In a crusade reminiscent of recent campaigns to bring the Olympics or a new stadium to their cities, a number of prominent elected officials (and of course rappers) have been engaging in a contest to land Lebron James, the all-star Cleveland Cavaliers forward. James, known in various circles as “King James” or “The Chosen One” is the most sought after free agent in NBA history, partly because so few players of his caliber ever truly become free agents. The closest analogy to this year’s “Lebron sweepstakes” is Kobe Bryant’s 2004 free agency campaign, a comparison that falls short because the sexual assault allegations brought against Bryant prior to the start of that season forced a more muted bidding war among Bryant’s suitors. Without any public indiscretions to temper their courtship, James’s suitors have been able to come out in full force.
At the head of this pack seeking to draw James is New York mayor Michael Bloomberg. Bloomberg recently cut C’mon Lebron” “a youtube video appealing to James to c’mon and “write the next chapter in NYC basketball history.” Bloomberg’s video looks like a pro-forma promotional video produced by the local chamber of commerce. That is until he drops this gem: “As the good book says, lead us to the promised land. And that’s a quote from the King James version.”
This savior analogy is taken a step further by officials in James’ home state where Governor Ted Strickland recently banded together with cast of notable Ohio figures to record “We Are Lebron,” a parody of the various “We Are The World” efforts, in which Ohio officials are bizarrely found referring to James as “King” (i.e. “Just tell us King what changes we must make”).
Since Bloomberg or Strickland wouldn’t extend, much less embarrass themselves if there weren’t real repercussions for either winning or losing James, the real question is how much is James really worth to these cities?
According to Cleveland Plain Dealer columnist Robert Schoenberger, James’s presence brings an estimated $48 million in annual revenue to businesses around the Quicken Loan Center, home of the Cavaliers, and $150 million a year when the Cavaliers make the playoffs.
Surprisingly New York’s estimates are much more modest: luring James could generate an additional $59 million in revenue, according to a report cited by the New York Daily News’ Adam Lisberg and Jose Martinez.
However, both Cleveland and New York’s estimates pale in comparison to Chicago’s—another contender in these “Lebron sweepstakes.” University of Illinois at Chicago economist John Skorburg projects James generating $2.7 billion over six years, or $450 million a year if he is able to lead the Bulls to deep playoff runs.
A number of analysts think all these projections are inflated. Julia Bennett, a strategist focusing on the development and promotion of sports properties and related brands at Virilion ad agency, says, “I just don’t think we can automatically say that money made on ticket sales or sponsorships translates into money out on the streets of the city.” Bennett goes on to add: “Arena workers certainly won’t get paid more, and so they won’t be boosting the local economy with increased income tax or more disposable income. The city won’t take more in taxes, either, because most teams have cushy deals with their home cities where their taxes are essentially neutralized.”
But unlike a new stadium deal, for example, James is at least guaranteed to bring a initial boost in revenue without taxpayers taking on greater liabilities as they would with a much larger venture like a new stadium. However, as another ballyhooed free-agent signing in this decade — the Orlando Magic’s 2001 enlistment of Tracey McGrady and Grant Hill — revealed, things don’t work out as planned. Neither Hill nor McGrady finished their contracts with Orlando, and the Magic never advanced past the first round in the three years these two played together. Moreover as William Rhoden, author of Forty Million Dollar Slaves: The Rise Fall and Redemption of the Black Athlete, might attest: given this nation’s history with slavery, there’s something disconcerting about a “bidding war” for a black male athlete.
Within a week, the winner of the “Lebron sweepstakes” will have been decided and this entire spectacle will have ended. However, it’ll undoubtedly take a few years to decide once and for all whether all this hype was worthwhile, whether it made any sense—or cents, as it were.