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NBA, LeBron James and global branding of basketball

The presence of super star players reflects a profitable narrative in the sports-entertainment-nexus of the American sports economy and the NBA. In historic light, the NBA is a sports product, which was boosted by the successful co-branding associated with players like Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Charles Barkley, Hakeem Olajuwon, Julius Erving, Earvin ’Magic’ Johnson and later Shaquille O’Neal, Kevin Garnett, Allen Iverson, Tim Duncan and Kobe Bryant. This development has been assisted by a wave of massive mediated content and commercialization influencing the market of basketball and thus the NBA. Consequently, the star players have played a vital role in order to create an exciting identity expression of the league.

Super stars, fan identification and economics

The qualitative and commercialized product delivery on the finest stage of basketball (the NBA) is reliant on the league’s celebrated super stars and the derived fan identification. LeBron James has played a central role in that process since he entered the NBA as a first pick draft choice by the Cleveland Cavaliers in the 2003 NBA Draft. Championships, personal records, MVP awards and other personal recognitions have been added to LeBron’s list of honors since his entrance to the NBA. The positive brand interactions between the NBA, the league’s super stars and other commercial stakeholders in the league’s business model give rise to substantial articulation and commercial initiatives founded on the premise that sponsors (e.g. Nike) attach greater priority to sports marketing via new and fragmented platforms. This process reinforces strong narratives that can help to build or sustain fan identification while improving the league’s ability to capitalize on its brand.

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Photo: LeBron James affects ticket prices of the NBA product (StubHub, 2017).

From an economic viewpoint, the business model of the NBA and the attached capitalization power has grown considerably over the years. Economic analyses show that the NBA has experienced solid growth in all areas of its business model since the 1980s. In that regard, the league has especially profited from the broadcasting companies’ efforts to benefit from the role of basketball in popular culture and hence the ability to move eyeballs and hence customers and market shares. Exploding prices on broadcasting rights followed by exposure on more international markets (strengthened due to the influx of more foreign players like Dirk Nowitzki, Peja Stojakovic, Pau Gasol and Tony Parker), large increases in merchandise sales, a value-added capitalization on fans, the league’s positioning in the retail market and the expansion of the number of NBA teams comprise factors that illustrate an economic reality of a sport with a successful commercialization and globalization effect. Strategic focus on becoming a decisive global player in the sports landscape and an entertainment product in high demand on ‘live venue’ and media platforms seems to have come to fruition. This is symbolized by the fact that the valuation of the different NBA teams, the price to gain access to the league (new expansion teams due to the expansion of the league over time) and the player salaries have grown exponentially.

At the highest level, the player becomes a face of the league. The appeal of the Cleveland Cavaliers is synonymous with LeBron and to many people LeBron represents the NBA. (Professor Stephen Greyser, Harvard Business School

As an answer to the question ‘why is LeBron James important for the global brand of the NBA and for the branding of basketball?’, Professor Stephen Greyser from Harvard Business School mentions that “A star of the caliber of LeBron James can have a positive impact on at least four areas and a possible fifth. First, is the impact for themselves and their own brand. That results in fan followership and endorsements. The second is on behalf of their club and the contribution they make for their club; that is reflected in fan followership via attendance, television viewership, and sales of merchandise. The third is for their league; that ties in with their visibility as something that helps the promotion of the league on television. At the highest level, the player becomes a face of the league. The appeal of the Cleveland Cavaliers is synonymous with LeBron and to many people LeBron represents the NBA. The fourth is for their sport, when athletes become symbols of their sport. For example, Oscar Schmidt of Brazil, who never played in the NBA became the symbol of basketball in South America. The possible fifth area is for their community. Being seen as a representative for their community is broader than sport. One has to be really big to be considered a representative of your broader community. It transcends sport. For example, David Ortiz is a great illustration of community representation. He ended up in his last years of playing as symbolizing Boston due to his role as a leader after the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013. He helped to inspire the entire community during the entire baseball season and beyond. When the Red Sox won the World Series that year, during the victory parade, Ortiz took the championship trophy and set it down at the finish line of the Marathon. It was the ultimate symbol of the community coming together and standing strong. Not every player has the capability and the opportunity to have this kind of impact that goes well beyond his sport.”

