AllHipHop.com Editorial  

The Crossover Journey: Why Lebron Comes To New York

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First things first – I must disclose three facts in order for you to appreciate this column.

First – yes, this is a weekly column dedicated to business concepts, models, strategies and tactics that come from my background as a personal manager, monetary economist, entrepreneur and political consultant. I apply this perspective to the music business – particularly the Hip-Hop industry and culture.

Second, I am a life-long suffering supporter of the Philadelphia 76ers.

Third, my favorite basketball player is Dirk Nowitzki (and you can check the record, I publicly acknowledged this at BlackElectorate.com back in 2002: http://www.blackelectorate.com/articles.asp?ID=745)

You need to know these things to understand 1) why I deem the subject of LeBron James basketball career as worthy for this week’s Hip-Hoppreneur ™ commentary 2) that as a sports fan I require the prayers of even atheists and agnostics (as I said – I’m a 76ers fan) and 3) that I am ‘objective’ (my favorite baller is German and plays in the Western conference/why would a 76er fan want the Knicks lifted out of an era of misery?)

While I don’t offer full Hip-Hoppreneur status to Lebron just yet, I do find some things about his personality, brand, ambition, and business pursuits to be relevant to the kinds of things I’ve been writing about at AllHipHop.com for the past few months.

If there were one past column I would like you to read for some context check my January 12, 2010, “The Business Of ‘Story’ (A Rapper’s Brand and Image)” archived by clicking here:

It is from that perspective that I will make several points as to why I believe it is not only in LeBron’s best business interests (and that of so many others) to sign with the New York Knicks but that this event is highly likely if a particular event happens first (more on that in a minute). To this point we’ll travel outwardly, then inwardly.

Using ‘Story’ To Increase Business Valuation. The most compelling argument that I could make in favor of LeBron leaving Cleveland and coming to New York is the impact it would have on the business valuation of his ‘story.’ The key to staying ‘valuable’ as a celebrity or public personality is maintaining your magnetism, the ability to attract attention, people, and opportunities in intriguing ways. This is publicly achieved through our personal story and testimony, in life and even more powerfully death (why death? See Hebrews 9: 16-17). LeBron, once he wins a championship will have reached an important stage in his storyline and a plateau in his popularity, in a significant way. From that point on, he will have to work even harder to go to the next level, remain interesting, and maintain magnetism.

As Sade has taught us, it is never as good as the first time, and once LeBron gets ring #1 the intensity of his interest to the non-basketball public will plateau and begin to wane, as we are saturated with images of his excellence. Yes, LeBron will then be on the front-end of his becoming ‘old news,’ as we will all look to the new star who can dethrone him.

In a sense, at that point LeBron risks getting mired down in the kind of debate that only matters to basketball fans – is he the greatest ever?; where do the 2010 Cavaliers rank in history?; is he better than Kobe; will he be better than Jordan or Oscar Robertson?

The only unrealized monetary value of LeBron James then, is in his international appeal and in his off-the-court celebrity and reality. Yes, he has to keep winning in order to maintain interest, but for him to be a larger-than-life figure the emphasis has to now move from winning a championship to building a brand that allows him to achieve his goal of becoming the first $1 billion athlete.

In short LeBron has to transcend sports marketing and build a sports and non-sports empire which means he has to develop a leadership profile (the right mix of activism, community connection, and philanthropy), tap new market segments as a basketball player (this may mean playing in Europe or China at some point), and dramatically increasing his non-basketball and non-personality oriented income (through lucrative investment strategies and profitable entrepreneurial and business pursuits).

The argument that LeBron can best do this in Cleveland is simply not accurate. The argument that LeBron can earn more basketball income in Cleveland is probably true but paychecks for purely balling is not the scorecard King James keeps. Yes, his team can project a ‘cool’ and ‘hot’ marketing image from Cleveland that leverages his basketball celebrity into endorsement income that dwarfs anything he makes on a court but for LeBron to go where no other athlete has gone before, he needs a more interesting story, and one that increases his business valuation. There is no more intriguing and valuable story than LeBron James coming to New York City, becoming a pillar of the community, and allowing the landscape and machine of the # 1 market in the world work to create new attributes that make his brand more valuable. Only New York takes LeBron from ‘hot’ and ‘cool’ to ‘mature,’ ‘wise,’ ‘confident,’ ‘cosmopolitan,’ and even ‘progressive,’ and ‘conscious.’

