LeBron’s Hated for Our Sins

I’m a Knicks fan. So I’m bummed about LeBron James’ decision to join the Miami Heat (a team Knicks fans didn’t need any more reasons to dislike) and the two other top free agents. The reaction to LeBron’s decision, however, and particularly the way it was made and presented, has said a great deal more about sports media and fans it has about LeBron.

I’ve already read that the way the decision went down made being a sports fan feel stupid, showed LeBron James to be a selfish coward, and has Ohioans more likely to join the Tea Party. That even the way he decided, with various teams travelling to Ohio to make their pitch and then waiting for his word, has caused potentially irreparable damage to his brand. And we know that it caused a very rich man to write a letter in Comic Sans font.

But for writers and fans to complain about both LeBron’s decision and the manner in which it was made makes a complete hash of what we presumably believe as sports fans. And it directs anger at LeBron (not that he cares) for playing his part in a narrative we created for him.

The easy contradictions are about the basketball: We value team, but say it’s selfish for LeBron to want to join other elite players. We value championships, but demand that he win them the “right” way. We value selflessness, but have a conniption over a player taking less money to be on the team of his choice.

The more interesting contradiction is the media one. Somehow LeBron came to embody hubris in his free agent decision making process which, it’s worth noting, lasted all of eight days. He went from being a great teammate and the present and future of basketball to the embodiment of all-that-is-wrong. And it’s bunk. If LeBron did anything worth criticizing, it’s that he overly honored the story that we all spent the last several years writing him into. We created this narrative around him and then got angry when he tired of being just an actor in it, and became a producer as well.

LeBron’s impending free agency has been a front page NBA story for about the last three summers. Each July, the Knicks, and other teams, would tell their fans that, yeah, the team may stink this year, but wait until the summer of 2010 gets here! All those moves that make the team worse right now but free up funds for LeBron will finally pay off. Just wait and see!

Coming into this summer, six teams had a shot at signing him, and each had sold their fanbases on the idea that LeBron might be coming to their town. By meeting with all of the team, LeBron let each franchise feel like they had a shot. That the last couple of years of austerity weren’t a joke. And that’s selfish? LeBron was just providing additional chapters to the story that we were already demanding he tell. He took a meeting with the Clippers, the Michael Steele of the NBA, even. That smells more of benevolent patience than ego, to me.

And as to the selfishness of having the teams come to him, one after the other, to make their pitches? Imagine the response to the alternative. Would things have been better if LeBron spent a day in New York being feted by billionaires and celebrities, and then one in New Jersey with Jay-Z and the Nets’ Russian super-villain of an owner, and then taking South Beach, and then touring Chicago, and finally LA, with fans going crazy and throwing makeshift “We Love You” parades at each stop? What would Mitch Albom tell the children?

Not even his awkwardly produced “Decision” special said anything in particular about him. (Whether or not it said something about ESPN is a different matter.) After we demanded that he be the star in a reality show-type drama, how could anyone be upset that he decided to take some ownership over that process?

After the years of build up, and the expectations for sports salvation put on a 25 year old who hasn’t yet won anything, there was no way this story would end with anything but a backlash against LeBron. And, as is usually the case, the way we’ve backlashed says a great deal more about us than it does about him.

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LeBron’s Hated for Our Sins

Why NBA Teams Should Think of Bloggers like they Think of Players

Can something as ephemeral as cultural footprint make something as concrete as a sports franchise more valuable?

The NBA season just started with the majority of its franchises struggling in this economic climate. Television ad revenue is down, season ticket sales have cratered, and the number of marquee teams that can reliably sell out arenas has gotten smaller. So how should NBA teams maximize their dwindling revenue sources?

They should start treating bloggers like they treat players.

By which I mean, when a team identifies a player that they think will help them win, they try to acquire that player. In the same way that all players aren’t created equal, bloggers aren’t either.

Let’s go to a case study.

In the 2004-2005 NBA season Washington Wizards point guard Gilbert Arenas had a great season. He was among the league scoring leaders and the leader of an up-and-coming team. His jersey, however, was not among the league’s top 25 sellers. He was a good player, but not quite a star.

In the 2005-2006 season, however, his jersey did make the top 25. And the year after, it was in the top 10. Not only that, but Arenas had become the kind of player who put butts in seats and brought viewers to the television. One who increased a team’s connection to its surrounding community. His game hadn’t changed, so what had?

He got a nickname. More than that, he became a character. “Agent Zero.” (After his jersey number.) And that happened thanks to a very popular, Wizards-centric, blogger. Besides just coming up with the “Agent Zero” name, the blog The Wizznutzz, unaffiliated with the team, also popularized the fact that Arenas had started to shout “hibachi!” each time he made a shot, and that he’d set up a giant tent inside his house to simulate high-altitude conditions. Their coverage of him went a long way from turning him from a player into a happening.

Even with his entertaining idiosyncrasies, Arenas was a high scoring guard who’d never won anything on a team that had more or less been moribund for years. His becoming one of the most popular players in a league with quite a few compelling characters was no sure thing and, without the blog’s help, may not have happened.

Think about what that means. NBA teams make money from every ticket and jersey sold, of course, but their value is also tied to the community they create. When the owners of the team think about selling, how much is having a player who’s become a local hero worth?

If the cultural capital generated by a great blogger moves the needle even 1%, the team will have realized millions of dollars in new value.

And what about when it’s time for a referendum on a new arena? What would a 2% swing in the vote because residents feel a real and deep connection to the team be worth? (Putting aside the issue of public money going for sports-related projects.)

If teams are trying to create value wherever they can, hiring a great blogger is a whole lot easier than putting together a winning team.

Why NBA Teams Should Think of Bloggers like they Think of Players