Why LeBron's 'Rise' Lowers the Value of Athlete Endorsement

Sports Stars' Empty Egotism Could Leave Brands Looking Elsewhere for Spokespeople

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Bob Boland
Bob Boland
Admittedly, I'm late in writing about LeBron James' much-talked about new Wieden & Kennedy-created Nike commercial. The spot, portentously (or perhaps pretentiously) called "Rise," has already been the subject of much public discussion and critical dissection. But I must also confess I didn't truly understand what James was trying to accomplish with the commercial, in which he enigmatically asks, "What should I do?"

Sure, Nike's motivation is clear enough. It is the beginning of a new basketball season and they have a warehouse full of LeBron James signature shoes and apparel to move. And Wieden must be ecstatic that the spot has generated so much buzz. But now that "Rise" has become the subject of all manner of parody, including a "South Park" takedown with ousted BP CEO Tony Hayward in the brooding role of LeBron, his motivation no longer interests me. Instead, the repercussions of what he has done give me pause.

With 'Rise,' James keeps asking for our attention and keeps leaving us cold.
With 'Rise,' James keeps asking for our attention and keeps leaving us cold.
Advertisers have turned to athletes as endorsers for more than a century. They seek out athletes for their fame and their following. But advertisers also desire athletes for their charisma, dignity and courage -- the courage to risk everything on a last shot, swing or fingertip catch where the outcome is truly unscripted and always in doubt. It is the singular power of sport and what keeps athletes relevant.

But this is where LeBron James keeps coming up short, as it seems he always wants to take the drama out of the contest and just get to right to the victory celebration. How can we forget his July announcement that he would be leaving the Cleveland Cavaliers to play with the Miami Heat, which should have been a press conference but instead was a live hour-long, prime-time celebration of himself on ESPN -- an event most thought ran 45-minutes too long and highlighted James' inability to fill the unforgiving minute with drama? (That's mostly rhetorical, because "Rise" reminds us of "The Decision" in the first second.)

His entire career has always had hype but it has been largely contrived hype, like his trademark pre-game chalk explosions that SportsCenter has made famous.

With "Rise," James keeps asking for our attention and keeps leaving us cold. It's not that James has done anything wrong. It's just that he doesn't offer anything dramatic or unexpected, the exact thing athletes are supposed to do. An athlete can be egotistical, he just can't be tedious -- it's the greatest sin an athlete can commit.

Say what you will about the great athlete-endorsers of the past but they held our attention both with their play and personalities. My New York University freshman sports-management students have just finished reading David Maraniss' book "Rome 1960." For me it may be the best sports book ever written and highlights the events of a now half-century-old Olympic Games. But just remembering the three great stars of those games who Maraniss profiles -- Rafer Johnson, Wilma Rudloph and a teenager named Cassius Clay who would go onto greater fame as Muhammad Ali -- demonstrates this connection of personal quality to enduring legacy. Johnson is dignity, Rudolph embodies grace and Ali is the revolutionary spirit of his age, each defining their time.

But who or what is James? He's a really good player, sure. But is James a champion, a leader, someone we cannot look away from? The answer is definitely not. He may be a guy who can move some SKUs, and maybe he is the best player around, but does he define his times? A great commercial may magnify the inherent qualities of a great athlete but even Nike and Wieden can't put in what nature has left out. Instead, James' "I don't care what you say about me, just spell my name right" egotism on display in "Rise" threatens both the value and efficacy of all other athlete endorsements. This is what concerns me most. Perhaps in this way James does really personify his times. Reality TV is full of people famous for just being famous. The kids from "Jersey Shore" demand far less for appearances and endorsements than big-name athletes.

With Tiger Woods sidelined from the endorsement game until he puts on another green jacket or hoists another claret jug, James is the athlete who is expected to set the bar for all other athlete endorsements. He is clearly one of the best-known people on the planet. He has nearly unmatched name recognition globally, especially in Asia, where he is the symbol of an emerging basketball-mad consumer class. But like any other commodity that is bought, sold or traded, when market leaders underperform expectations, a market correction ensues.

James being compared on any level to the CEO whose company created an environmental disaster is terrible for sports endorsements and it is "Rise" that begged that comparison. While "Rise" may move some shoes for Nike and win Wieden & Kennedy a mantle's worth of awards, it seems to also have the potential to hurt James and other athletes in a multitude of other ways. Athletes will always have a place in the advertising business but James' appearance in "Rise" doesn't make a strong argument for the immediate future. Maybe it is a case of a flawed messenger or a flawed message, but either way I hope LeBron James' play can eventually match his press, and that advertising executives will keep looking for deserving athletes who can both captivate us with their play and personalities.

Robert A. Boland is professor of sports business at New York University's Preston Robert Tisch Center for Hospitality, Tourism and Sports Management. A noted expert on sports law, economics and collective bargaining issues, Mr. Boland was an NFL certified agent for more than a decade. You can follow him on Twitter @RobertbolandESQ
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