- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 5, 2004

Give LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony credit: In three months, they managed to make the loftiest of expectations seem like an embarrassing understatement.

The arrivals of James to the Cleveland Cavaliers and Anthony to the Denver Nuggets have engendered radical, across-the-board transformations to two hapless franchises — changes that after half a season rank among the most dramatic in modern sports history.

Combining precocious skills, engaging personalties and poise under pressure, Anthony and James have improved the fortunes of their franchises far beyond any private or publicly uttered expectations of any team or league executive.

Among the key indicators of the rise of the Nuggets and Cavaliers:

• The 58 percent jump in attendance at Cavaliers home games is the largest one-year increase for any team not playing in a new arena since Michael Jordan’s rookie season (1984-85) with the Chicago Bulls. The Cavaliers, who ranked last in the NBA in average attendance last season, now are No.11.

• Jerseys bearing the names of James and Anthony are the top sellers in the league, muscling out those of established stars like Kobe Bryant, Allen Iverson and Kevin Garnett. James, whose jersey ranks first in sales, is battling the Atlanta Falcons’ Michael Vick for the top-selling replica jersey in pro sports. The 1-2 showing by James and Anthony is unprecedented in the NBA for a pair of rookies.

• The Cavaliers will appear on national TV 14 times by season’s end, surpassing the team’s total for the last 10 seasons.

• The Nuggets, who are in the thick of the Western Conference playoff chase, are on pace to post the largest one-year improvement in victories since Tim Duncan’s rookie season with the San Antonio Spurs (1997-98).

“We feel there was a good structure in place to start rebuilding the franchise, but this has been virtually off the charts,” Cavaliers president Len Komoroski said. “Every measurable indicator, whether it be merchandise, attendance, Internet traffic, media coverage, the performance on the court, it’s all up dramatically.

“We like to say that people are finding the Cavaliers by land, by sea or by air. And the best part is that this is only the beginning. We haven’t done anything in the playoffs yet,” he said.

James and Anthony, both 19, were snubbed Tuesday in the selection of reserves for next weekend’s All-Star Game in Los Angeles. But the numbers generated by the presence of the two young stars far exceed those of many players who will play in the game.

The Nuggets already have tripled their local TV ratings and generated more than $4million over the same point last year in gate and local sponsorship revenue since Anthony’s arrival. The Cavaliers’ increase at the gate and in local sponsorship is closer to $10million in total, with an even greater spike in local TV viewership and nearly half a season yet to come.

“This traditionally has been a very difficult marketplace for us with the Broncos and Avalanche in town. But we’ve gone beyond a second-tier conservation point to a real source of energy,” said Tom Philand, Nuggets senior vice president of marketing. The Nuggets initially hoped for 30 victories this season but are on pace for 48.

“Certainly we expected improvement, but everything we’ve received has been exponentially greater,” Philand said.

Particularly aiding the franchises’ rise is the better than expected on-court performance of both players. Despite their status as the No.1 and No.3 picks in last June’s draft, most basketball analysts projected both James and Anthony would go through a bumpy, multiyear transition to the NBA similar to Iverson, Bryant and Tracy McGrady, among others.

Instead, James ranks in the top 20 leaguewide in 13 statistical categories, including scoring and assists. Anthony is easily the top player on a team that also boasts Earl Boykins, Marcus Camby and Nene.

And the stellar level of performance has translated directly to sales. The Cavaliers, who used to have one of the smallest bases of season ticket holders in the league, now regularly draw fans from throughout Ohio, western Pennsylvania, West Virginia and western New York. Corporate sponsorship and broadcast reach through radio affiliates is nearly as geographically diverse.

“When you take a product that, to be charitable, was less than mediocre and turn it into two of the most exciting teams in the league, I can tell you that corporate sponsors and broadcasters are all over that,” said Dean Bonham, a Denver-based sports marketing consultant. “That excitement means attendance and sales, and corporations absolutely want to be part of that.

“But what makes this particularly impressive is what [James and Anthony] have done given their age. You look at the turnarounds that have been achieved and look at how young they are, I don’t think this has ever happened in professional sports, certainly not in the NBA.”

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