From announcing that he would be taking his talents to South Beach with “The Decision,” to returning to Cleveland as the city’s Prodigal Son, LeBron James has seen a vast shift in his public image. While the four-time MVP might be happy that he’s no longer the biggest villain in sports, the change doesn’t appear to be what’s best for the NBA.
James’ much-anticipated first game back with the Cleveland Cavaliers wasn’t even one of two most-watched sporting events of the night. The “Thursday Night Football” contest between the New Orleans Saints and Carolina Panthers was seen by 6.9 million viewers, compared to the 4 million people who watched the New York Knicks beat the Cavs. Even the college football game between Florida State and Louisville beat the NBA with 5 million viewers.
During James’ first season with Miami, he helped set ratings records for NBA games. His debut with the Heat was season by 7.3 million fans, marking the largest cable audience ever for a regular season basketball game, and beating “Thursday Night Football” in the ratings. The NFL Network, which aired both football games in 2010 and 2014, is in more homes in 2014 than four years ago. The Oct. 30 game marked the first time this season that a Thursday night game wasn't televised on either NBC or CBS.
Cleveland also averaged an incredible local 25.4 overnight rating when James played his first game in the city as a visiting player. The Cavaliers’ game against the Chicago Bulls on Friday night registered an impressive 12.4 rating in Cleveland, but it was less than half of what James’s return four years earlier garnered.
While it's difficult to draw conclusions from such a small sample size and this early in the season, the drawing power of "LeBron James, the villain," can be comparatively seen in NBA Finals ratings. In his first attempt at getting a ring with the Heat, an average of 17.28 million people tuned into the series, many of them hoping to see James fail. Three years and two championships later, the NBA Finals was watched by an average of 15.5 million viewers.
James only spurned the fan base of one NBA team, but his decision to leave his hometown drew the ire of the entire country. He went from being the favorite NBA player of 15.6 percent of fans, according to an ESPN Sports Poll, to being the favorite of 10.2 percent of fans, in just one season. James immediately became the most polarizing athlete in sports, and could be found near the top of lists naming America’s most hated athletes.
Just four years later, though, James is back in the country’s good graces. Days after he re-signed with the Cavaliers, a Harris Poll found James to be the most popular male athlete in America. In the year after “The Decision,” James wasn’t even in the top 10.
Miami has won its first three games, but the absence of James has become evident in the team’s local TV ratings. The Heat’s 2013 season opener and championship ring ceremony drew a 17.1 rating in Miami. Going up against Game 7 of the World Series, the Heat's opener drew a 9.7 local rating.