In the LeBron James Sweepstakes, the Cavs' China Ties May Trump New York

Tom DelamaterAnalyst IDecember 16, 2009

BEIJING - AUGUST 24:  LeBron James of the Cleveland Cavaliers embraces a student from a school for children of migrant workers at a promotional event during a visit to China on August 24, 2009 in Beijing, China.  (Photo by Feng Li/Getty Images)
Feng Li/Getty Images

Cleveland fans felt a renewed sense of optimism this week after the Cavaliers moved to solidify their ties to China and its ever-expanding NBA fanbase.

Two separate deals were announced that pave the way for increased exposure for the Cavs, who are already a fan favorite in the most populous nation on earth.

On Monday, the team announced a marketing partnership with the Tsingtao Brewery Company, whose signature beer will be featured at Quicken Loans Arena. The Cavaliers also announced that a deal has been reached to sell a minority stake in the team to influential Chinese businessman and philanthropist Albert Hung.

In addition to providing an infusion of revenue for the franchise, the agreements cater to the personal business goals of the team’s superstar and free-agent-to-be, LeBron James.

James has been open about his desire to achieve business success in China. It’s in keeping with his goal of becoming the world’s first billionaire athlete—now a greater possibility following the bizarre and unexpected fall from grace of Tiger Woods.

The deals announced this week solidify the Cavaliers’ popularity in China, where 34 of the team’s games were scheduled to be televised this season. Sales of LeBron James apparel already rank second in the nation, behind Kobe Bryant, and his affiliation with the Nike brand is well-known there.

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Bryant’s popularity in China received a mild boost when guard Sun Yue, a former member of the Chinese national team, played for the Lakers during the 2008-09 season. Although Sun’s contribution was minimal, his presence on the L.A. roster heightened already rabid Chinese interest in the Lakers, and Bryant, during their championship run.

Cavs owner Dan Gilbert has made consistently shrewd business moves since buying the team in 2005. He gave their home court a plush makeover while renaming it Quicken Loans Arena, infusing it with cash from his billion-dollar mortgage company. He also built a palatial new training and practice facility in the Cleveland suburb of Independence.

Perhaps most important, he hired Danny Ferry as general manager and Mike Brown as head coach, moves that have established a winning environment for the franchise.

Clearly, Gilbert’s decisions were made with an eye on keeping James happy and comfortable in Cleveland, knowing as he does LeBron’s love for the spotlight and personal infatuation with New York. Now, Gilbert has one-upped even himself with his groundbreaking business deals in the Far East.

Where LeBron will end up is anybody’s guess, and he’s not giving any clues. Magic Johnson recently suggested that James will choose New York for its media presence and marketing clout.

But LeBron is already a marketing machine, overseeing a burgeoning empire from his home base in Northeast Ohio. On that count, it appears New York would benefit from LeBron’s arrival as much, if not more, than he would benefit from a move east.

Furthermore, when it comes to basketball, James has stated that winning is the most important thing to him. In that category, the Knicks and the Nets lag far behind the Cavaliers.

LeBron is also loyal to, and proud of, the region and the people who helped shape him into the worldwide icon he has become. Couple that with the fact that the Cavaliers can offer him more money over a longer contract than any other team, and it’s clear that staying in Cleveland makes as much sense as leaving for the Big Apple—or anywhere else.

Gilbert is no dummy. He knows his bread is buttered primarily by the presence of James, who is one of the most recognizable icons of sport. Rather than wring his hands over LeBron’s pending free agency, the Cavs’ owner has acted decisively to convince James that Cleveland is the best place for him—not only to continue his pursuit of an NBA championship, but also to achieve his business and financial goals.

The courting of LeBron James will begin in earnest come June. Then again, Dan Gilbert has taken nothing for granted. He has used LeBron’s presence in, and affection for, Northeast Ohio to his advantage, while setting his sights on a faraway land that holds unbridled promise for his team and its star.