The one thing I don't think you can say about LeBron James, who announced his intentions to play for the Miami Heat tonight, is that he was selfish. The dude may just have given up a ton of money.
I'm not talking about the small haircut that LeBron will take to keep Miami under the cap (something which is counteracted by Florida's lack of an income tax). Nor am I talking about the 6th guaranteed contract year that LeBron could have gotten by staying in Cleveland (he should still be a max player in 2016 anyway).
Rather, I'm talking about the hit that James may have taken to his reputation for what looks to be an extremely unpopular decision.
James earned $28 million from endorsements in 2009, behind only golfers Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson. And James's 'Q' rating -- a measure of the number of people who both know him and view him favorably -- was a 34, placing him behind only quaterbacks Peyton Manning and Brett Favre, and Olympians Shaun White and Apolo Anton Ohno among active athletes.
No doubt there was an opportunity for James to improve upon these numbers. Take Michael Jordan, for instance, who was earning $47 million per year in endorsements by the late stages of his career. Adjusted for inflation, that's about $63 million -- more than twice what James now earns -- and Jordan remains by far the most popular athlete in the country today.
Much of Jordan's popularity, of course, stemmed from the fact that he was the ultimate winner, bringing home six titles to Chicago. And that's one thing that James will presumably find easier in Miami: winning championships. Even with their depleted roster, the Heat should go about 61-21, according to ESPN's John Hollinger. And that projection makes somewhat worst-case assumptions about the sorts of players that Miami will be able to surround James, Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh with. Especially two or three years into the James deal, the Heat will find a way to improve their roster though various types of mid-level exemptions, draft picks, and veterans willing to play for the league minimum to win a ring. If the pieces gel right, they might have a year or two when they win 70 games, and they're likely to bring home at least one title if not more.
Still, there are no guarantees, and Miami was hardly the only place that James could have gone to win a title. Cleveland lost in the conference finals in 2009 and then the conference semifinals in 2010 -- but they also won 66 and 61 games those years, and their luck might eventually have broken better. Chicago, having added Carlos Boozer to an up-and-coming young roster, would have been just as good as the Heat now figure to be had they added James. LeBron's task would have been harder in New York, but with Amare Stoudemire, some useful pieces that they picked up for David Lee, and a big contract coming off the books next year that could turn into Carmelo Anthony, the Knicks may not have been that far behind. Meanwhile, five years is a long time, and things could turn out badly in Miami if Bosh or Wade get hurt or the three stars can't get along.
And as I argued on Wednesday, it's not just winning championships that matters: it's how you do it. The narrative would write itself if James brought a championship home to Cleveland, or to a lesser extent to Chicago or New York. Miami, on the other hand, is already being branded as the 'easy way out', and the expectations that may rival those of the 1992 Dream Team. In the public's mind, James might need to win several titles there to equal what one could have done for him in Ohio.
In the meantime, there are signs that public opinion on James has soured significantly. In an unscientific poll conducted by SI.com, 81 percent of respondents now claim to have a negative opinion of James, whereas 78 percent had a positive opinion prior to free agency.
Some of the fans in the SI poll surely had a vested interest in the outcome -- particularly those who root for the Cavaliers, Bulls and Knicks, whom James spurned. According to commoncensus.org; the New York Knicks are the favorite team in 10 markets totaling 23.1 million people, the Chicago Bulls in 19 markets totaling 18.0 million people (the Bulls are popular in Missouri and Iowa, which have no NBA teams), and the Cavaliers in 14 markets totaling 11.8 million people. By contrast, the Heat's market is relatively small at 8.3 million people, and has a smaller percentage of African-Americans than do Chicago and New York. (Black Americans are two-and-half times more likely to be NBA fans than the population average, according to polling conducted by YouGov.)
But James may also have sullied his reputation among more neutral observers for the self-important and humorless way that he came to his decision, including a one-hour special on ESPN that was part newscast and part infomercial. Brett Favre saw his Q rating dip by 41 percent -- from 44 to 26 -- following his drawn out "retirement" process in 2008-09, which might be the most salient recent comparison.
Suppose that, had he stayed in Cleveland, James could expect to continue to earn $28 million per year in endorsement revenues for the next 20 years (including significant money after retirement, as is common for superstar athletes). Discounted at a rate of 10 percent per year, that income stream has a present value of $366 million to James. If an athlete's endorsement earnings are proportional to his positive Q rating, and James suffers the same 41 percent penalty that Favre did between 2008 and 2009, he will have reduced his earning potential by $150 million.
Of course, James may able to redeem himself through athletic success; Favre's numbers recovered some following his solid play with Minnesota last year. But the rewards may not be as great as they would have been in Cleveland, New York, or Chicago, and the public's tolerance for failure may be much less.