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The case of LeBron James: performance – image = ?

Posted by: Patrick Kerns on February 04, 2011

As reported in my article on Super Bowl quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, sports stars ranging from Tiger Woods to John McEnroe have been plagued by image problems due to personal scandals. But history has shown that if the athlete performs well enough and makes an effort to address a scandal in an authentic and apologetic way, the world will be forgiving—especially if this effort is accompanied by success.

That brings us back to the case of LeBron James and our personal brand valuation about the basketball star back in July. To recap: we argued that LeBron James should have chosen the New York Knicks in his (now-infamous) free agency decision to maximize his lifetime earnings. Our analysis took into account four crucial factors: player brand (image and reputation), market (exposure, media weight, disposable income present), franchise (fan loyalty, size of fan base, historical team performance), and on-court performance (how well a player, and his team, performs). We argued that all four factors are intrinsic to a strong personal brand, but performance is by far the most important.

According to our valuation, LeBron had the player brand and the personal performance (minus the championships), but needed the market, the franchise, and most importantly, a ring. New York, with its endless opportunities, storied franchise and diehard fanbase, was the option that held the most personal brand potential—with none of the other candidates even coming close.

As we all know, however, LeBron didn’t heed our advice and ended up taking his talents to South Beach to play for the Miami Heat instead. The result? Angry fans and negative media attention. To make matters worse, LeBron’s failure to address these image issues (some would argue he even embraced them) caused his star to descend even further. And to top it all off, LeBron’s performance also declined—and with a lack of a strong team brand to support him, his personal brand value plummeted.

As the season has gone on, however, something has happened. LeBron and the Heat have figured things out on the court. Winning streaks and stat lines have started dominating the headlines, instead of the “Decision” debacle. LeBron’s on-court performance—and his team’s—has improved, and this is beginning to drive the brand once again.

The question now is, will performance be enough? As brandchannel reports, LeBron is currently one of the most disliked athletes in America, making any sponsorship bad for business. Our advice to LeBron? Keep winning and don’t forget to focus on your image, addressing the public in an authentic and straightforward way. Otherwise, expect marketers to be wary.




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