Brands Behaving Badly Bronze Medalist: Lebron James

July 28, 2010 by Matthew Schwartz

"If you can't beat 'em, join 'em!"

Athletes are some of the most charismatic brands in the world. We care about them irrationally. In them we see our highest aspirations of achievement, fair play, right and wrong. And their brand strength directly affects their ability to charge a premium, not only as players, but as endorsers of other brands. In short, the most recognized athletes are often everything a great brand needs to be. 

As possibly the most globally recognizable athlete after Tiger Woods (who had a fantastic 2009 destroying his brand), has any athlete destroyed their brand faster than Lebron James did in 2010?

Lebron enjoyed a pristine reputation as a good guy with a great game, playing the role of savior for the team he grew up rooting for—in the town in which he was raised.  Almost immediately upon his arrival into the NBA at the age of 18, he was seen as the one who would not only lead the Cleveland Cavaliers to their first championship ever, but also lead the NBA for the next decade and beyond.

In the blink of an eye, this good kid from a small town took the entire nation on a 2-week narcissistic joy ride to simply announce where he would sign as a free agent. The gluttonous process gradually turned off die-hard basketball fans, culminating in the widely panned advertiser-sponsored program, "The Decision." 

Virtually overnight, Lebron James went from adored and admired to vilified and despised. True, athletes have spurned their current team to move on to greener pastures, leaving jilted local fans behind in the process. This was different. This was much bigger.

As the most recognizable name in his sport, James's brand embodied the myth of the the sports superhero. He wasn't just the Cavs' Superman. He was the NBA's. By choosing to jump ship in Cleveland and play second banana on Dwyane Wade's team, "King James" threw that all away. Instantly he transformed from from leader to follower—the player who wanted the easy way out to winning. And with reports that the widely covered "angst" of his decision was a sham, a pre-ordained collusion to play with Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh, he lost his credibility. 

The NBA is littered with players of supreme athletic ability. Maybe not of James' caliber, but plenty close. Those who transcend their ability to become dominant brands are those who carve a name for themselves by leading their team and their city to "the promised land." While statistical achievements matter, its the fans who own what the brand stands for. The numbers of players who have won championships dwarfs those who are remembered as champions. Lebron James committed the cardinal sin of branding by emphasizing short term gains at the cost of long term pain. He confused winning a championship with being labeled a champion by fans and by history.

So now, James is faced with a no-win situation for his legacy and his brand. If he wins a title in a subservient role, it's already expected. There will be no great achievement, more like completing a challenging video game by using the invincibility cheat code. If, on the other hand, he does not win a championship, then he will be remembered as a failure who sold out the town he grew up in and the fans who gave him god-like status along the way.

About Matthew Schwartz

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