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Could LeBron James ever pass Michael Jordan in marketing?

Jun 18, 2012, 6:57 PM EDT

Miami Heat LeBron James during practice Getty Images

Michael Jordan remains the undisputed king of NBA marketing.

Nine years since he stepped on an NBA court — and 14 years since the Jordan we prefer to remember in Chicago — Jordan still dominates NBA marketing and is estimated to make around $60 million annually in endorsements. The Air Jordan Nike brand still accounts for three out of every four basketball shoes sold in this country. He still has lucrative endorsement deals with Gatorade, Hanes and others.

Could LeBron James ever reach those kinds of heights?

It seems unlikely right now, with LeBron’s popularity severely damaged by how “the decision” was handled. But there was a time when experts thought Kobe Bryant’s image would never rebound, but it has. If LeBron wins rings — plural, not one — his legacy changes. And that all starts with ring number one, which he is as close to now as he has ever been.

Keith Turco wrote at Forbes he thinks LeBron could reach the Jordan stratosphere.

LeBron has to earn a ring to even be considered in this conversation, and quite frankly not just one ring is enough. A ring would put him in the same consideration set, but it would not automatically give him a seat at the table. In order for him (or anyone else … um, Kobe maybe?) to impact the marketing world and the economy the way Jordan did, he needs to deliver a “first….”

To succeed, LeBron needs to leverage new avenues today that didn’t exist for Jordan. He must embrace new media and technology and learn from others who tried and failed (can you say Shazam and Shaq?). Knowing when to say no is just as important as seizing the opportunities that are out there.

Winning the championship and getting the ring are the first steps. The path is there. James needs to rise to the next level to realize marketing success and significant economic impact. He must figure out the “first” that will lead him there.

I’m not convinced, you could argue Kevin Durant has maybe a better chance.

But LeBron could still become the global icon for basketball he wants to be, with some rings and a push from Nike. Still, the Jordan summit is a long climb away.

  1. camnellum12 - Jun 18, 2012 at 7:09 PM

    I doubt it, Michael Jordan’s marketing is half the reason why people love him. Jordan literally had people die over his sneakers, I can’t say that’ll happen over some LeBron VIIII’s. Hopefully LeBron will just do his thing and avoid trying to reach Jordan, because apparently he’s the measuring stick for success for some reason.

    But I have a question though. If Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was more media friendly and had half of MJ’s endorsements, would he have a statue outside of Staples?

  2. 808raiderinparadise - Jun 18, 2012 at 7:13 PM

    Short answer …. NO.

    He could help his cause by doing the dunk contest and winning it. Winning multiple rings.

    But it simply won’t matter, there are so many loser/pathetic haters that dislike the guy for the decison: raised 4 mill for boys&girls club charities and for saying he’d wins 6,7,8 rings while laughing at a fan pep-rally playing towards the fans cheers.

    But Jordan as a marketing icon, was just original and can’t be outdone, its a classic and grown too large now.

    FYI anyone know if the Celtics are still in OKC, I know Doc Rivers had them packed to go ????

    This 2012 season LeBron will be…..

    League MVP, 1st team all Defense, NBA finals MVP and get his first ring 1yr younger than Jordan.

    Its a start i suppose, longgggggg way to go.

    • pudgalvin - Jun 19, 2012 at 6:32 AM

      First ring younger than Jordan is twisting things. He’s also played 2 more seasons than Jordan.

      The difference is Jordan, to the public, was the consumate professional. He didn’t hold pep rally’s until after he won. He didn’t tell people to go back to their pathetic lives after he lost. In front of the mike, he always said the right thing. Lebron just doesn’t have the media savvy that Jordan had which is why he won’t catch MJ in global popularity.

      On a completely unrelated note, I was just looking through some of Jordans stats. In ’89, Jordan averaged 32, 8, 8, and 3 steals and a block and shot 54% from the field. Good lord.

