King James and King Cash

Chris Ballard’s Sports Illustrated column suggesting that LeBron James should sign for the NBA minimum in 2010, wherever he signs, amazed me for two reasons.

One is that I found myself reading, in the pages of SI, a totally new, non-ridiculous idea I had never considered before. SI remains a great magazine: full of great photography, great profiles of interesting athletes, great tear-jerking stories, and sometimes even great moral force. It’s never been so strong on the ideas. That’s not really what it’s for (though maybe it should be), and we’ve got the internet for that.

But, and this is reason two, “LeBron for a buck” seems like such a terrific idea that I started to go a little crazy for a couple of minutes after reading Ballard’s piece. “This argument is so convincing,” I thought to myself, “that LeBron’s actually going to do this. Not ‘should do it’; ‘will do it’. He has to. The value of being the guy who took the bare minimum to win some championships, who chose a franchise totally without regard to salary and gave up his own money to get the best teammates, is too big to pass up. It puts Jordan and everybody else, everybody in any sport, in the shadows instantly—even if it doesn’t work.” The ploy isn’t even vulnerable to the “Why should a rich guy be expected to give money back to some even richer guy?” line of attack, if the team agrees, in an enforceable way, to spend close to the salary cap on top players.

But in short order I came to my senses, as you probably already have. Here’s the problem with Ballard’s idea.

“I think it’s very smart,” says one Western Conference general manager. “LeBron’s personal brand is worth way, way more than any salary he could draw from a team. It’s myopic to think otherwise.”

This unnamed GM (I’m guessing his name rhymes with Daryl Morey) is obviously right. Considered as a revenue stream, LeBron’s future salary from playing basketball is small in comparison with the value he can potentially earn as an endorser, speaker, businessman, totem… the off-court value of the LeBron brand. And championships inflate that brand value. Sure, fans in 29 cities might look slightly askance at a move that could injure the competitive balance of the league for a while, but ultimately, championships are the sources of the best stories, and the stories are what makes athletes attractive. Stacked superteams aren’t bad for sports leagues, they’re good. (If they weren’t, the Premiership would have gone under ages ago.) When those teams win, we talk about “Are they the best ever?”; when they lose, you’ve got David and Goliath. Everybody loves to hate the Yankees.

The problem is that brand value is more fragile than the value of a playing contract. The personal-branding stream may be bigger, unless something bad happens to harm the personal brand—like, say, your supermodel wife chasing you down the street at 2 a.m. trying to kill you with the tools of your trade.

Think about Tiger Woods: he might not have done anything worse than let his attention wander to his iPod when he should have been watching the road, but the hard financial cost of what happened to him on Friday has to be in the high eight figures, no? How does he shape up as an automobile endorser for the immediate future? You think the ads where he’s giving away Buicks still work?—is GM the kind of firm that can afford to shrug off a little ridicule right now, play around with its image? Every firm that employs Tiger as an icon needs to recalibrate now. He has always been portrayed as sort of half-human, half-automaton, a mischievous magician you can cheer for in spite of his gifts from God. He has appealed equally to both sexes; I’m pretty sure that won’t be true anymore.

That’s just a subtle, perhaps even overstated example of how quickly a brand can be damaged by the actions of others, of course. Forget Tiger; think Kobe. Brand value is ephemeral, and not entirely within the control of the athlete. Good character and smart decisions can help maximize it, but they can’t guarantee it. Whereas an NBA salary—that’s money no crazed spouse or tabloid journalist can take away from you. It’s money they have to pay you even if your leg falls off (as Greg Oden’s probably about six months away from proving empirically). It’s the low-risk segment of the portfolio. And as an athlete, you’re made constantly, nightmarishly aware that any contract might be your last. LeBron’s not signing for (the equivalent of) a buck. But it would still be pretty cool if he did.