Commercial sport stars as role models

Just like Ortiz, LeBron James is a leader on and off the playing field. In that light, ‘business as usual’ seems to be the most meaningful phrase that covers the perception of LeBron’s sporting performance (in this case witnessed by me when the Cavaliers played the Celtics in Boston on March 1, 2017) and how this performance is a good execution of a super star’s unfolding of talent and potential. Talent and potential will not take an athlete anywhere in a passive condition. However, the game in Boston displayed an ‘active’ Lebron James as the top scorer for Cleveland Cavaliers with 28 points accompanied by several assists (and this is supported by LeBron’s overall performance in the 2016/2017 NBA season). Proactive behavior is important in sports and LeBron’s performance level proves strength in terms of accommodating the pressure of expectations regarding ‘excellence’, strong actions and heroic status, which are set by fans, sponsors and media in their hunt for new sporting standards. LeBron’s status as a leader on the playing field is also demonstrated by his stats in that he played 37.8 minutes on average per game in the 2016/2017 NBA season[1]. The Cleveland Cavaliers know that a MVP player like LeBron needs his share of playing time, as he is the backbone of Cleveland Cavaliers on and off the court. Teammate Iman Shumpert emphasizes LeBron’s presence for the team: “The fans love him and the good thing about our super stars is that they are pretty much down to earth. They make it fun and simplify the game when we get out there” while referring to James’ collaboration with Kyrie Irving as being essential for the fan identification concerning Cleveland Cavaliers. Fellow Cavaliers teammate DeAndre Liggins supplemented by underlining LeBron James’ role for the team: “He is our leader. He is big. Everybody looks up to him.”

Creativity, positive momentum and courage to take risks

The creation of positive momentum vitalizes any sports product and the NBA and LeBron James both enjoy the creative freedom, which allows sporting performances at the highest level. Such top performances energize the productive and appealing ‘dream society’ of sports in which super stars continuously balance the extremes of ‘the higher you climb the further you fall’ as subjects for the fascination rooted in experience and transformation economy that influences the global playground of the NBA. Super stars are during their active careers constantly focal points of public attention in the social drama of endless negotiation of meaning that takes place in professional sports.

LeBron James unites his approach to the game on and off the playing field with his willingness to take risks (this suits the best athletes by the way) and his innovative creation of modern and autonomous marketing initiatives. Thus, King James has created his own kingdom on and off the playing field but with the NBA as a central stage. At the same time, he sustains additional latitude for creative development and enhancement of the global brand status, which positively reinforces the NBA and basketball in general via the brand interactions that are associated with the presence and performance of a king on and off the court.

Entertainment products in the business of sports require that ‘something is at stake’ and this analogy serves as a significant ingredient in assisting the best players to realize the most outstanding peaks of the performance ladder. This process is influenced by the experimental unfolding of performances, which culminates in a masterly composition of confident understanding of how to mix physical, mental, tactical and technical competences leading to optimal sporting decision-making and titles throughout an active sporting career. For instance, LeBron’s transfer to Miami Heat was a fundamental step for the king of Ohio and Cleveland and he turned his ability to handle ‘the heat’ into 2 NBA titles in Miami and has also succeeded in recapturing the kingdom in Ohio with the NBA title in 2016 after his move from Miami back to the Cleveland Cavaliers. In that regard, this sporting narrative points out that titles are highly influential for the legacy that individual players leave as footprints in a sport or league after their retirement in the comparative and evaluating context of the sports economy.