But something does have to happen first, in Cleveland.

‘LeBron, As Judas.’ A Lesser Case For Staying In Cleveland. Having praised New York a bit it is important to note that LeBron has developed valuable marketing attributes like ‘consistency’ and ‘loyalty’ by playing in his home state. That LeBron has carried the flag for Ohio, Cleveland, and Akron when he could have easily chosen not to, is without debate.

An interesting argument made by some is that LeBron risks being seen as a traitor if he leaves Cleveland and the franchise collapses. The most vocal in this regard is the popular and always entertaining Sirius/XM sports talk show host Chris ‘Mad Dog’ Russo (http://www.sirius.com/maddogradio), formerly of the ‘Mike and The Mad Dog’ program on WFAN-Am In New York City. But I think Mad Dog’s point of view is the typical perspective of the sports world. It is not a crossover-marketing point of view.

While America is susceptible to the ‘hometown’ storyline, I believe LeBron is largely immune to the charge that he has betrayed Cleveland. This is because he has shown devotion to his ‘hometown’ since his youth, and because LeBron has grown up with a media spotlight on him since middle school that the entire world has seen. Mad Dog’s argument is that LeBron ‘will never sell another sneaker in the Mid West’ if he leaves the Cavaliers but because LeBron’s most valuable market segment demographic is so young (not steeped in ‘hometown’ loyalty like older generations) and became his personal fans (and not the Cavaliers) through ESPN, video game culture, and Hip-Hop, he has never been seen as a product of a particular region. He voluntarily has decided to associate himself with Cleveland, and unlike a rapper from the 1990s who needed street creed from a particular region or neighborhood before he blows, Lebron’s strongest qualities are trans-regional, even universal [yes I believe even the folks who carved the pyramid face on Mars know his name! (http://science.nasa.gov/headlines/y2001/ast24may_1.htm)].

But there is one essential accomplishment that makes a Cleveland to New York move seamless – winning a championship. Unlike previous sports greats who could always justify leaving a team because they had no supporting cast (the argument Dwayne Wade is clearly about to make) the Cavaliers have shown and proved that they have given LeBron all he needs to get it done. Yes, Shaq and Antawn Jamison in one season should be enough despite Coach Mike Brown. While many argue a championship ties LeBron more closely to Cleveland, I actually think it is the event that sets him free.

As long as Cleveland wins a championship this year, the door is shut on the argument that LeBron must stay in Cleveland in order to maintain his valuable ‘loyalty’ attribute. To me, LeBron’s loving and then leaving Cleveland for a New York adventure actually makes for a more powerful storyline. The only argument, in my mine that justifies LeBron blowing hundreds of millions of dollars by not adding business value to his story would be the need of family members, for him to be in Cleveland. Not I, nor any other person, commenting on the outside, know what LeBron’s personal circumstances or domestic life require better than him, but it is hard to imagine that anyone who is already used to LeBron being on the road as much as he is couldn’t have arrangements made for them while he is in New York.

With the right spin, LeBron’s media machine can easily spin a departure of Lebron from Cleveland in terms of a child leaving the family nest, and growing up to make it on his own. Here is where a tear-jerking Nike commercial featuring LeBron’s life journey in Cleveland, ending with him overlooking the New York City skyline, accompanied by music from Frank Sinatra and Jay-Z can boost value.

I don’t think it will be hard for LeBron to manufacture genuine tears at a press conference announcing he is leaving Cleveland. If he needs words to say, he can just channel in reverse, Allen Iverson’s touching energy explaining in December why he was so happy to come back home to Philadelphia. LeBron will need ghostwriters when speaking from the heart, but here is a key part of Iverson’s remarks, “People here watched me grow as a basketball player. They came in and cheered for me night in and night out. They gave me everything they had. That’s why it was easy for me to give them everything that I got. And I don’t know how the relationship, or how they reacted the way they did, or how they felt about me the way they did or they do. I think all that was a blessing. The fans here, they watched me be me. And like I said, they let me grow as a person. They watched me go through my ups and downs and I think this is one of the realest places in the world. The passion about their sports and I gave them everything that I had and I guess that’s why they responded to me the way they did

If Lebron wins a championship, utters words like this at a press conference, keeps a home in Ohio, and constantly gives back to local community causes, he will always be a beloved figure, even in Cleveland.

