By Jeremiah Tittle
In New York
3 May 2011
Lebron James’ partial ownership of Liverpool and his related commercial tie-in is already paying dividends for the Merseyside team – boosting their brand with effective TV advertising time that could be worth $1m per minute Stateside.
On May Day, millions of basketball fans world-wide watched as the NBA’s prime-time favorites, the Miami Heat, won the first game of the Eastern Conference semi-finals over the Boston Celtics.
The series is a dream match-up for the NBA – the two teams attracted record viewership for the 2010-2011 season opener. This followed the summer of the ‘great migration’ spawned by a ratings success in its own right, ‘The Decision’. James’ polarizing ESPN TV special announcing his move to Miami was greeted by an uproarious crowd response of boos and cheers alike.
But it wasn’t the Heat’s home win to open this second-round play-off series that caught the attention of Scousers the world over. It was the unique post-game garb Lebron donned following the win. Shedding his typical preppy casual appearance, he filled out an Adidas–free Andy Carroll kit (Nike is one of James’ primary sponsors) sitting at the press conference table fielding questions from the media on the Heat’s solid start.
When an American reporter questioned James’ choice of outfit, he showed pride in his team’s win over Newcastle on Sunday. “I am following them from a distance,” he said. “Hopefully I can get out there and catch a game, but right now, this is the only game I’m thinking about.”
His humble affection for the Reds showed a glare of charm, but the smirk on James’ face told a different story. The realization gradually dawned on America that it had just witnessed an advertisement – integrated marketing at its finest – with a brilliant set-up by the reporter playing the pawn.
Showing public support for King Kenny’s men, King James decision to wear No9 – the jersey of the most prominent player acquisition for the club at the death of this year’s transfer deadline – would’ve raised more eyebrows if it weren’t for last month’s announcement that the two-time NBA MVP had purchased a share of Liverpool FC.
LFC owner John Henry’s decision to bring James on board as a minority owner was far from an ill-advised decision because the commercial has only just begun. The exposure a brand such as Liverpool FC received during this press conference and the subsequent replays on sports networks, media channels, and across the football-loving blogosphere is difficult to estimate accurately.
Twelve minutes of national television coverage during the play-offs doesn’t come cheap, but just imagine the worth of this type of endorsement if the Heat make it into the NBA finals.
Thirty seconds of NBA finals airtime cost advertisers $400,000 in 2010. Add in the endorsement from a current player of James’ stature, and the value logically exceeds half a million dollars for 30 seconds, $1m per minute.
That in a nutshell is the value to Liverpool of Lebron’s association: potentially $1m of ad TV advertising time exposure for a club that might (would) otherwise struggle to make an impact on the US sporting public.
It’s clear that Henry’s return on investment depends on James’ ability to navigate conflicting interests, and there was no better motivator than bringing James on as an investor.
James’ stake in the eighth most lucrative football franchise in the world was a key concession in this landmark marketing partnership in which Fenway Sports Group owners John Henry and Tom Werner broke from their business tradition of inking marketing deals for the organizations they own such as the Red Sox to sign a deal with an individual person.
Not just any individual person, but a 26 year-old athletic phenom who is fast becoming more brand than man.
Following the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, Lebron holds court as the 2nd most popular athlete in the billion-customer country of China (2nd only to Kobe Bryant).
In fact, the value of James’ play on the court – siphoning $15.8 million a year from the Heat – stands at roughly half of his value in sponsorships estimated at $30 million a year.
Since the Reds happen to be the most popular club in this highly-coveted market, Lebron’s investment in Liverpool is another way to gain market share in China while preparing for the next epic commercial event, the 2012 Summer Olympics in London.
Could we see a repeat of Michael Jordan’s ‘dream team’ fiasco? MJ stood on the gold medal stand at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona draped in the American flag not as a symbol of patriotic fervor, but rather catalyzed by the need to serve the brand. He covered the Reebok logo to keep the Nike execs content.
After James cashed in on England’s Bank Holiday to promote a club more than 5,000 miles away, expectations are set higher for him, although clearly not in terms of ethical fortitude. Rather, it will be interesting to see how he approaches the next 15 months in preparation for a golden opportunity to grow the Liverpool brand.
While in residence on British soil, could the summer of London become the summer of Lebron?
Jeremiah Tittle is manager of sports programming for Sirius XM Satellite Radio overseeing production on The Football Show with Giorgio Chinaglia and Charlie Stillitano and Basketball & Beyond hosted by USA Olympic head coach Mike Krzyzewski. He also serves as an adjunct professor at the Phillip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland. Follow Jeremiah on Twitter at @wwwjt
Research for this article was also provided by American University graduate Esther Song.