Okay, I admit it…I watched the LeBron James “The Decision” special on ESPN. There was no Detroit Tigers game to watch, we had an abnormally quiet night in our family schedule and, well…I was kind of curious.
On the surface, the programming seemed like a marketer’s dream…an hour of air-time devoted to one of the world’s biggest sports celebrities…a charity tie-in and a chance for his sponsors to get some additional visibility. Millions will tune in, everybody wins, right?
Well, the marketers forgot to ask one simple question.
“How is this going to play out?”
Visibility is not always the most important factor when PR people make decisions about strategies and tactics. As one prominent sports PR executive told me recently, “It’s all about protecting the brand.”
There were several factors working against LeBron in this instance. First of all, there were six teams in pursuit of LeBron. By announcing his decision live on television, there were five organizations and their cities and fans that were getting slapped across the face on national television. Fans in those cities buy a lot of Nike and Gatorade products. This stunt just cost a lot of goodwill.
A second huge factor is the economy. I saw a lot of Facebook chatter throughout the day leading up to “The Decision.” Much of it focused on “why should I care where some millionaire is going?” With unemployment and under-employment running at the highest levels in 30 years, and people already somewhat disgusted with out-of-control athlete salaries, the spotlight grabbing one-hour special comes off as incredibly shallow.
Next is the charity tie-in. I love the Boys & Girls Club and it’s good to see them get additional funding. But, LeBron, Nike or Gatorade could have just written a big check. Frankly, I think the charity tie-in backfired, as the Boys & Girls Club looked like another cog in Team LeBron’s marketing machine.
Finally, LeBron’s track record does not put him in the same class as Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Kobe Bryant or even Isiah Thomas. They all have championship rings. LeBron has never even won a single game in the finals. Hard core basketball fans recognize LeBron as one of the most gifted players ever, but until he wins, he doesn’t merit this level of adulation.
So what would we have counseled LeBron to do? First, call each of the teams that pursued him recently and let them know with a personal phone call. It’s just common courtesy.
Next, spend a little more time thanking the Cleveland fans and Dan Gilbert publicly. They’ve treated LeBron like a king. But, that doesn’t mean he needs to treat them like peasants.
Finally, just hold a press conference. You didn’t cure cancer. You just signed with the Miami Heat. Keep it humble. That will play out well.