For LeBron James, NBA Fans Find It Easy to Forgive and Forget

No. 1 Selling Jersey, Faithful Endorsers -- Now About That Championship

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As LeBron James plays for the National Basketball Association's Eastern Conference championship and a berth in the finals, brand LeBron may finally be on its way back.

LeBron James
LeBron James Credit: AP

In the wake of "The Decision" -- the poorly received ESPN special last July in which Mr. James announced on live TV that he was leaving the Cleveland Cavaliers for the Miami Heat -- the NBA superstar has quietly worked to repair his image, to the point where his No. 6 ended up as the league's best-selling jersey this year.

On Sunday, the largest audience in the history of NBA cable TV broadcasts watched Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals between Mr. James' Heat and the Chicago Bulls. Chicago leads the best-of -seven series 1-0 heading into tonight's Game 2.

That might not seem like much, but "it's a very good indication that he survived 'The Decision' debacle," said sports marketing expert Robert Tuchman.

"Most fans have memories like placekickers; they move on and forget prior gaffes," said David Carter, principal of the Los Angeles-based Sports Business Group and executive director of the University of Southern California Sports Business Institute. "The passage of time, and winning, certainly have helped him."

Ironically, Mr. James has done it by mostly keeping a low profile this season. While he has fronted the occasional spot for his sponsors, including a new State Farm commercial that began airing last month before the playoffs started, Mr. James has worked behind the scenes.

"His focus is basketball," said Maverick Carter, Mr. James' childhood friend and the president of his marketing company, LRMR Marketing & Branding. "We've done some things here and there, and he's built his brand in different ways, but his focus is on winning a championship."

Mr. James probably doesn't need to be any more ubiquitous than he had been. He and his handlers have picked the right spots, with endorsement deals with the world's biggest shoe and apparel company (Nike ), the world's biggest soft-drink company (Coca-Cola), the world's biggest quick-serve restaurant chain (McDonald's) and the biggest insurance company in the U.S. (State Farm).

"You have to define 'back,'" said Steve Rosner, president of 16W Marketing in East Rutherford, N.J. "If you're saying his brand took a hit after the way it all went down, well, it did. If you're saying he's 'back,' I think it depends on who you're talking to."

Mr. Carter has orchestrated several deals this year involving Mr. James, almost all of them under the radar with the exception of an agreement for Mr. James to endorse Audemars Piguet watches and timepieces.

The basketball star will be actively involved in a State Farm initiative titled "26 Seconds," which will use music, sports and video to keep youngsters from dropping out of high school (which they do at the nationwide rate of one every 26 seconds).

Also last month, LRMR entered into a business partnership with Fenway Sports Management, with Messrs. James and Carter acquiring an interest in the English Premier League soccer club Liverpool FC, ranked as the sixth most valuable football team in the world by Forbes magazine.

That's not to say Mr. James hasn't had his missteps. In the aftermath of "The Decision" came his much-discussed Nike ad "What Should I Do?", which appeared just before the season began in October. The 90-second spot from Wieden & Kennedy featured highlights of the basketball star hitting back at critics, asking: "Should I admit I made mistakes? Should I really believe I ruined my legacy? Should I tell you I am not a role model? Should I be who you want me to be? Maybe I should just disappear?"

Intended to start rehabilitating his brand, it instead infuriated most fans to the point where the spot become parodied all over the internet. Mr. James also caught flack in January for tweeting after his former Cleveland teammates lost by 55 points to the Los Angeles Lakers: "Crazy. Karma is a b----. Gets you every time. Its [sic] not good to wish bad on anybody. God sees everything!"

The Heat also got off to a slow start and did not finish with the league's best record, as many predicted. At one point, during a five-game losing streak, coach Erik Spoelstra told the media that the players were so dejected that a couple of them were crying in the locker room. That set off an internet and social-media deluge.

In addition, Mr. James' mother, Gloria, was arrested in April for allegedly assaulting a parking lot attendant in Miami Beach, and earlier this month Mr. James offended the mental health community when his microphone picked up his whispering "That's retarded" to teammate Dwayne Wade after Mr. Wade was asked a question at a postgame press conference.

Interestingly enough, after beating the Boston Celtics last week in the Eastern Conference semifinals, Mr. James apologized to the fans of Cleveland during another postgame press conference, saying, "The way it panned out with all the friends and family and the fans back home, I apologize for the way it happened. I knew this opportunity [to join the Heat] was once in a lifetime."

Matt Moore, a columnist for CBSSports.com, wrote, "It's strange that James would be having this resurgence, even if the evidence is based on that of the casual fan. The biggest storylines of this season surrounding James are of the whole crying thing, the Heat's struggles, his mother getting arrested, and him generally making comments which make him look bad. Those are the stories that reach casual fans."

But Mr. Tuchman said most fans, except for those in Cleveland perhaps, forgive and forget.

"He is still definitely in the top few endorsers in all of sports. No doubt about it. His brand is still very strong," Mr. Tuchman said. "It's pretty impressive considering he has not even won a title yet. I could only imagine where he will be if the Heat do win the championship."

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