As the Cleveland Cavaliers sweep up the shattered pieces of a kingdom left in ruins after LeBron James’ decision on Thursday, Clevelanders still must brace for the worse – an economic setback. For several seasons, James has been Cleveland’s cash cow, paving the way for sold out home games and merchandise sales.

The six-time NBA All-Star has finished in the top three of jersey sales since entering the league in 2003 while Cleveland has finished no worse than sixth in fan attendance since 2005. Led by James, the Cavaliers have finished in the top 10 among the leaders in merchandise sales over the last five seasons, a plateau unimaginable for the historically inept franchise before James’ entrance.

Cleveland’s Convention and Visitors Bureau estimated that the average fan spent $180 per home game last season at the Quickens Loans Arena, which seats 20,562. Good for nearly $3.7 million each home game as reported by CBS2Chicago.com. The arena had been a popular spot over the years for fans to catch a glimpse of James streaking down court for a signature chase-down block or a thundering slam.

James’ impact on the Cavalier organization from a value standpoint has also been well documented over the past few seasons. According to Forbes.com and various ESPN reports, the Cavaliers franchise was valued at $258 million with annual revenues of $72 million before James’ arrival. As of 2010, the franchise was valued at $476 million—an 85 percent increase over seven years— with annual revenues of nearly $160 million.

Before James announced Thursday that he was joining the Miami Heat, it was widely projected that his possible departure would devalue the Cavaliers’ franchise by as much as $250 million. Taking into account that the Quickens Loans Arena mainly fuels various sports bars and restaurants in downtown Cleveland, James’ defection has a chance to cripple Cleveland financially.

Foot traffic will certainly slow down and jobs could be lost as the Cavaliers are bound to drop from one of the best teams in the league to a middling perhaps losing squad. Cleveland won 61 and 66 games the last two years, respectively—both franchise-bests—on the strength of James’ back-to-back MVP seasons. However, since drafting James first overall in 2003, Cleveland ‘s win-loss record during that period is just 10-16 without him in the lineup, and 1-6 without him the past two seasons.

Cavaliers’ owner Dan Gilbert has been on a personal mission since James’ departure to verbally insult the once-beloved Ohio hero and assure Cavaliers fans that the franchise will not crumble in face of the superstar’s exit. Gilbert’s Fathead.com, an online retailer owned by the Cavaliers owner, slashed the price of James’ Fathead wall decals from $99.99 to $17.41. Coincidentally—or perhaps not—the year the famous Revolutionary War traitor Benedict Arnold was born was 1741.

Gilbert has made a number of proclamations upon learning of James’ exodus, even going as far as to declare, “I PERSONALLY GUARANTEE THAT THE CLEVELAND CAVALIERS WILL WIN AN NBA CHAMPIONSHIP BEFORE THE SELF-TITLED FORMER ‘KING’ WINS ONE,” in an open letter to Cavaliers fans on the team’s Web site.

Gilbert’s upsetting outburst represents a number of mixed sentiments as residents of the Ohio area are sure to feel the blow of such an emotional and financial loss. “I wouldn’t be surprised if the Cavaliers in a year or two are below the league average in terms of value,” Michael Cramer, the former president of the MLB’s Texas Rangers and NHL’s Dallas Stars who teaches sports business at New York University, told Bloomberg.com “One player has a tremendous impact, especially in the NBA, and especially when you’re talking about one of the top two or three visible, recognizable players not only in the league, but in all of professional sports.”

Information from ESPN.com, NBA.com and Forbes.com were used in this report.

 

Stephen D. Riley

Special to the AFRO