The New York Brand. From a Hip-Hop perspective the only thing that I can compare LeBron signing with the New York Knicks to is Tupac signing with Death Row. Setting aside the circumstances under which he signed with Suge, while in jail, and the East-Coast West Coast tensions, and his tragic death (which still breaks my heart), the point I want to make from a business perspective is that there were only three major power centers from a creative standpoint in Hip-Hop worthy of a business association with Tupac: Wu-Tang, Bad Boy, and Death Row (I guess Rap-A-lot and So So Def deserve honorable mention). Maybe in basketball today it would be Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles.

The only one that made sense for Tupac to be affiliated with, whose brand represented the greatest and most compatible reach into new market segments was Death Row. The Wu could have added artistic innovation and iconic energy (Wu Tang Clan is to rap what Kiss was to Rock – with personalities that lend themselves to Superfriends-like marketing). And Wu Tang also could have provided the most supportive environment for Tupac’s intellectual and activist pedigree (The Nation of Gods and Earths meets the Black Panthers). Bad Boy would have reinforced Pac’s reality-based hustler-like appeal with New York City lights for added drama. But Pac was already a star, so what Wu brought to the table wasn’t needed as badly, and there was the risk that the Clan’s lover for griminess could dull Pac’s shine. The obvious tensions with Bad Boy coupled with the fact that more New York-affiliation wouldn’t endear him to his West Coast base, ruled out rolling with Puffy. Only Death Row offered Tupac new markets (Southern California-plus), a marketing machine (no one was moving units like Dre, Snoop and Tha Dogg Pound) and a celebrity floss to balance his Bay Area activist tendencies and NYC street credibility (all three of which made him an icon of female marketing, as Pac appealed simultaneously to the conscious Sistas’, around the way girls, and the standard mass of women enamored with Hollywood status symbols).

Dropping ‘California Love,’ as the first single on his first album home from prison, was brilliant, in that context.

Going to Chicago brings Lebron under Jordan’s shadow. Los Angeles (and it would have to be the Clippers) takes us into a distracting and basketball-only centered Kobe vs. Lebron storyline. Only New York makes sense for Lebron, like only Death Row made sense for Pac.

And in New York you do get an intriguing sports storyline – can LeBron bring back the legendary Knicks brand? While LeBron channels Willis Reed on the court, the city that never sleeps becomes a co-creator in bringing out the other dimensions of LeBron’s personality, off the court.

New York, as LeBron’s marketing midwife, is perhaps the strongest argument against staying in Cleveland. New York works with LeBron to shape the market while LeBron only works from Cleveland to accomplish the same as it is today. The simple everyday acts and decisions of where LeBron decides to eat, party, sleep, and worship in New York City build his brand and produce non-Basketball related business opportunities that simply could not be created by his social life, no matter how interesting, in Cleveland.

In a sense this is one of the ‘secret’ benefits of Floyd Mayweather Jr. being based out of Las Vegas, rather than his native Michigan. His home city reinforces the brand, image, and reputation that currently makes him most marketable. Mayweather Jr. would get credit for ‘loyalty’ if he lived in Grand Rapids (and he does passionately support community causes there) but can we honestly say that his brash personality and lifestyle would thrive and translate into the same level of business, in that backdrop?

And lastly, LeBron’s success in NYC is not guaranteed, so ultimately the curiosity builds over whether New York can break LeBron. It’s the ultimate non-basketball competition – man versus environment. New York has been known to make boys out of man, in every sphere of life, but particularly in sports, as the history of failed New York Yankee free agent signings alone reveals.

I may get into this in a future column but even Alex Rodriguez, though getting over the hurdle of producing in prime time as a New York City sports performer, so far, has not conquered New York in a non-sports context. Derek Jeter has. There is a huge difference.

If Lebron comes to town it is not to win back-to-back championships alone, it is also to become the King of New York.

