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LeBron James and Deterioration of the Athlete Brand


Professional athletes are now so much more than their physical abilities. But other athletes and corporations can learn from James' recent "performance."

Defiantly, I sat in Del Frisco's in Manhattan and ignored the LeBron James "Decision" on ESPN (DIS). Aside from my lack of interest, I refused to be involved in any speculation or notion that his coming to New York would ordain him the savior of the greatest city on the planet. When the moment of truth arrived and he chose Miami, I took the boos that reverberated throughout the restaurant as sour grapes from New York Knicks fans.

As the days past, something else was happening. There emerged a real, visceral rejection to that moment he and ESPN had subjected all sports fans. Beyond the shared disappointment of New York and Cleveland fans, and beyond an owner who expressed himself like a lover scorned, there's a growing sentiment that this exemplified the spoiled, self-indulged athlete who makes us uneasy about lavishing praise and admiration on this generation of athletes.

The reality of this moment also seemed to slam head-on into our collective consciousness about what's troubling so many people. Our country remains in two wars and our economy is wounded as so many struggle to find work. Meanwhile, BP (BP) is destroying our ecosystem, the most amazing "Sportsman's Paradise" in the world, and threatening the economic lives of millions along the Gulf Coast. Sports have always been a diversion from the ugliness of the world. It's not supposed to be the embodiment of it. We've always thought of our athletes as folk heroes, with the emphasis on "folk." You know, sort of like us, but with incredible athletic skills.

It's easy to see why we don't like guys like Ben Roethlesberger or Michael Vick. Their criminal accusations and behaviors are clear-cut. Even for those who say Tiger Woods's behavior was not so egregious, many -- including major sponsors such as Accenture (ACN), Gillette (PG), and AT&T (T) -- weren't comfortable with his representation. So, while fans may still enjoy watching these athletes play their sport, the "athlete brand" is threatened by the human frailty of their lives and, more profoundly, the notion that they are not like us.

Mark McCormick, founder of IMG, created the concept of the individual athlete as a brand and Michael Jordan perfected it. Despite his off-the-court troubles, Jordan remained above the fray because his "brand" was established on the court first. And, like McCormick's "Big Three" (Gary Player, Jack Nicholas, and Arnold Palmer), Jordan's best days pre-dated the Internet and the vast media scrutiny of the personal lives of athletes. However, in today's media-saturated culture, sports television has the precarious role of antagonist and partner. As quickly as one network would agree to allow LeBron James to dictate the moment right down to who's assigned the interview, another would expose the private behavior of an athlete's life with tabloid-like sensationalism. For athletes whose athletic reputation is growing, a stellar personal brand is a must if they wish to garner marketing opportunities. Further, corporations will become more selective in vetting individuals to which they associate their brand identity.

On August 28, 1996, Tiger Woods announced his decision turn professional and did so at a press conference designed by Nike (NKE) and IMG. At that time, Nike CEO Phil Knight called him "one of a handful of athletes who transcends their sport." By the time Woods made his announcement, the Nike ad campaign "Hello World" was pre-packaged and aired immediately following the press conference. Woods didn't have to transcend the sport. The industry did it for him. His only job was to perform on the golf course and be a "good guy" worthy of our admiration. Albeit often unrealistic, we expected him and all athletes to be squeaky clean.

We don't want athletes to transcend sports. We want them to be sports... good sports. The kind of guys we want to have a beer with, as in the highly successful Lite Beer commercials of the '70s. We don't mind if they're entrepreneurial or have multi-faceted careers in television and entertainment. But we do want them to be aspirational examples of how we would play it. That's what makes them great pitchmen for everything from Hanes underwear to Subway sandwiches.

A few days after the LeBron James press conference, he came to New York to attend the wedding of fellow NBA star Carmelo Anthony. As he entered the private affair the boos roared again. This time it was in person and, by all indications, the booing won't stop anytime soon in New York and around the NBA. Certainly not the royal treatment afforded a king.

The question is how much has his brand been damaged? And, what lesson should other athletes and corporations interested in the "athlete brand" take from the behavior and outcome of James' "performance." I'd suggest they tread lightly with regard to proclamations of self-importance. The shelf life of an athlete is as short as our attention span. New York will get on just fine without one more self-absorbed millionaire. And, my steak was fabulous.
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