Commentary

LeBron Taking Sports Marketing To Another Level

It’s no secret that the world of sports marketing has come a long way since the days when Yogi Berra was pitching Yoo-Hoo chocolate drink, Camels cigarettes and Puss’n Boots cat food but Michael Wilbon’s piece on ESPN.com this week is a exploration of just how far it has leaped past Air Jordan in the days of social media. More than ever, it’s not just about television commercials. And LeBron James is the excellent case in point.

Wilbon, who writes that he was struck by a comment made by his colleague Magic Johnson that James seemed to be in fewer commercials than lesser players, did a little digging and found that it’s really the advertising world that has changed, and LeBron is playing the game as good as anybody.

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“After a self-imposed social media blackout during the playoffs, [James’] first celebratory post was an Instagram video, which ran the day after Instagram's new video feature was released,” Wilbon points out. “Some of LeBron's sponsors will debut an ad exclusively on his Facebook page to get an exact handle on how much ‘sharing’ is taking place. The sporting goods store Champs has a strictly digital relationship with LeBron, meaning access to his Facebook page that has 14.4 million followers, and his website. No television commercials, no print ads, by design.”

And LeBron’s "Beats by Dre" spot that broke earlier this month was “not traditional” in a number of ways, Wilbon points out. “For starters, LeBron essentially came up with the idea and designed the company's first pair of ‘sport’ headphones. Beyond that, he picked the director for the shoot, selected the music and has a financial stake in the product.”

Some athletes have had a stake in the product in the past, of course. Yogi, in fact, who put Yoo-Hoo on the map in the mid-’50s after taking a liking to the founding family, “became a vice president without portfolio or office,” Richard Sandomir wrote in a 1993 New York Times piece on the relationship. 

“He was a favorite at the factory in Carlstadt, N.J. He went to conventions for Yoo-Hoo. He owned substantial stock. In an era before athletes earned megabucks off the field, Yogi's Yoo-Hoo endorsement was a big deal.” But the brand changed hands a few times, and the relationship soured for several years before apparently being patched up in the early ’90s.

Yogi, alas, wasn’t tweeting his gems. And he didn’t have the global appeal that a basketball star does.

It’s really LeBron’s world right now, in fact, Bob Dorfman, executive creative director of Baker Street Advertising in San Francisco and author of the Sports Marketing Report, indicates toThe Oregonian’s Allan Brettman. 

Sports Illustrated just ranked him the world's most influential active athlete. And he's not just a pitchman, he's a businessman --with ownership stakes in the Liverpool soccer club, PureBrands, Cannondale bikes, and more. After last summer's Olympic Gold in London, James has been busy building his global brand, especially in the booming Asian market, signing deals to pitch Dunkin' Donuts and the NBA2K14 video game in China.”

And he’s only 28. “The LeBron brand is global, his celebrity transcends his sport, and his appeal crosses all demographics,” Dorfman concludes -- except perhaps Cleveland, to which he bid an overwrought farewell a couple of years ago. 

(“Any Clevelander that is a fan of LeBron is a brain dead idiot!!!!” says one representative fan on the WKYV Facebook page. But how quickly will that change should he return to Cleveland as a free agent after next season, as has been suggested?)

James’ investment in social media was borne out last month in a post on his own Facebook page looking for student interns “who have an interest in online content development and digital sports marketing.” 

The job entailed “researching trends, social-media interaction with fans, and assisting with content development on the website,” Chabeli Herrara reported in the Miami Herald.

“Unlike other athletes who defer to their agents to take care of business ventures, James heads his own company,” Herrara pointed out. “In endorsements alone, James earns $40 million from companies such as Nike, Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, and Samsung in addition to a partial ownership of the Liverpool soccer club, according to SportsIllustrated’s Fortunate 50, a list in which James placed second.”

But, witnessing his play in the final games of the playoffs, No. 2 is clearly not a position James is going to settle for.

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