      • 808raiderinparadise - Jun 19, 2012 at 7:39 AM

        Nice points BUT LeBron’s 45 15 & 5 hadn’t been done since 1964, that a pure 25 years before Jordan’s 1989 season. I’m a huuuuge LeBron fan, and a Jordan fan, BUT LBJ should never be compared to Jordan, LBJ is a modern day Magic Johnson, plays any position, defends any position, has a big smile and is a great teamate, and the media was nothing like it is nowaddays …. Jordan with his affairs, gambling addictions, would have been thrashed so hard if he had a career thru the now, compared to the internet blossoming 90’s

  3. quonce - Jun 18, 2012 at 7:15 PM

    No. and all I read was the headline and hate the NBA and refuse to watch it and couldn’t tell you much post Larry bird.
    my 3 year old said no as well. so did my dead grandmother

  4. gmen4life33 - Jun 18, 2012 at 7:33 PM

    No, because MJ didnt have anyone to compete with (1st for sneaker, cologne, clothing, endorsement deals) and Lebron will always have MJ to compete with.

    Even if LBJ wins a few rings, and begins to regain fans, people will still love MJ too. His only chance would be if something crazy happens and Lebron starts averaging 45 a game, makes every clutch shot. and gets 6 rings. Then he might lol

  5. bearsstillsuck - Jun 18, 2012 at 7:48 PM

    This could be one of the dumbest arguments one could ever have with another human being.

  6. rodge1 - Jun 18, 2012 at 7:50 PM

    No one will ever be Jordan and no one will ever be LeBron. I am just grateful to live in a time to have witnessed both. I watched Jordan destroy my old Heat teams for years and now get to watch LeBron destroy other teams.

  7. charlutes - Jun 18, 2012 at 8:15 PM

    Ugh marketing? Who cares.

  8. charlutes - Jun 18, 2012 at 8:16 PM

    global icon? sports is about the love of the game not turd fame seekers.

    • blueintown - Jun 18, 2012 at 8:21 PM

      ^ wrong. At least not pro sports.

  9. mikejd12 - Jun 18, 2012 at 8:20 PM

    I’m a huge heat fan and Lebron is my favorite player, but this article is ridiculous. Jordan is Jordan 6 rings. Not saying Lebron can’t get there but this is way up in the clouds at this point. This series is far from over.

  10. touchdownroddywhite - Jun 18, 2012 at 8:24 PM

    Comparing Lebron James to MJ is like comparing Terrell Owens to Jerry Rice. Even if TO surpassed Rice’s accomplishments, it wouldn’t matter because people don’t like TO. Just like average people don’t like Lebron. One way or another he’s become a heel and not a face to the average American. Jordan gave you that blue collar feel. Lebron isn’t that guy and never will be.

  11. philtration - Jun 18, 2012 at 8:26 PM

    ‘Winning the championship and getting the ring are the first steps’

    No…. winning a championship is the first step.
    Winning more championships is where you go from there.
    LeBron puts selling himself and his image first and that is why he does not have a ring.

    Of course the NBA wants to change that so they can sell the LeBron image even more.

    • edweird0 - Jun 18, 2012 at 9:38 PM


    • divan22 - Jun 18, 2012 at 10:39 PM

      Sucks knowing he’s infinitely better than whoever your favorite player is, doesn’t it?

  12. mtheparrothead - Jun 18, 2012 at 9:48 PM

    He’d better try to out market Mj because there’s no way he ever outplays him.

  13. sufferingbirdsfan - Jun 18, 2012 at 10:14 PM

    2 letters NO

  14. imforbigblue - Jun 18, 2012 at 10:57 PM

    He will never be better in anything over MJ

  15. beaverdam21 - Jun 18, 2012 at 11:35 PM

    I don’t think he has it in him. Now, 7 years in he appears to be playing with the intensity to match his gifts. It may or may not get him some titles. But it appears to be an attitude he has had to figure out painfully and after a lot of aggravation. Jordan was natural from day one. As I recall his first year, second tops he came in in a first round playoff loss to the Celtics and put in 63 on Dennis Johnson, a defensive specialist on an elite team. And he never let up, ever. That perception is what the marketing is based on and continues to be based on. Lebron received the hype of the ages but only now, unfair as it is, despite stats and wins and awards, is he looking like the man. He’ll never get to that level, never. Not as good. Whether his fault or the media’s or some of each, just not as good and that’s what’s needed to get to be that level of icon, no matter how outgoing you are or how you are marketed. One fan’s opinion.

