LeBron James is about to become the most sought-after free...

LeBron James is about to become the most sought-after free agent in NBA history. (May 7, 2010) Credit: Getty

C'mon, LeBron!

New York wants you. It needs you. Its mayor is willing to star in a hokey video to lure you.

But one of the many questions LeBron James must ask himself is how much he wants and needs New York, in business as well as basketball terms.

It is obvious why the Knicks and New York would like to have James - and why the NBA and its TV partners would benefit from his presence in the nation's media and population capital.

If you believe some impact estimates, the guy is a one-man stimulus plan.

One New York City-sanctioned study said he could bring $58 million to the economy, the Daily News reported, and Crain's Chicago Business wrote he could mean $2.7 billion to that city over six years.

(The estimates assumed James would land in the NBA Finals for the Knicks in 2011 and in multiple Finals for the Bulls. So far, he has been to one, which he lost in four games.)

In free agency, though, the ball is in the player's court, and thus the courting of James must focus on what is in it for him.

Presumably, money matters to a man who openly aspires to become a $1-billion athlete.

But every team other than the Cavaliers can offer him the same salary terms, so the focus has been on the endorsement end of his portfolio.


New York not key to riches

The widely held assumption is that James can secure more sponsorship money in New York than in Cleveland. That is not a widely held assumption among most who study this sort of thing.

"The knee-jerk reaction and conventional wisdom is that by coming to New York, he would further his chances for endorsements,'' said Andrew Forman, an associate professor of marketing at Hofstra. "He's already the highest-earning endorser in the NBA without being in New York. It's hard to say he's been hurt by being in Cleveland to this point.''

Forman said that, as a Knicks fan, he would love to tell James that coming here would boost his bottom line, but he said, "I'm not sure it really makes much of a difference.

"You could almost spin it another way, that him staying in Cleveland is a feel-good story about the local kid who stays after he could have had fame and fortune elsewhere.''

Rick Horrow, CEO of Horrow Sports Ventures and author of the book "Beyond the Box $core,'' agreed that a New York base is less important than it used to be.

But he added, "I do think there is some incremental value in being a stone's throw from your Madison Avenue sponsors and advertisers - for the Knicks or the Nets.''

Maury Gostfrand, president of Vision Sports Group, whose clients include Michael Strahan and Joe Torre, said that although James will not lack for endorsements regardless, "I do believe his people will be able to negotiate more dollars for these deals as a result of playing in New York.''

Cliff Kaplan, president of Van Wagner Sports and Entertainment, a leading marketing company, agreed that a move to New York likely would increase James' price for future endorsement deals. But like most other experts, he said the effect would be limited: "He's a global figure, and no matter what market he is in, he will have a strong portfolio of endorsements.''

The Plain Dealer reported that the extension James signed with Nike in March did not include a clause that would pay more for playing in a larger market.

"I can't envision a company like Coca-Cola or Nike saying we can pay him less because he plays in Cleveland,'' Forman said. "It doesn't seem like it makes sense to me.''

And remember, Peyton Manning and Brett Favre, two of the NFL's most potent pitchmen, have played primarily in Indianapolis and Green Bay.


Manhattan cachet

The off-court wild card is that New York offers intangibles that could sway a man who has said he wants to be a "global icon."

There are the aura of the Knicks and the about-to-be-renovated Madison Square Garden, the chance to restore the franchise's winning tradition and the status of being a center of attention in the center of the universe.

Knicks president Donnie Walsh cannot talk publicly about James or any other free agent until July, but he spoke generally about the role New York will play in the Knicks' pitches.

"I think every player is aware of their brand, so to speak, which is usually them and what they stand for," he said. "I think if you come to New York, you can expand your brand to a bigger reach than probably anywhere in the United States, and it can certainly go global if you can live up to it.''

Walsh said every star player has the basics, such as a shoe deal, but that "there are opportunities in New York off the court that wouldn't be available anywhere else.''

He added that well-compensated players' decisions go beyond finances. "It's where they live, how they live, the culture they live in, all of those things,'' he said.

As a native New Yorker who led a successful small-market franchise in Indianapolis, Walsh is able to discuss the pros and cons of both environments with free agents.

Among the attractions are Knicks fans, he said.

"That's what makes New York unique. In most cities, you have to have a very good team to fill your stands.''


Meet the megabucks elite

Walsh might be on the right track focusing on the area's diversity of business prospects.

Said Gostfrand: "A big advantage of playing in New York for someone like LeBron is potential business opportunities that may be presented to him, whether it's partnering with a company on a new product or crossing over to other ventures in music, fashion or even real estate.

"If he plays in New York, he will meet a lot of successful and wealthy business people who want to align themselves with him.''

Added Kaplan: "He would be in the No. 1 media market, the hub of finance . . . The people he gets to rub shoulders with here on a more regular basis can provide various business opportunities.''

But as Forman noted: "Michael Jordan wasn't in New York. [James] is at the point where he has enough celebrity where if he wanted to launch a fashion line the way Michael Jordan launched a cologne line and restaurant, I don't think it's as limiting as the conventional wisdom might be.''

The mystery in all this is that only one man knows what he might do and what his priorities are - assuming even he knows at this stage.

"It is presumptuous of all of us, even if we know business, to get into the head of LeBron James,'' Horrow said. "Only one person will ultimately make that decision.

"He will decide where he wants to live and where he wants to be remembered.''

The Dolan family owns controlling interests in the Knicks, MSG and Cablevision. Cablevision owns Newsday.


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