The Example Of Michael Jordan – What Not To Do. There was nothing more humiliating than the way that Michael Jordan was fired from an executive position by the Washington Wizards. It was embarrassing and demoralizing. There are few professional sights as sad as watching the media footage of Michael Jordan drive off in his car after the meeting where he was let go. Indeed, MJ contributed mightily to his misfortune. He made huge personal and professional mistakes and errors in how he entered the D.C. scene which contributed to his downfall. I know because prominent figures in D.C. who tried to guide him would confide things to me regarding this. But the worst thing of all was his putting that uniform back on and running around in shorts again. It ‘permanently’ set back the brand-image-reputation formula he was building as a businessman and it is one of the reasons that he is not getting the credit he deserves for the worthy job he is currently doing in the front office of the Charlotte Bobcats.

There are many things Michael Jordan could teach LeBron James on and off the court and I hope they have that kind of mentor-protégé relationship, or eventually develop it. But from a business standpoint, there is nothing more instructive from Michael Jordan’s professional career than insight into the fact that for all of his success and marketing visibility, Michael Jordan is a sports-only celebrity figure. This does not mean that he is not larger-then-life in a certain way. Michael Jordan exudes ‘class,’ for sure post-basketball, and he has done a good job of keeping a mystique about him by being selective in interviews and public appearances. But with Michael Jordan there is no public display of political consciousness or activism, no definitive reputation for, or evidence of, real business savvy (as is the case with Magic Johnson), and therefore ‘cool,’ and ‘class’ have not allowed Michael Jordan to evolve past underwear pitchman. At the end of the day, Michael Jordan’s image is becoming more and more of just that of an ex great athlete – a salesman of other people’s products without a leadership profile, struggling to get things done in a world without the sound of a basketball bouncing somewhere in the background.

If there were an individual who LeBron should study who created a post-basketball reputation that married ‘class’ with ‘shrewd’ attributes it would not be Michael Jordan but Dr. J – Julius Erving.

I believe a key to the development of this reputation and image was Dr. J’s decision to force people to see him as more than an athlete, and resist the pull of an NBA front office job, which he surely could have held.

Ask around Philadelphia, when you hear Dr. J.’s name, his business relationship with Coca-Cola (as a bottler not a product pitchman), still often accompanies memories of him in a 76ers uniform.

A Name Worth More Than Gold. From a distance, and from a business perspective, I like Floyd Mayweather Jr. a lot. Some people have laughed when he has compared himself to Muhammad Ali (in terms of talent and boldness of personality), and more recently Malcolm X and Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King (for his pioneering stance on drug-testing). But I see something else in what he is expressing. Sure, ‘Money May’ hasn’t displayed the kind of consciousness or activism of Muhammad Ali, nor has he had the cultural or political impact of a Malcolm or Martin but he realizes that for him to truly be great, in the sense of life outside of sport, he has to reach their level of influence. He knows that until he does so, he will lack their credibility and only be seen as a great performer.

There is a form of credibility that every great artist knows has eluded them, which others, even their own peers have (I believe this is the unseen artistic motivation that provoked Jay-Z to ‘attack’ Nas) and which giants in one field desire from another. And this quest for credibility is rarely about chasing paper. Many of us who make money the end-all in life may be shocked to learn that billionaire Andrew Carnegie desired to be seen as ‘a man of letters,’ and was ultimately frustrated by the fact that people were more impressed with his business success than his intellect.

All of this relates to LeBron’s business ambition and the challenges he will face to create the brand and legacy that leads to the hundreds of millions of dollars he wants.

It saddened me to see Muhammad Ali ‘sell’ the name the Honorable Elijah Muhammad gave him (read it here) which brought him influence, popularity and connection to an entire world outside of America. Yet, I understand the business logic in licensing the right to use a name, voice, or image. In a sense that is partly what the music business is about – the trade and commerce of intellectual property. So I don’t self-righteously judge Muhammad Ali or the family of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in this regard (who have ‘sold’ and licensed his imagery and recordings etc….)

But what Floyd Mayweather Jr. struggles to attain and what all of these examples reveal and I hope demonstrate to LeBron James is that there is a form of monetary value that only comes from true greatness and risk-taking in life, and stretching beyond the limits that people assign to you. The greatest value that LeBron James can create for himself, and I believe the most guaranteed route to the $1 billion he seeks is to be more than a performer or athlete.

When you think of Muhammad Ali, you think of more than just athletic greatness. The same with football great Jim Brown. These are the names of ‘great men’ that will live on beyond them (and make money and create opportunities for their descendants and others).

