By Mike Kuczkowski
Since entering the NBA 11 years ago, LeBron James has been described as the heir to Michael Jordan – big shoes to fill, given that Jordan is widely recognized as the greatest player of all time. And James has fulfilled much of the promise. Like Jordan, James possesses tremendous physical gifts, is incredibly competitive and has dominated his era. Each has been described as a basketball genius.
When it comes to managing his personal brand, though, James has been a middling playmaker. While he showed leadership during the Donald Sterling scandal this year, he was also criticized for lacking heart when he exited Game 1 of the NBA Finals due to cramps (fairly or not). Despite his impressive record of achievements, James the basketball star is not beloved.
Much of this dynamic can be traced back to “The Decision,” the televised interview with journalist Jim Gray on July 8, 2010 in which James announced he was leaving his hometown team Cleveland Cavaliers and would “take his talents to South Beach” and the Miami Heat.
Watching that live broadcast on ESPN – along with 13 million people – was painful. Gray, generally a fine journalist, did a horrible job, asking a series of questions about James’ thought process while delaying the news about his actual choice. When Gray finally asked him the key question, James stared impassively ahead and talked about how joining The Heat would allow him to win. He appeared self-centered and heartless.
In short, The Decision was a disaster.
One way to understand the impact this had on James’ brand is by looking at James’ “N-score”, a measure of marketability created by Nielsen in partnership with E-Poll. The metric looks at a combination of awareness, likeability and influence to assess how successful an athlete would be as a brand pitchman (or woman).
The chart below shows the 2011 rankings of the top 10 most influential athletes in all sports.
2011 Most Influential Athletes
|Dale Earnhardt, Jr.||22||40||45||3||217|
SOURCE: Forbes.com, last accessed July 21, 2014
To be certain, James was still an elite brand. But in 2010, pre-“Decision”, James’ N-score was 261. Of note, James’s had the highest “dislikes/dislikes a lot” score in the top 10 – suggesting he was a polarizing figure. His 33:15 ratio of likes to dislikes stands in sharp contrast to someone like Troy Polamalu, whose 64:3 ratio represents a squeaky-clean likeability.
Fast forward to July 2014. James again stunned the world by leaving his team – this returning to Cleveland. From a communications perspective, this announcement was nothing but net.
I can see seven factors about Decision 2.0 that bode well for James’ brand and reputation:
1/ The Opt-Out: James didn’t wait; he opted out of his Miami Heat contract on July 1. He was businesslike about it. He said nothing bitter about the team, despite its stunning 5-game loss to the San Antonio Spurs in the NBA Finals. No acrimony, no ultimatums – just business. Most observers said they thought this was a non-event, and James would return to Miami, tamping down the hype cycle.
2/ The Process: James empowered his agent to meet with teams, took their measure and didn’t tip his hand. No circus act. No wild road show. The process was professional.
3/ The Silence: The King’s camp didn’t leak, which is remarkable in this rumor-mill-driven media age. There were very few rumors – speculation about Cavs owner Dan Gilbert’s jet being seen in Miami, moving trucks, that sort of thing – but generally, James and his people were disciplined.
4/ The Reconciliation: On July 6, the Cavaliers removed Dan Gilbert’s comic sans letter from the team’s Web site. We now know this was because that same day, James and Gilbert met and exchanged apologies. The act paved the way for James’ return.
5/ The Announcement: James surprised everyone by announcing his intention to return to Cleveland via an open letter on Sports Illustrated’s web site. No press conference, no party. By using a print medium, he controlled the narrative out of the gate, again with admirable discipline. And, he went directly to the fans first before any leaks could trump his message, showing he understands they are his most important stakeholders.
6/ The Message: James’ decision creates a potential redemption narrative for him. By using a first-person narrative approach to announce the news, James humanized himself and his choice. This was brilliant. We will judge him by his love of Northeastern Ohio and his desire to bring a title back to his birthplace. (Note: while he again used the word “I” plenty, the spirit of his remarks was team-oriented.) His statement acknowledged past mistakes and forgave past slights. It was authentic, classy and clear.
7/ The Messenger: Lee Jenkins did not play circus showman to the James sideshow, as Gray did in 2010. While playing the “as told to” card was uncharacteristic, it worked. Jenkins also penned an in-depth cover story analyzing the move and explaining how the first-person breaking news happened. Props for transparency.
[Note to digiratis: The mainstream media still have plenty of clout and cred, especially to drive a news cycle; Note to old-school media types: The news broke via SI’s Twitter feed.]
King James’ homecoming will salve a lot of wounds from 2010. If he can deliver Cleveland its first pro sports championship in 50 years, all will be forgotten. Still, we don’t even know how long he’ll stay.
One thing we do know: James has learned how to make a decision with authenticity, clarity and conviction. If he and his advisors continue to manage his personal brand deftly, I expect his reputation will continue to improve in the months and years ahead.
A final note re: the aforementioned comparisons to Michael Jordan: However close to His Airness James may come on the basketball court, he has a huge gap to close in terms of his personal brand. In 2011, when James’ N-score was 133, Jordan’s was a whopping 553.