The LeBron Effect: The Impact on Cleveland Cavaliers Sponsorship
Basketball is a sport driven by the individual superstar - on and off the court. Just like there are certain athletes whose individual talents can take over a game on the court, there are certain athletes within the sport whose personal brand is so powerful that they have an ability to transform their entire organizations. One trade, draft pick or free agent signing can significantly impact fan and sponsor interest. It is a phenomenon demonstrated before when in the 1990s Michael Jordan transformed the Chicago Bulls franchise into a highly coveted basketball property for sponsors. The same can be said to be occurring now with the league’s biggest star, Lebron James.
In 2010 LeBron signed with the Miami Heat, leaving his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers, a team he had spent his entire career with. After four years with the Heat, James resigned Cleveland. With the NBA season approaching, MKTG examines the “The Lebron Effect”: how his departure and return impacted the Cavaliers’ sponsorship efforts.
The LeBron Effect
Reach of the Property- Having one of the most internationally recognized basketball players on the roster gives the team a much broader reach. The team no longer appeals to just a local market, but fans located in international markets are now engaged with the team.
Affinity to the Property- LeBron James is a favourite player of many NBA fans as his jersey is consistently a top seller. With his return to his home state of Ohio he was forgiven by many fans who were spurned by his original departure. This affinity for LeBron James translates to the team he plays for, providing the Cavaliers with a positive impact to their brand health.
Outcomes of the “LeBron Effect“
In the one season since LeBron James’ return to Cleveland, the Cavaliers have seen increases in a variety of key areas;
Attendance- In the 2013-2014 season the Cleveland Cavaliers were ranked 16th in the league attendance with an average of 17,358 a game and 5 sellouts. When LeBron returned for the 2014-2015 season Cleveland sold out all 41 home games with an average attendance of 19,877, ranking 4th in the NBA.
Television- LeBron James’ return to Cleveland provided the Cavaliers with a significant boost to broadcast viewership. The Cavaliers had an average local TV audience of 51,000 the season before LeBron’s return with the number increasing to 110,000 in LeBron’s first season back, the second highest among all NBA markets. The Cavaliers also saw a rise in nationally televised games, increasing from 9 to 29.
Social Media- The Cavaliers’ social media channels saw a significant spike in followers and mentions during September and October of 2014, the lead up to the NBA season. Adobe Digital reported that the Cavaliers social media increased 37 times compared to the same time frame the previous year.
New Sponsorship Activity Around the Cavaliers
With renewed interest in the Cleveland Cavaliers, the team has seen both increased activation by current partners in addition to new partners being added to the team’s roster. While new brands like FanDuel and Brew Kettle joined forces with the team, it was a piece of creative from Nike that served a clear example of how the addition of Lebron benefited the entire organization:
Nike’s “Together”- Nike released a spot showcasing the city of Cleveland and how LeBron rallied the city to come together. It featured other members of the Cavaliers and was beneficial to the whole team’s brand. Similar to the Toronto Raptors #WeTheNorth campaign, “Together” became the rallying cry for Cavaliers fans in the 2014-2015 season.
Spillover Effect: How LeBron’s Return Helped the Profile of His Teammates
Known for his ability to raise the level of play of his teammates, LeBron has also had an assist in building his teammates’ brands. Teammates of LeBron James have experienced a LeBron James “spillover effect” with the added attention LeBron has brought to the team. The other members of the Cavaliers have become more recognized as a result of the club’s increased attention. This resulted in a number of players seeing increased brand appeal.
Matthew Dellavedova- The Australian guard averaged only seven points in the regular season but fans took note of him during the playoffs due to his hustle plays. Dellavedova quickly became a popular topic of conversation during the NBA Finals and was trending on social media as his #DELLY hashtag had over 60,000 posts on Instagram. Dellavedova has since signed a sponsorship deal with Spalding earlier this month, a deal which may not have happened if he did not share the court with LeBron James.
Tristan Thompson- Thompson has always been considered a talented NBA player since he has been drafted by Cleveland. But earlier in his career he received minimal interest from corporate. However, since LeBron’s’ return, Thompson has made an appearance in a LeBron James Kia commercial and earlier this year he was named as a Tim Hortons nutrition ambassador.
Key Takeaways for Properties
Protect Long-time Partners- When there is renewed interest in a franchise as a result of a new player signing or trade, new sponsors may look for an opportunistic, quick win. From the property’s perspective, it is important to show loyalty to long-time partners whose support transcends any individual superstar, and ensure that their value is not diluted through new partners.
Be prepared for increased interest- The addition of an internationally recognized player brings international attention. The Cavaliers have addressed this and hired specific agencies to deal with their international sponsorship portfolio. It also may require the property to increase their own sponsorship staff as it was reported that the Cavaliers hired on four additional staff to their sponsorship department. Properties must anticipate how they can react to rising demand.
Key Takeaways for Sponsors
With that in mind sponsors must consider a few factors when entering into a deal with either a team with a star athlete or with the athlete themselves.
Team Sponsors Must Focus on Sustainable Theme- Much like how good sponsorship is not based on team wins or losses, a sponsor of a team should also not bet on one individual. A sponsor can have a strategy that includes the star athlete but it should not hinge on that athlete. Factors that are beyond the control of the sponsor can be a risky for any brand . Sponsors should instead focus on established themes like community, fan passion, and franchise history.
Athlete Sponsors Must Consider Market Relevance- A brand that is a sponsor of an athlete should be prepared for any possible trades or relocation of the athlete. If a local Miami brand was a sponsor of LeBron James during his time in Miami, it may no longer be relevant for the same brand to remain a sponsor after his return to Cleveland. However if you are a national or international brand you can activate around the relocation of the athlete. Nike took this approach when LeBron originally left Cleveland and was branded a villain by Cleveland fans for doing so. Nike then released a commercial with LeBron James playing to this theme.
Rarely does a player have such a large impact on the franchise they play for off the court. However, LeBron James is a rare athlete who can do that for a franchise, as is evident from his effect on everything from renewed sponsor interest in the Cavaliers team as well as his teammates.