  16. badintent - Jun 19, 2012 at 12:20 AM

    LBJ has a global marketing team like MJ had but LBJ has invested his $$ with major sports teams too, Liverpool, a billion dollar team and has many business interests in China, which MJ didn’t. I look for LBJ to listen to his good Friend,Warren Buffet for biz advice too. PLUS, LBJ stays out of casinos( -$50 million lose for MJ) and doesn’t play golf and lose $ 1 million in a week to one player.( like MJ ) , Be like Mike?? F8ck no, be like James, get smart( white) and count $$ like Bill Gates.

  17. turnmymicup - Jun 19, 2012 at 1:14 AM

    LBJ doesn’t have to pass Michael Jordan. LeBron has had one of the hottest selling jerseys since entering the league. His shoes have done good. Those watches he endorses are fresh. Plus the tons of other things he has his hands on. Both LeBron and Jordan have made great business moves. No need to compare the two.

  18. xrateplaya - Jun 19, 2012 at 1:56 AM

    Dirtybird… Idiotic comment.. Get out of the ghetto man

  19. gmsingh - Jun 19, 2012 at 6:47 AM

    Kurt, you ask an excellent question! I sure hope he surpasses Jordan in mktg. because he sure as hell won’t surpass him in championships! It’s all about the Benjamins, right?

  20. loungefly74 - Jun 19, 2012 at 7:59 AM

    You want to know how powerful and marketable a player (any sport) can be? Ask your girlfriend/wife, sister, or/and mother if they even know who that player is…it’s a great gauge.

    I did ask them…Jordan was the only one who they all knew…none of them knew who Durant was…hmmm.

    • loungefly74 - Jun 19, 2012 at 8:00 AM

      I asked my own GF, mom, and sis to be clear about that!

  21. mannyicey - Jun 19, 2012 at 8:38 AM

    In a word: No. Let’s talk about why:

    Michael Jordan came to Chicago when Chicago was terrible and they eventually won multiple championships. They built around MJ. MJ WAS Bulls basketball.

    Lebron is the best player in the NBA right now, but MJ was thought about as being the best that ever lived. As a result, Nike built a marketing machine around this guy and helped build a brand unrivaled in sports. Remember Mars Blackmon? Remember when after he won the slam dunk contest, Mars would ask “Is it the Shoes?” “It’s GOTTA be the shoes!” And Spike Lee AND Michael Jordan’s brands took off!

    Here’s what’s missing from Lebron’s resume that will be difficult to build that sort of marketing dollar:

    1. Lebron, even if he wins a ring in Miami, didn’t do so in Cleveland. I know that sounds controversial; but Lebron needed to win in Cleveland multiple times in order to be put on the same plane as Jordan. But if he stays in Miami, he MUST win 7 rings.

    2. Lebron must repair his brand. I don’t know about him joining slam dunk contests, but if he does, he must bring other great players along with him. Remember when Jordan won his contests, he had to beat Dominique and other great players. It’s not enough to beat some jumper that marginal and with only 2 years in the NBA.

    3. Do movies. You gotta get some cameos in the movies.

    4. Give away tons of money. In Cleveland. Like it or not, Lebron is tied to Cleveland. And Cleveland is tied to Lebron. The Cavaliers are still Lebron’s team, whether they like it or not. So he must repair his brand in Cleveland.

  22. 700levelvet - Jun 19, 2012 at 10:52 AM

    Just stop comparing LeBron to MJ, in any way shape or form , be it marketing, game, titles, fan recoginitation…or whatever..It’s not close, and will NEVER be as close, you clowns just do this for hits on your webpage………..give it a rest

  23. okcallday - Jun 19, 2012 at 12:54 PM

    this actually made me laugh…real talk b!

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