LeBron James Gets China
If you’re like me, you couldn’t help but get caught up, at least a little, in the LeBron James spectacle over the weekend. As they anxiously waited for LeBron’s decision, sports fans around the world were asking the same questions. Would the 25-year-old “King James” stay with the Cleveland Cavaliers, where he has labored for the last seven years, leading the Cavs to consecutive playoff appearances from 2006 through 2010, but failing to bring home a championship? Or, would he jump to Chicago, New York or Miami in search of greener pastures and championship rings?
On the Saturday afternoon edition of the Larry King show broadcast in Beijing, Larry covered the decision with a number of guest commentators, including LeBron’s high school coach, several retired pro basketball players and Stephen A. Smith, a brash journalist who sometimes ruffles feathers in sports circles because he’s not afraid to speak his mind. The show looked interesting, so I settled in to watch, not expecting to hear anything whatsoever to do with China. I soon learned that LeBron’s decision was all about China — and its huge market.
As the commentators bantered back and forth, they all seemed quite knowledgeable and made good points, but they differed on their predictions as to where LeBron would ultimately decide to go. James played high school basketball in Ohio, so his high school coach made the sentimental case for Cleveland. Others made cases for both Chicago and New York, and Larry King made a big deal out of the fact that Mayor Bloomberg had urged LeBron to settle in New York, while President Obama was pressing the case for Chicago.
As someone who lived in NewYork for close to 20 years and who loves the Big Apple, I found myself agreeing with the commentator who argued that LeBron should choose New York and the Knicks. “Follow the money,” was his rationale. “If LeBron wants to be a billionaire, New York, the largest media market in the United States, is where he wants to be,” he said. “There’s nothing quite like standing on Madison Avenue, and the best way to build your global brand is to put on a New York uniform.” I found myself nodding in agreement.
At that moment, though, Stephen Smith interjected and emphatically, categorically and unequivocally said that King James was going to the Miami Heat to join Chris Bosh and Dwayne Wade, two other NBA superstars. In fact, Smith had been saying all along that LeBron would join the Miami Heat for three reasons. First, it’s all about winning championships, and Smith made a strong case that the Miami Heat would be virtually unbeatable with James in the lineup. Secondly, he said that it didn’t matter anymore what city a star plays for, it’s now about China, and he made an oblique reference to LeBron’s contract with Nike. And finally, he pointed out that there are no state and city income taxes in Florida.
Smith sounded convincing, and I was intrigued by his reference to China. For the rest of the program, I strained to hear more comments about LeBron and China, but no one picked up on it. While I thought I knew what Smith was saying, I wasn’t sure, so I did a bit of research.
The article, Nike Looks To China To Make LeBron A Billion Dollar Athlete, cleared it all up. It quoted Magic Johnson as saying the same thing as the guest commentator on Larry King. “If LeBron James wants to be a billionaire, or close to it, [he's] gotta go to New York.”
But, Nike thinks differently. As CNBC’s Darren Rovell explained in the article: “It’s clearly not about U.S. market size anymore when you talk about endorsements. Based on the numbers, China, whose 300 million basketball fans almost total the population of the United States, is the most logical place to look. “
Terry Rhodes, owner of a marketing firm in Shanghai, then made the connection that Smith had made in predicting that LeBron would go to Miami. According to Rhodes, the Chinese are attracted only to champions—hence his suggestion:“For LeBron and Team LeBron, the ultimate objective has to be get those rings onto LeBron’s fingers, and then, the rest of the opportunities in China really can become available.”
The article went on with supporting data.
“Ever wonder why Kobe Bryant’s jersey keeps outselling LeBron’s year after year despite LeBron’s meteoric rise in popularity in the United States? According to Rovell, Kobe’s popularity is “at least two times bigger” than LeBron in China, a fact that has caused Kobe’s jersey to continue to be the number one selling jersey in China (LeBron is number 2.)”
ESPN reporter Mark Schwartz summed it all up nicely: “If James decides that being in New York is not his best opportunity to be a champion, don’t expect him to succumb to the seductive appeal of Madison Avenue.”
When NBA free agents like LeBron James make choices based on how those decisions will play in China, you know that the vast Chinese consumer economy is not far behind. LeBron is a young man who has had only a little exposure to China, but he gets it.