LeBron James was one of the most hated men in sports only four years ago. Remember this?
James was ripped apart by the media. He was vilified for leaving his hometown. His Q Score dropped and some brands probably thought twice before throwing endorsement deals his way. That isn’t the case anymore, as Forbes is set to announce that LeBron has overtaken Tiger Woods as the biggest brand in sports (value of endorsements, excluding contract/winnings).
So, how did LeBron dethrone Tiger?
Rebranding a star
Almost immediately after The Decision, LeBron James and Maverick Carter, his business partner at LRMR (LeBron’s management company), set out to expand James’ brand. LRMR and Fenway Sports Group (FSG) formed a marketing partnership. The partnership focused on expanding LeBron’s global brand, and also netted James an ownership stake in Liverpool FC. Fenway Sports Group had already made in-roads in Europe and China, and both LRMR and FSG would benefit from the relationship.
However, the deal still didn’t help LeBron’s brand at home. LRMR then embarked on a marketing campaign that may seem odd now. LeBron embraced the role of villain on the court, through social media and via marketing. Even his ‘What should I do?’ Nike campaign acknowledged that he couldn’t please everyone.
The villain role never really felt right, and it could have limited his endorsement opportunities. Family-friendly brands don’t use guys like Richard Sherman for a reason. LeBron and his team at LRMR would have to change their strategy.
Winning on the court
Over the next few years, LeBron James won two NBA championships, an Olympic gold medal, two regular-season MVPs and two NBA finals MVPs. His dominance on the court made fans forget about The Decision, and brands such as McDonald’s and Samsung featured him more often.
Some say winning fixes everything. For James that seemed to be the case. The more he won, the more marketable he became. He was no longer the villain, and he was about to take control of how he was portrayed off the court.
LRMR and LeBron take control
LeBron, Maverick Carter and LRMR have been highly engaged with the development of LeBron’s most recent marketing campaigns. As pointed out by Michael Wilbon, LeBron has used non-traditional marketing channels for his brand activations. For Champs, James has a digital media-only deal. His Dunkin’ Donuts campaign aired only in Asia. James was also extremely involved with the production of his Beats By Dre commercial.
James and LRMR understand that the marketplace is shifting. It is no longer enough to star in a television commercial during the Super Bowl. Athletes must engage consumers in myriad ways: digital and social media, streaming content and athlete-to-fan interaction. The fact that LRMR has recognized and succeeded in this space provides more value to LeBron’s partners.
The biggest brand in sports
All of these endorsements have added up for LeBron, and this is likely just the beginning. LeBron heading back to Cleveland makes him even more likable. James already has deals with Nike, McDonald’s, Samsung, Beats by Dre, Dunkin’ Donuts and Audemars Piguet watches, and he is in position to add more if he chooses. With Maverick Carter at his side, we know that whatever LeBron chooses will align with his marketing strategy.
LRMR has signed other marketable athletes such as Johnny Manziel. James and Maverick Carter are even producing television shows for Starz and Disney XD. As LRMR grows, so do LeBron’s profits. Four years ago, it didn’t seem likely that he would pass Tiger as the most endorsed athlete in the U.S.. However, LeBron can now add another proverbial jewel to his crown, as he owns the top brand value among athletes.
Michael Colangelo is Assistant Director at the USC Sports Business Institute and Senior Editor of The Fields of Green.