What I believe both of those men lacked (although Muhammad Ali had moments of it), which LeBron could surpass them in, is a strong business team – spiritual, shrewd and loyal- that can balance performance value, business acumen, and legacy, and convert it into millions and even billions of dollars.

What LeBron should understand is that what makes Muhammad Ali’s name and image worth $1 billion is not his accomplishments in the ring. It is the same for Michael Jackson’s appeal. Had the ‘King of Pop’ not also been a compassionate humanitarian who did things outside of the box, he never would have generated billions of dollars.

I was impressed that LeBron eventually wanted to take a stand to change the reality of what was happening in the Darfur region of Sudan (although I believe he could have been more informed about the historical, economic and cultural context of the conflict; to educate myself and thousands of others I conducted an 11-part series at BlackElectorate.com called, ‘Asking The Right Questions About Darfur, Sudan that I hope Lebron will one day read this. But in LeBron’s evolved comments about Darfur you heard sincerity and strength. He promised to pull in others.

Then, something happened just before the Olympics that slowed him down and redirected his energies, eventually causing him to pull back from what he desired to do.

He and the entire U.S. Olympic basketball team were obviously pressured by the NBA and others to not get involve in politics, and to only concern himself with basketball matters.

It is the same dynamic that caused Carmelo Anthony just a few years ago, to listen to David Stern’s instructions to not attend an event where Minister Farrakhan was speaking, although he wanted to. An embarrassed Carmelo would eventually tell the Minister what happened. To which the Minister responded that Carmelo Anthony should never allow anyone, even David Stern, to limit his freedom as a man.

I have always shied away from publicly calling professional athletes and entertainers ‘slaves.’ I love them. I see their potential for greatness beyond entertainment value, even if they don’t pursue it.

I never want to see their opportunities limited in life or business. I also don’t believe in forcing people to act like they are politically and spiritually conscious when they are not. I also believe that many activists blame the lack of celebrity participation in certain causes to cover their own lack of success and progress.

But there is something to be said for the manner in which popular male celebrities and athletes are emasculated, pressured or advised against forms of consciousness and activism when they seek to create a name for themselves outside of their particular profession. The argument usually made to them is that they will risk losing lucrative business opportunities if they take particular stands.

Yes, this may be true for the commercial forces that sponsor that particular professional sport, but there is an entire world (and economy) that remains available for those who do take risks and stand for causes and associate themselves with movements that are bigger than sport and play. In this era of globalization, social media, and viral and guerrilla marketing it is easier to do business outside of the authority of a sports sanctioning body. But it takes courage and vision to build a business model without the ‘expressed written permission’ of the NBA or NFL, for that matter.

I believe LeBron and his team know this, but I don’t know whether they have what it takes to truly be ‘different’ and revolutionary in this area.

Only time will tell.

New York City will challenge LeBron – intellectually, politically, and spiritually. It will force him to look inward, in ways that the comfort zone and familiarity of Cleveland cannot. The ability to leave an environment where you feel comfortable and succeed where you are not welcome in certain ways, causes struggle which forces growth.

As long as it does not hurt his family and he wants to, I hope LeBron will accept this exciting opportunity.

Proverbs 22:1 reads, “A good name is more desirable than great riches; to be esteemed is better than silver or gold.” In the long-term what makes a name more valuable than gold (but quite valuable in it too!) and live on to create value long past the death of any particular personality, is the power of their personal struggle and the attachment of a human being’s heart, mind, and soul, to eternal principles of freedom, justice and equality.

Any celebrity who associates their name with such attributes will forever be ‘wealthy.’

In that sense, I believe that LeBron James’ coming to New York would be more about his inward journey than an outward one.

And certainly about more than his dribbling and bouncing of a ball, in a new uniform.

Cedric Muhammad is a business consultant, political strategist, and monetary economist. He is also a former GM of Wu-Tang Management and a Member of the African Union’s First Congress of African Economists. He is author of the book, The Entrepreneurial Secret (http://theEsecret.com/). His talk show, ‘The Cedric Muhammad and Black Coffee Program’ can be viewed every Wednesday from 12 to 5 PM EST (USA) at: http://www.cedricmuhammad.com/media/. He can be contacted via e-mail at: cedric(at)cmcap.com

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