And The Point Of It All…….

By Dr. Deborah Stroman, Ph.D
Updated: July 14, 2010

NORTH CAROLINA — I am reminded of Anthony Hamilton’s soulful ballad titled, “And The Point of It All,” when I think of the recent brouhaha surrounding LeBron James’ free agency circus.

Hamilton artfully croons his message of love to his babe regardless of the dark days of time spent away from one another or major hurdles that may come their way.

This expression of love in a direct, quick, and easy way seems light years away from the drama surrounding James’ announcement to sign his next NBA contract with the Miami Heat.

The point of it all appears to be that a Black man’s decision to exercise his freedom within a capitalistic society and commercialized sport business can lead to unnecessary mudslinging and hostility.

The points:

1. The economic engine of America is capitalism. This system is the framework in which individuals can dream, plan, and hopefully execute their strategy to achieve financial success. The profit that one optimistically makes can be reinvested in the venture or given away as a charitable act to serve those in need or less fortunate. Many argue that this system is what makes the USA great. Others deem the system to be a mere tool for those in power to keep the power and continue the “have versus have-not” politic of control and influence.

Regardless of one’s opinion, one should not confuse Dan Gilbert’s ranting about LeBron’s departure as anything but a man’s anger in losing his wallet.

It is very disturbing to see the owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers show such a childish attitude regarding a man who earned him and the city of Cleveland money, recognition, and respect. His idiotic comments about LeBron’s alleged betrayal and lack of fortitude only reflect how his own self-interest had become bigger than LeBron’s quest for independence and victory. Shame on you Dan!

2. Free agency in professional sports runs on the economic principle of efficiency. In the economic system, the owners seek to get the most out of limited resources. There is a finite number of megastar basketball players. According to Dr. Patrick Rishe, an economics professor at Webster University, the Cavaliers franchise is at least $60 million more valuable with King James ruling their court…and more likely $100 million more valuable. (This study is based on a review of attendance and fan cost indices for the Cleveland Cavaliers in both the 7 years pre-LeBron and 7 years with LeBron, as well as a review of recent NBA ‘revenue-to-franchise value’ ratios and Consumer Price Index data.)

And of course, with the addition of the calculation of sponsorship, media, and branding revenues of The Witness certainly laid the foundation for a heated battle for someone who could affect this efficiency model. Dan Gilbert and other owners must identify tradeoffs in the context of constraints. Seven years ago LeBron was the draft pick that turned this seemingly cursed franchise into one of the most profitable professional basketball franchises. In 2005 Gilbert purchased the team for $375 million hoping that his key star player would continue to stimulate interest, wins, and most importantly profit for himself. LeBron clearly interrupted his plans of efficiency and profit-maximization. Instead of betting the entire hand on one player’s desire to stay and play at home, Gilbert and company should have worked smarter over the years to provide LeBron with a real point guard to reduce the pressure on this young superstar. Gilbert simply placed his chip on a big victory in free agency and lost.

3. Black men are often times attacked when they seek to control their own destiny. When Curt Flood, the Black all-star baseball player who paved the way for this current free agency opportunity, challenged Major League Baseball in 1970 he could not have imagined that a decision to choose his own destiny would shake the foundation of professional sports in America. At the time, the reserve clause was that part of the standard player’s contract which bound the player, one year at a time, in perpetuity to the club owning his contract. Flood had no interest in moving to Philadelphia, a city he had always viewed as racist, but more importantly, he objected to being treated as a piece of property and to the restriction of freedom embedded in the reserve clause. His courage to stand up to owners and the system eventually cost him his career but opened the minds for future players to legally confront the player restriction regulation and win.

Now, let’s fast forward to the NBA off-season and the LeBron saga. LeBron was born and raised in Cleveland.

He chose to stay at home for his first job and hired his friends to help him maneuver the manipulations of mega-stardom. He worked hard to bring prominence to a basketball franchise that more years than not, struggled in attendance, profitability, and victories. LeBron turned the Cleveland mystique around and made it cool to wear the # 23 again, headbands, and the ever-changing franchise colors of wine, gold and blue. His dunks opened up SportsCenter shows, his charming smile graced numerous magazine covers, and made the country giddy over this young prodigy. His life off the court was scandal-free and he kindly represented the USA in the 2004 and 2008 Olympics. However, his leadership, the playoff run and record-setting wins for the Cavs didn’t matter to many of the self-absorbed Cleveland fans and in particular, their owner. They wanted more of LeBron – another contract, continued pressure of being the savior, and control of James’ own desires to explore new territory and dreams. Does this story sound familiar? To many Blacks – an emphatic yes! When White men control the system or plantation and the slave wants his freedom or “40 acres and a mule,” there is little, if any, understanding of the necessity to leave the seemingly great environment. How dare you LeBron? Cleveland gave you everything you could possible want or need!

4. The commercialization of sport can generate ugly consequences.

However, a good outcome can be made with careful planning. With all the various sport media and in particular, ESPN distribution outlets in print, video, online, and television serving up 24/7 reports on our athletes, can one even wonder why LeBron would choose NOT to accept the idea of creating a show about his free agency decision? The one-hour special was only sad in that 7% of the nation tuned in for this made-for-television spectacle. We have created a monster in many of our entertainment and sport stars and then we are surprised when they use the system to feed their own interests. Or more sadly, we can’t even accept when the monster uses the opportunity for good. Nielsen reported that the show peaked with a 9.6 rating from 9:15-9:30 p.m. when the program shifted to when LeBron officially made the announcement. That rating marked the highest non-NFL rating on ESPN this year – including their exclusive apology interview with Tiger Woods in March and A-Rod’s admission of guilt of using performance-enhancing drugs interview in February 2009.

LeBron and company simply leveraged the mechanisms of capitalism to partner with ESPN to provide a platform to give back to those less fortunate. ESPN created the storyline of LeBron free agency and then offered up the final cha-ching to crystallize the drama. Sounds like an Emmy for original score, casting and production to me! The station donated the block of time and LeBron negotiated the ad revenue for the Boys & Girls Clubs of America. In the end, the ESPN decision show generated $6 million in ad revenue and the eight sponsors featured in the show received $2.9 million in equivalent ad time. Sounds like a win-win in the midst of the madness. Many have enjoyed watching LeBron in Cleveland over the past seven years.

Although I am not a LeBron fan, I can include myself in that group of those cheering for a franchise that took on the burden of the entire city. As much I hoped that he would stay at home to build on his Cavalier legacy, his decision to go play for the Miami Heat and to “grow up and away” from his childhood home is admirable.

Clearly, there was a struggle to find the right solution to make everyone happy. He soon came to realize that his answer must and could only make sense for himself. He owes no one, especially Cleveland, more time, commitment or energy. His only mistake, if there were one, was in the delivery of the decision.

Perhaps he should have worked to provide more advanced notice to Gilbert.

However, we don’t know the behind-the-scenes dynamics, which may have prevented such action. If Gilbert’s vitriolic comments are any indication of the misguided passion behind this owner’s sentiments towards LeBron, perhaps we received the best delivery of the news that he could offer at such a sensitive time.

Life moves on and we can now happily get back to a much more broad coverage of sports. Quite simply, LeBron alone has to live with his free agency decision and the increased expectations focused in South Beach.

And that is the final point of it all.