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LeBron is begged to stay

Cleveland shows love for star as others woo him

- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 24, 2010

Their voices ringing with melodious bravado, the Cleveland crooners - among them Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland and celebrity weatherman Dick Goddard - breathe deeply and deliver the emotional crescendo of the profoundly moving anthem: "New York's overcrowded, those people are unbearable / And don't forget, the Knicks and Nets are terrible."

As they delicately hold the note, the choir of prominent radio personalities, musicians and city officials engulfing the sound stage warble a chorus that follows the tune of Michael Jackson's "We Are the World": "Please stay LeBron! / We really need you!"

Sports fans long have been aware that Cleveland Cavaliers star LeBron James becomes a free agent July 1, and the story has dominated websites such as ESPN and Sports Illustrated. But the biggest free agent signing war in NBA history has so transcended the world of sports that even the White House and the cities whose teams hope to land the reigning league MVP are getting involved in the competition.

Cleveland can't stand another heartbreak goodbye. The societal icons lost to other, bigger cities range from Langston Hughes to John D. Rockerfeller. Cleveland sports, however, are on a completely different level of despair - "The Drive," "The Move" and the Ted Stepien ownership era, among others, provided enormous pangs of disappointment. The city is desperate to keep King James, their deity of dunks.

Just 40 miles up I-77 from Mr. James' hometown of Akron, a Cleveland booster group produced the beguiling music video featuring Cleveland's celebrities - now removed from the internet - to amuse their coveted King James. But amid the lighthearted plea, the chosen representatives of Sixth City recognize that this is serious.

"It's good for the city," said well-known Norton furniture pitchman Marc Brown and featured singer in the video. "Before LeBron, maybe 5,000 people were coming to the game. He draws crowds."

But media-savvy New York City was quick to respond with its own video.

In the 49-second clip, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg stands awkwardly but enthusiastically in front of the camera and makes a bid to Mr. James to "make world history" and, invoking the Bible, to "lead [New York] to the promised land."

Mr. Bloomberg caps that bold statement and ensures groans of realization by saying "that was a quote from the King James version."

But why get involved at all? Mr. Bloomberg surely has more pressing matters than making a video for a brouhaha in a field that is completely foreign to him.

Even President Obama has chimed in. Mr. Obama, a Chicago native and unabashed Bulls fan, has attempted to gently nudge Mr. James in the direction of his hometown team.

Jeffrey Standen, a law professor at Willamette University and author of "The Sports Law Professor" blog, said the politicking surrounding Mr. James relates to the economic impact of a successful sports team.

"The involvement of these politicians shows that political leaders today recognize the importance of having a winning sports franchise," Mr. Standen said.

He pointed out that the LeBron James campaigns are the latest example of politicians trying to sell their cities. "Local political leaders have long played a role in attracting and retaining profitable industries in their communities. They now see that sports teams also generate direct financial value and also improve community attractiveness to other industries and workers," he said.

He did jokingly note that some of the tools cities use to attract factories and theme parks might not be applicable in this case.

"If lawmakers were able to vary the tax burden for LeBron, like they often do to attract new industry, then we'd really see cities compete for athletic stars," he said.

Mr. Bloomberg's video is part of New York's marketing campaign designed by the Bartle Bogle Hegarty advertising firm, bluntly titled "C'mon LeBron."

The media crusade features a Facebook page, live Twitter feed, professionally made T-shirts, large demonstrations, and a barrage of digital advertising in Times Square.

The "C'mon LeBron" website features videos by such New York denizens as NBC's "Today" show host Matt Lauer, chef Mario Batali and the Rev. Al Sharpton imploring Mr. James to reverse the Knicks' fortunes.

The city can't break down how much BBH is being paid for its work because the company is on a yearly retainer, according to the New York Times. But although this campaign is designed to invoke booster club enthusiasm indicative of smaller cities, New York still cannot avoid flaunting its overwhelming marketing resources - in this case, celebrities and politicians.

"More than anything, it's the in-group to belong to," said Kevin Quinn, an economics professor at St. Norbert College and the director of the "Sport and Society in America" conference that took place earlier this year.

"Politicians and celebrities are drawn to public attention like moths are to street lamps," said Mr. Quinn. "I think it's more schtick than anything else."

The number of "moths" keeps growing.

According to a New York Post report, the Knicks have formed a committee of A-list celebrities to help lure Mr. James. The members include Donald Trump, Spike Lee, Alec Baldwin, Tracy Morgan, Boomer Esiason and Chris Rock.

Mr. Rock already has his pitch for Mr. James cued up.

"You really want to live in Cleveland," Mr. Rock told the Post. "That's what I would tell him. Where do you want to live?"

Clearly, Cleveland faces a daunting media blitz from New York. But it's not giving up just yet.

The Lake Erie Crushers - a minor league baseball team of the independent Frontier League based in Avon, Ohio - is planning to offer Mr. James a max contract of $1,600. According to General Manager Ryan Gates, this package includes suite space and a host family to "take him in and give him home-cooked meals."

The Crushers will wear Cavaliers-themed jerseys next Wednesday and each player will wear No. 6 to honor Mr. James switch from No. 23. The team is also renaming its park LeBron James Field at All Pro Freight Stadium for the game.

Apparently, Cleveland seeks to trump the dazzle and boldness of New York's star-studded marketing campaign in the free agency battle for Mr. James with modesty and self-deprecation.

It's a dubious strategy, but Mr. Quinn said: "That's just Cleveland."

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