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May 16th, 2010
10:16 PM ET

A Basket Case of Stolen Identity

Rick Horrow joins CNN's Don Lemon on Newsroom Sunday.

From Sports Business Analyst Rick Horrow:

Across the street from Quicken Loans Arena in downtown Cleveland, which locals call the Q, rises a massive mural of Cleveland Cavaliers small forward LeBron James.  The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is nearby – but it is James, not Bruce Springsteen nor Jimi Hendrix, who is rendered four stories tall, Nike logo intact, on a brick wall.  James is that city’s rock god.

He’s been on the covers of GQ and Vogue.  His long list of corporate endorsements includes Sprite, Glacéau, Bubblicious, Upper Deck, McDonald's, and State Farm.  He’s been the subject of multiple documentaries, and his Nike puppet is more famous that arguably ¾ of the players in the NBA.

If James leaves Cleveland after July 1 when his status as an unrestricted free agent kicks in, he’ll be leaving a lot more behind on the shores of Lake Erie than his mansion, his mom, and the $30 million that only the Cavs can guarantee (thanks to his seven-year tenure on the team).  He’ll be forfeiting the only opportunity in his life to be synonymous with a city.  And for a young man like James for whom image is everything, that’s leaving too much on the table.

James won’t get that status in New York/New Jersey or L.A., where celebrities take a number like everybody else.  Miami worships its Latin idols, and Chicago’s far too secure in its role as the Midwest’s only big-shoulder city to care too much about LeBron.  (And even he can’t touch Michael Jordan’s legacy there.)

NBA stars Dwight Howard in Orlando and Tim Duncan in San Antonio, both roughly the same market tier as Cleveland, prove how hard it is to steal a city’s identity.  Despite Howard’s $25,758,000 in annual salary and endorsements, putting him in 13th place on Sports Illustrated’s 2009 “Fortunate 50” list, his Slam Dunk title and having led the Magic to the NBA Finals last year, Orlando is still best known for a mouse.  And Duncan, one of basketball’s all-time greats and all-time enigmas, right behind Howard on S.I.’s list (#16, $24,098,705 annual income) has to sit and watch as the jerseys of teammates Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker regularly outsell his at the Spur’s AT&T Center, and only 1.7% of basketball fans named him as their favorite player in a 2009 poll (James captured 14.6% of the vote, Howard, 0.9%).

Being a city’s icon, apparently, is much harder than driving past Shaquille O’Neal in the lane.

When James and his handlers sit down this week to start seriously analyzing the offers soon to come, will status outweigh salary?  Or will brighter city lights and a chance to add serious heft to his haul of Big Macs and bubble gum win out?  Only summertime will tell.

Athlete               SI Rank          Salary/Winnings           Endorsements              Total_____

LeBron James       3                  $14,410,581                  $28,000,000                  $42,410,581
Dwight Howard    13                   $13,758,000                  $12,000,000                  $25,758,000
Tim Duncan         16                  $20,598,705                  $  3,500,000                  $24,098,705

Courtesy, Sports Illustrated 2009 “Fortunate 50 rankings”
Rick Horrow is the CNN Sports Business Analyst and co-author of Beyond the Box Score: An Insider’s Guide to the $750 Billion Business of Sports

Filed under: CNN Newsroom • Don Lemon
soundoff (One Response)
  1. Rick Ernzer

    A good city Doesn't need a sports icon. It will stand on it's own! And a sports icon (a truly good one!) will stand on their own without a city that goes gaga over them! Now days athletes need to think about their future without income from their sport which can come at any momment thrue injury! Mr James should do what he feels he needs to! And as far as money goes a truly good sports figure has it running in their veins they would be out there doing what their doing for nothing! Sports figures can still be big without a pet city!

    May 18, 2010 at 9:11 am |