Four years ago today, a professional athlete did what we want all professional athletes to do. He decided that money wasn’t the most important thing—winning championships, having great teammates, and helping his community were. And the public was outraged.
I’m talking of course about Lebron James’s infamous decision to take his “talents to South Beach” and play for the Miami Heat. But primarily, I’m talking about the televised announcement called “The Decision” and the fallout that ensued.
What a great lesson on marketing!
As a refresher, James is considered by many to be the greatest athlete of his generation. He grew up poor in Akron, Ohio and became arguably the most famous high school athlete in American history. The year he graduated high school and entered the NBA Draft, the Cleveland Cavaliers won the 2003 NBA Draft Lottery, allowing them to choose their hometown hero. James lived up to the hype, playing seven seasons for the Cavs, winning two Most Valuable Player awards, and establishing himself as the greatest basketball player on the planet. But through it all, he never won an NBA title.
Then, after the 2010 season, James’s contract with Cleveland expired, making him a free agent. The basketball world became obsessed with where he would continue his career. Due to the NBA’s bylaws, James could earn the most money by staying with the Cavs, rather than joining a new team, so many predicted that he would remain in Cleveland.
James decided to make his announcement during a live television special, called “The Decision.” Thirty minutes into the interview, and with 13 million people watching, James announced he was going to play for the Miami Heat, famously saying “I’m going to take my talents to South Beach.” The Cavs learned of James’s decision minutes before the interview began.
The fallout was immediate. Clevelanders burned their once-prized Lebron James jerseys. Cavs owner Dan Gilbert published an open letter calling James “selfish,” “heartless,” and worse. The press and fans everywhere criticized the spectacle and perceived self-centeredness of the announcement. Even NBA greats Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson weighed in, saying they would not have switched teams to win a championship.
James’s reputation may be forever tarnished by “The Decision.” But here’s the funny thing! James took less money to play for the Heat (he’s never even been the highest paid player on his team!) He made that sacrifice to pursue winning a championship. He chose Miami because of his close personal relationships with Heat players Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh. James’s TV special raised $2.5 million for the Boys and Girls club of Greenwich, Connecticut, from where it was broadcast, and $3.5 million for other charities. And, oh by the way, the plan worked! Lebron and the Heat won two NBA titles and Lebron won two more MVP awards.
So, why has James received such unrelenting criticism? Because life runs on emotion, of course! It wasn’t what James did, it was how he did it—and how that made us feel about him. Had James quietly made his announcement, notified the Cavaliers in advance, or dropped the “South Beach” language, we’d probably all be focusing on the practical aspects, like his pursuit of championships or the money he raised for charity.
Lebron James is a brand, and his experience should remind us that our perceptions of brands are primarily based on emotion. It’s not which soft drink tastes better, it’s which one reminds us of the summers of our youth. It’s not which political candidate will help the economy, it’s which one we most relate to.
Now, four years later, Lebron James is again a free agent, and the world is watching his every move. Will he stay in Miami? Will he return home to Cleveland? Would he dare join a third team in pursuit of even more titles?
I’m interested in these questions as well, but mostly I want to see how he makes his next “Decision” and whether he’s learned from the last one.