For me it’s all about being able to inspire the youth, you know the kids that look up to me for inspiration. That’s what drives me every day to play the game that I love because I know these kids out there they need help. They need someone to inspire them. So, for me to know that I can do that and inspire people not only here in America but all over the world is very humbling. (LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers)

Awareness of the mechanisms integrated in the brand building and brand management of a ‘corporate athlete’ is omnipresent and LeBron has long since come to terms with the identity formation process, which is demanded when being constantly present in the ‘good way’. The ability to focus on sporting challenges shines through. In addition to being a leader in the locker room and participating socially and entertainingly in the interplay with his teammates, the media, his sponsors and other stakeholders, LeBron mirrors a professional and responsible approach to team development. His leadership focus includes the team’s and teammates’ roles on the path to new titles while being able to handle the expectations of being a positive global role model. As an answer to my question of whether or not he perceives himself as a brand icon for the NBA in a global perspective, LeBron James highlighted that “For me it’s all about being able to inspire the youth, you know the kids that look up to me for inspiration. That’s what drives me every day to play the game that I love because I know these kids out there they need help. They need someone to inspire them. So, for me to know that I can do that and inspire people not only here in America but all over the world is very humbling.”


Photo: Billede: ‘Life sized Lebron bobble head’ figure is for sale at $22.000 in the NBA store on 5th Ave. in NYC and LeBron merchandise plays a central role in the store’s assortment.

So, King James acts in sharp contrast to the label, which Charles Barkley attached to his role back in the 1990s via the controversial statement ”I’m not a role model” in a commercial for the sports equipment giant Nike. Despite the derived debate related to Barkley’s statement (and there is also commercial value in that articulation), LeBron seems to act as a better ambassador for a global sport and sports league. Good role models in basketball and other sports are very important at a point in time where the ideals of young people have changed and where these young people to a larger extent function as travelling and digital billboards and as exponents for the sporting super stars that inspire them. Time is ready for more sporting stars as exemplary role models for a youth culture, which becomes more and more diversified. However, this must be orchestrated in a way that acknowledges the most important differences between the game on and off the playing field. ‘Winning matters’ and the execution of the efforts to reach the pinnacle of LeBron’s performances requires intensive focus. These performances may happen in sync with the ability to accommodate and identify with the drama on the playing field in which players go to the limit and sometimes beyond the limit of what is required to win to the pleasure of fans. However, the behavior and actions of players must comply with the rules and regulations of society in setting the standard for being a strong role model.

LeBron James and the NBA is an image of interdependence

The NBA does not breathe well without its super stars just like the power of the stardust from top players like LeBron James is enriched via the best league product in basketball. This embraces the importance of co-creation and co-branding in the global brand positioning fight, which LeBron James and the NBA are part of in the competition with other sports, sport leagues and sports stars. The need to stage a ‘game changer’ like LeBron James is only natural at a time where the dynamism of the sports economy works at rapid pace. With this in mind, LeBron’s innovative spirit to seek new paths in sports marketing plays a central role. LeBron’s high degree of self-regulation concerning content production (keeping his digital marketing company Uninterrupted in mind[2]) is a good point of differentiation and is at the forefront of the fast-paced digital growth in the sports business landscape. King James has understood that a sports brand must strive to create momentous sports branding experiences. For example, Earvin ‘Magic’ Johnson and Larry Bird are somewhat similar to LeBron James in that they are basketball brands. However, these three sports brands originate from different foundations in terms of time and context. A sports brand must develop its brand equity in alignment with the reality that surrounds it ‘right here, right now’. The hybrid sports branding relationship between the NBA and LeBron James exemplifies this scenario given the innovative approach to apply digital tools and to be relevant for stakeholders via the application of modern means of communication. LeBron James has turned into an athlete that has helped to build on the legacy of the NBA and to personalize a sport, which has lifted the league’s current ability to create fan followership and receptivity to commercialization.


[1] ESPN.

[2] Uninterrupted.

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