First there was the launch of the animated web series called The LeBrons, which is meant to teach, engage and inspire his younger fans. Then, he signed a landmark deal with Fenway Sports Group that makes him a part-owner of the Liverpool Football Club — something that is sure to make LeBron’s brand more international than it already is. All this, and at the same time his jersey has been the top seller in the NBA for this season. The question is, will the efforts and the buzz succeed in improving James’s personal brand value in the long-term?
While The LeBrons is a fun and interesting way for James to use his voice and reach a new audience, the deal with Fenway Sports will certainly have a far greater impact on Brand LeBron. The agreement will present James with opportunities around the world that will help him become a household name from Miami to Malaysia. LeBron once claimed that he wanted to be the first billion-dollar athlete, and he seems poised to make this happen. The deal with Fenway will be the gateway he needs to stretch his brand overseas to an even greater extent than he can with basketball. The owners of FSG will treat LeBron as not only an athlete, but as an iconic, global personal brand.
Clearly, this agreement will help LeBron James increase his reach and brand value across the world. Last July, when Interbrand determined that LeBron would earn the most money and build the strongest brand in New York City playing for the Knicks, we weren’t necessarily considering the prospects of James becoming a part-owner of one of the world’s premier soccer (or football if you’re reading outside the U.S.) club brands. Aligning himself with Liverpool will obviously give him access to a whole new — and huge — potential fan base.
Overall, this is a very smart business decision, but LeBron must be careful of two things. First, he must be sure not to overstretch his brand too quickly or too far, a la Harley Davidson Cake Decorating kits or Hooters Airlines. Surely companies will be lining up to work with LeBron in the weeks, months, and years to come. But his brand today, which is primarily associated with power, incredible athleticism, personality, and style, remains largely consistent across his various partnerships, and this is important to continue going forward. Any future agreements he enters must still align with LeBron’s brand in the long run, even if they are financially beneficial in the short term.
Second, and more importantly, James cannot forget what got him to this point. While he claims “the first time I stepped on an NBA court I became a businessman,” he also seems to understand that the same court is the reason he can make his money elsewhere, saying “If it wasn't for what I do on the court, those opportunities wouldn't be possible. I know what's my priority. I know what comes first."
And yet, the timing of the launch of The LeBrons and the announcement of the deal with FSG suggests otherwise: that business may be a bigger priority than what happens on the court. Both announcements came when the Heat were in a very tight race for a higher playoff seed, as the team closed out the regular season. Surely, fans would hope his efforts were concentrated on that endeavor, rather than any personal ventures not related to his game performance.
While off-the-court activities are great supplements to James’ on-the-court play, he must not let these interests overtake his focus on performance. Though his jersey sales suggest that he is clearly a fan-favorite, we determined in our study last year that on-court performance is by far the biggest driver of earnings for personal brands like LeBron’s. Therefore, in the heat (pun intended) of a playoff race, making sure his game is in tip-top shape is absolutely more important than signing a new watch sponsorship, or anything of that sort.
To ensure that his personal brand continues to grow towards its potential, LeBron will need to make sure to keep his on-court play and his outside activities in an appropriate balance. This means that off-the-court exercises should probably take a back seat until the playoffs are over — which, for the sake of LeBron James, Inc., he better hope doesn’t come too soon.