Why LeBron James Made a Sound Decision and how Cleveland may reap a potential Future Windfall
by Vada O. Manager
In probably one of the most eagerly anticipated pop culture dramas since "Who shot JR?" and the O.J. Simpson verdict, we finally know that basketball supernova LeBron James has opted to orbit in a new basketball galaxy in Miami with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. Certainly a coup for what some people consider " New York South" and thus the collective empathetic grieving can rightfully commence for his hometown Cleveland and the other unsuccessful franchise suitors.
During the course of my twelve years as an in-house sports industry executive and global business strategist, two of the most important lessons I have learned when arriving at such weighty decisions are: it isn’t about what happens today, it is about the next 10 years or longer; and, finally, don’t let emotion or too much sentiment cloud judgment.
As LeBron and his savvy management team (some of whom I have engaged with over the years, but not on this process) were weighing the options of where to sign his next contract, I hope these guiding principles were also somewhere on their whiteboards, PowerPoints or back of the napkin:
1) Championships matter. Fair or unfair, legendary players are judged by championships — not the size of their maximum contracts or endorsements. This is an often brutal reality and it makes sense to place yourself in the best position with the maximum available talent around you to achieve that Holy Grail. Despite all the attractions of New York or having Jay Z courtside in New Jersey, it is the main reason why we still speak glowingly of players such as Bill Russell, Michael Jordan, Terry Bradshaw and others that have reached the sacred mountaintop on multiple occasions. Truthfully, would we really pay any attention to retired NFL great Michael Strahan’s charmingly toothy on-air promotions of Vaseline lotions or soccer gear IF he hadn’t won a Super Bowl ring with the New York Giants? Highly unlikely.
2) The ACL x- factor. It is surprising that hardly any experts have mentioned the possibility of injury as a decision x-factor that could significantly alter the championship strategy of LeBron, his teammates or the franchises vying for his services. Obviously, LeBron is a healthy, well-conditioned athlete. However, he is also is a lightning rod drawing some of the most physical contact the NBA basketball has perhaps ever witnessed, maybe only rivaled by the pick-up games on New York or Philly blacktop courts. When you are a professional athlete, a career- altering ACL or other injury always lurks in the recesses of your mind. If you can’t fully perform, it won’t matter if the body of water near your arena is Lake Erie, the Hudson River or the Atlantic Ocean. Therefore, it makes sense to surround yourself with a triple-threat stable of proven superstars like Bosh and Wade (who like LeBron each willingly plan to accept less money than they could have commanded) who can temporarily carry the franchise with teammates as an injury risk management strategy that could impede a championship run. Again, any good businessperson anticipates risk.
3) Yes, you can go home again. The hurt in LeBron-loyal Cleveland is understandable. In the midst of that pain, some fans have already suggested permanent revocation of LeBron’s Ohio citizenship while owner Dan Gilbert torched him on his website. Perhaps Gilbert’s vitriol could have been diluted by a phone call from LeBron himself (not an associate) just before the announcement. But neither side should also burn bridges too quickly. Both LeBron and Cleveland need to have an outlook that is 15-20 years from now. This city and Ohio’s designated former "Mr. Basketball" will be inextricably linked forever. LeBron will undoubtedly continue his generosity to the youth of his hometown. As he stated, his potential for championship success is greater in Miami with Bosh and Wade right now moreso than hopes of personnel tinkering elsewhere. Should this youthful dynastic championship formula work, (Wade is the elder of the trio at 28; Bosh is 26 and LeBron is 25) he’ll be in a position by his next free agency to perhaps return to Cleveland in his early 30s and recruit another championship roster with him there. With the strategic and financial platform he is currently building, I could also envision him perhaps vying to become a future owner of the Cavaliers franchise (or another business) making it a potential title contender at some point. In any of these aforementioned scenarios, it undergirds something I have long witnessed in sports and politics: winning and solid performance are often "redemptive" of past ills. Just ask Kobe Bryant or Bill Clinton about that.
We indulge and even celebrate freedom of choice in every other career, business or sports endeavor. In this instance, three marquee players are willing to accept less salary to win rings. LeBron is a young man who bypassed college and has spent his entire life in Ohio. While this isn’t quite the equivalent of leaving home for university frat parties, this new team chemistry could unleash a Jordan-esque competitive output inside him. Many of us can relate to leaving the familiarity of home environs as a motivating factor in our own personal growth — let LeBron do the same and Cleveland may yet still reap a future championship and bigger economic windfall with their native son .
# # #
The author is the former Senior Director of Global Issues Management at Nike, Inc and serves on Fortune 500 corporate boards. He is the CEO of Manager Global Consulting Group. His practice is located in Phoenix, Arizona;Portland, OR. and Washington DC.