Why the NBA Is More Successful with a Popular LeBron James

John Friel@@JohnFtheheatgodAnalyst ISeptember 10, 2012

MIAMI, FL - JUNE 25:  LeBron James #6 of the Miami Heat celebrates during a rally for the 2012 NBA Champion Miami Heat at American Airlines Arena on June 25, 2012 in Miami, Florida.  (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

Trekking into foreign territory in his first two years with the Miami Heat, LeBron James became one of the league's most polarizing athletes seen in a negative light, transcending over every sport.

It was a combination of things that did him in, really. The ongoing cocky attitude he brought onto the court, his postseason failures not matching with his individual success, leaving the Cleveland Cavaliers and the manner in which he left all blended together to form a perfect storm of negative outlooks and poor reception.

Needless to say, it was obvious why James was generating so much dislike. Although he didn't nearly deserve as much as he ended up receiving from every media outlet in the nation, he still deserved a great deal of it because of the manner in which he left the team. No other athlete had conducted their actual decision to play somewhere on national television, let alone having their own special.

Would our perception of James have changed had he stayed in Cleveland? Probably. But the fact that he was willing to put on a show for his own free agency decision gave people the idea that he was a self-centered person, since it was rare to see athletes making life-changing decisions about their career on national television. Doing so—and then spurning the city you had played in for seven years—certainly didn't help, either.

The negative press fell on James and hurt his public image, though it didn't exactly hurt the attendance at the American Airlines Arena or the venues to which the Heat traveled. The Heat went from 15th and averaging 17,730 attendees per night in 2010 to fifth in 2011 with 19,935. It topped off at fourth this past season. They've also led the league the past two seasons in the attendance generated from their road games with the Los Angeles Lakers being a distant second.

The spike in James' attendance wasn't solely because he became the most hated player. The Cavaliers experienced a considerable jump in their attendance with James and a significant decline after his departure. The Cavs finished dead last in attendance the year before he was drafted and then found themselves ninth in James' rookie season.

The Cavs were in the top ten in attendance since James joined the team, and finished in the top five from 2006 up until one year after he departed. Cleveland still managed to finish third in attendance, despite going 19-63 and going on a 26-game losing streak, but most recently finished 19th in attendance this past season.

Wherever LeBron goes, the fans follow; and that's a big deal in Miami. Basketball has always been looked at as a second sport in Miami and sometimes even third, depending on how well the Marlins were playing. Despite the Miami Dolphins miscues and disappointment as a franchise, they had always been the No. 1 team in Southern Florida.

That's changing now. More and more people are renouncing their fanhood to the Dolphins because of the ineptitude of the franchise and are beginning to invest more of their sports-watching time to the Heat. Although it may be a sad fact, the team's that are winning in Southern Florida tend to end up as the most popular.

How else do you explain the Marlins somehow getting 70,000 fans in the World Series?

Miami is a cultural blend and full of people who are fair-weather fans. As much as "real" sports fans announce their dislike for the fair-weather or bandwagon fans, they're great for the league. They're filling the seats and paying for the costly seats, too, and it's because LeBron James is on the team. The Heat's attendance is averaging 2,000 more people per game and there are people who are even willing to go as far as standing just to watch.

James may not have been popular in the rest of the country at the time, but he was popular in Miami and that's a market the NBA would love to see gain success because of the money that is constantly being thrown around in South Beach.

Heat attendance was in the top five from 2005 to 2007, coincidentally the same years Shaquille O'Neal and Dwyane Wade were together. The fans in South Beach love a winner and even though we may dislike them for buying the high-priced tickets that cause the prices to inflate, they're exactly what the NBA loves to have. Plus, some of the bandwagon fans may end up becoming true fans, meaning that the NBA will have some repeat customers.

And how James is perceived elsewhere? His popularity certainly helps the NBA in terms of jersey sales: James finished fourth last year, and he's only going to bring more fans to the game through his popularity.

The fact that he just recently finished the best year of his career and has finally won a championship will only bring in more viewers who are appreciative of watching someone who could go down as arguably the best player in NBA history by the end of his career. As many people as there were who wanted James to fail, there were just as many who wanted him to succeed. James' legacy finally reaching its tipping point will only attract more attention from outsiders.

Of course, James being more successful does have its ill effects. The narrative surrounding James attempting to win a title was the biggest story the NBA possessed. There will be fans who will move on from the NBA because James has made them look foolish, but there will also be many new fans who want to see the NBA's latest and most riveting narrative yet.

How will LeBron James fare against the Los Angeles Lakers?

Now, now, I'm not saying the Lakers are the immediate favorites to win the West. They still have an athletic, hungry Oklahoma City team to get through, as well as a deep San Antonio Spurs team that's also hungry for one last run. However, the Lakers generate just as much attention as the Heat and you get a perfect storm when you combine one extremely popular team with another on the NBA's biggest stage.

Everybody has been waiting for the LeBron vs. Kobe (Bryant) matchup since the Heat staged this coup and well before the Lakers got Dwight Howard. Even though James has extended the gap between himself and Bryant since 2010, Bryant is still one of the league's greatest players in the Finals, as well as one of the world's most popular athletes. Matching him up with James may just drive television ratings to record levels.

Even another LeBron vs. Kevin Durant matchup would drive up ratings. Last year's NBA Finals featured some of the highest ratings in cable network history, including a 40.3 in Miami—the highest from that market for an NBA game. The ratings of the 2012 NBA Finals featured a five percent increase from the year before in the 2011 Finals, when James was far more unpopular amongst the masses.

You could throw any variable you want into the NBA Finals narrative, but the only constant to drive in more viewers is going to be LeBron James. Especially since he's in the Eastern Conference. Outside of James, the most the East has in terms of star-power would be Carmelo Anthony, Deron Williams and Derrick Rose, and none of those players have nearly the same clout as James.

Be honest now: If you're an NBA fan and your team doesn't make it, you want LeBron James representing the East just to make things interesting, because there isn't another team out East that has the talent and depth that can compete with teams like Oklahoma City, Los Angeles or San Antonio.

As well, there isn't a player who is capable of putting on a show as well as James at this stage in his career.

All of the success the NBA generates stems a great deal from James' popularity. There were just as many people waiting for him to succeed and with the performance he put on in the NBA Finals, he's sure to have generated quite a few fans who are willing to watch the duration of his career to see how it eventually pans out. He's the most polarizing figure since Michael Jordan, so it's only natural that his fanbase flourishes with success.

As long as he continues to stay out of the press by not saying anything worth quoting in a tabloid and proceeds to become more likable, the NBA is going to end up reaping plenty of benefits from the popularity of LeBron James.