The 2015 NBA Finals could be about more than just legacy for the Cleveland Cavaliers’ LeBron James. How James performs in the championship series -- his fifth straight finals appearance and sixth overall -- could affect his standing as a marketing asset. That may have less to do with his abilities on a basketball court and more to do with the public’s frequently fickle opinion. A win or a loss could shift the perception of James as a crunch-time player one way or the other, as the result of the finals will leave him with either a break-even 3-3 record or a losing mark of 2-4 on the league’s biggest stage.
“Winning the [Eastern Conference title] five straight times is pretty amazing, but it’s not winning the finals,” Todd McFall, a visiting assistant professor of economics at Wake Forest University, said of the personal brand implications of this series for James. “There’s a big chasm there, rightly or wrongly. His legacy is going to be defined [largely] in the finals, like it or not.”
The public’s perception can have real effects. A loss for James could shrink marketing opportunities, while a win -- as the hometown savior -- could significantly expand his earnings potential, said McFall, who specializes in sports economics.
Among James’ backers, such as Dan Enfield, 28, the conversation surrounding the player’s legacy is cemented, the argument settled. Enfield, a Florida native, became a fan of James after the superstar joined the Miami Heat in 2010, and he stuck by the forward when he jumped back to his hometown Cavaliers before this season.
“He’s probably one of, if not the, greatest player of all time,” Enfield said. “Just the fact that he has been in six [NBA Finals], what else do you got to say? What more do you need?”
There is also a prevalent notion that James carried the Cavaliers, through devastating injuries, to the NBA Finals this season to face a favored Golden State Warriors team -- and that a win or a loss in the series should not change how the public perceives James’ career.
Don Roy, a professor of marketing at Middle Tennessee State University, said that the public may shift how it feels about James, but the effect on his marketing power wouldn’t be significant.
“I think the conversation is different among basketball fans, how they look at LeBron, the player,” Roy said. But in terms of marketing, he said James’ “brand is so established that winning a championship is like icing on the cake.”
— NBA (@NBA) June 5, 2015
In Game 1 Thursday night, James dropped 44 points, grabbed eight rebounds and dished out six assists. But his performance at the end of games, like the last, off-balance jump shot in regulation -- and the ensuing Cavs’ loss -- can perhaps sway some fans’ opinion more than every play before it. By almost every account, James is a once-in-a-generation NBA talent, but he has often been the subject of criticism, especially in connection with the finals.
“[Thursday’s night’s] game was a microcosm of LeBron’s career, writ large,” Wake Forest’s McFall said. “People are very easily critical of his game [Thursday night]. That’s kind of amazing.”
Lebron missed that last shot cause he ain't clutch _
— ✨Cinnamon✨ (@Prissy_Texter) June 5, 2015
LeBron sold out at the end. Fade away 3 pt shot at the end of regulation, 1 for 10 in overtime with 3 turnovers. 4 missed free throws. Smh
— N. E. M. (@NastyNemesis) June 5, 2015
Really seeing Lebron hate? Yall try to find every reason to bash the dude. He has 40. Yall weren't saying nothing till he missed 1 shot
— WhiteBoiBoogie✊ (@Colton_Weisbrod) June 5, 2015
The sports world can have a short memory. Winning sells and images of success can boost a player’s marketability. A loss could maybe do the opposite. “Sports fans like for their athletes to be winners,” McFall said. A runner-up -- as James could soon be for the fourth time in the finals -- not so much. “We don’t have those indelible, iconic images in our head of him winning,” McFall said.
James’ legacy will likely continue to be debated. When the 2015 NBA Finals conclude, some fans might shift their perception one way or the other -- and the star’s marketability could, perhaps, rise or fall. McFall and Middle Tennessee State’s Roy both pointed out that James has already pushed forward as a brand through his return to Cleveland.
“If you look at it from another angle, instantly making [the Cavaliers] a contender in one season would maybe offset the disappointement of losing,” Roy said.
And no matter what the result, James will still likely remain a force -- and a debate subject -- in the sports world.
And, in the words of fan Enfield, “The bottom line is anyone who hates [James] would be the first person to buy his jersey if the guy were on his team.”