBron James announced his decision to return to the Cleveland Cavaliers in July, it was undoubtedly one of the standout stories of the summer.

Here was one of sport’s biggest stars at the peak of his powers confirming an emotional homecoming to the team he joined as fresh-faced youngster 11 years ago. Here was a player who had supposedly ‘sold out’ to join the Miami Heat in 2010; a player who had fallen out publicly with the Cavs ownership, whose jersey was subsequently burned by angry fans, and who they thought – perhaps even hoped – would never return.

But all that is water under the bridge, as they say.

James, born and raised in Akron, is back where it all started. After four years in Miami – two of them championship-winning – the man they call ‘The King’ announced his return to Ohio in July, confirming his decision in a statement dubbed ‘The Essay’ which outlined his reasons for coming home ‘a better player and a better man’.

‘My relationship with Northeast Ohio is bigger than basketball,’ he wrote. ‘I didn’t realise that four years ago. I do now.’

James’s essay may not have been the brash ego trip of his televised ‘Decision’ to “take my special talents to South Beach”. But it was nevertheless the declaration of a global icon well aware of his supreme – some might say unrivalled - value.

So what is that value, exactly?

In sporting terms, the return of basketball’s biggest name has fuelled optimism that Cleveland can finally shake off its longstanding curse – a barren run that has seen a combined total of 156 seasons come and go without one of the city’s three major league teams winning a championship crown.

"This is the most anticipated season in the history of our franchise and we’ve seen incredible interest."

Not since the Browns won the NFL championship way back in 1964, two years before the Super Bowl was introduced, has the city tasted league glory. The Indians baseball team last won an MLB World Series in 1948 while the Cavs themselves have never won an NBA title, their sole Finals appearance coming in 2007 when, led by James, they ultimately came up short in a 4-0 whitewash by the San Antonio Spurs.

“It’s been too long,” says Len Komoroski, the chief executive of the Cavs, speaking to SportsPro at the recent Doha Goals Forum where he was part of a panel on sports leadership.

“We’re all driven towards [winning a league title] and certainly northeast Ohio is focused on that as well. It is a journey; its one step at a time as far as that goes. But ultimately this is the most anticipated season in the history of our franchise and we’ve seen incredible interest.”

According to Komoroski, James’s homecoming has benefited the Cavs franchise in just about every department, with the events of the off-season having helped to take interest in the team to “a whole other dimension.”

A recent study by the Adobe Digital Index found that the Cavs had 37 times more social media mentions across Facebook, Twitter and other platforms in September and October of 2014 compared with the same months last year. Meanwhile traffic to the team’s website is said to have increased four-fold and clicks on their online videos have swelled by a whopping 2,000 per cent.

Both of the Cavs' home games at 'The Q' have been sell-outs since James's return

All those metrics may not be attributable to James alone but they can only be positive for the team nonetheless, enhancing the Cavs’ brand value while adding further value for their corporate partners. And while it may ultimately be impossible to count his impact in dollars and cents, Forbes recently estimated that the value of the Cavs franchise – approximated at US$515 million in January - could increase by up to $400 million with James back in the team.

A significant impact has also been felt at the Quicken Loans Arena too. While the Cavs averaged over 17,000 fans per game last season, putting them amongst the top half of the NBA in terms of attendance, tickets to their games at ‘The Q’ have been some of the hottest around this season.

Such is LeBron’s appeal, not even an opening night defeat the New York Knicks could dampen the excitement among Cavs fans. Both of their home games so far this season have attracted sell-out crowds and Komoroski is hopeful the 20,562-capacity venue will remain full for the remainder of the year.

“We’ve actually had to cut season ticket sales off,” he says. “We stopped them at 12,000 to enable as many different fans as possible to have an experience coming to the game. Partial ticket sales, group ticket sales, individual ticket sales, from a sponsorship end: we’re having amazing interest and growth and development there. There isn’t an area that hasn’t been positively impacted.

"The beauty of where we are now is we have control of our own destiny and we have to execute. Cleveland has never been in a better state than it is right now."

“The one thing that I will state - and this is really a credit to our ownership - is we’ve not increased ticket prices even with Kyrie [Irving] re-signing, LeBron’s return and also Kevin Love, Shawn Marion, Mike Miller, a number of other players with us as well. In deference to the loyalty and the support we’ve received in the past four years in particular, we didn’t raise ticket prices.”

According to Komoroski, James’s homecoming has contributed to a wider feeling within Cleveland that the success-starved city is once again finding its feet. Investment in infrastructure and visitor numbers in the city’s downtown area have both dramatically increased in the past five years and just three days prior to James’s announcement on 11th July Cleveland learned that its bid to host the 2016 Republican National Convention, said to be the second-largest media event on the planet behind the Olympic Games, had been successful.

“In a lot of respects it represents a bit of a tipping point for Cleveland,” says Komoroski, who, in his other role as chairman of the board of Cleveland’s Convention and Visitors Bureau, acts as a vocal promoter of the city and the region.

“In our marketplace now, people believe like ‘why not Cleveland?’ Attitudinally now anything is possible, anything can happen. I think it’s really helped changed the dialogue about Cleveland not only locally but nationally and even internationally.

"The beauty of where we are now is we have control of our own destiny and we have to execute. Cleveland has never been in a better state than it is right now and the dialogue about Cleveland is changing on a national and international basis."

Hear more from Komoroski in the February 2015 edition of SportsPro magazine. Subscribe today here.

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