Apart from Art Modell, there may be no sports figure, or person in general, more hated in the Cleveland area than former Cavalier great LeBron James. James, an Akron native who currently plays for the Miami Heat, announced his decision to leave the team in his much maligned TV special, "The Decision," in July 2010.
Sports networks and national television quickly turned to gloom-and-doom scenarios for not just the Cavaliers basketball team, but for the city's economy as well. Initial estimates showed that James leaving would decrease the team's value, cost downtown businesses upwards of $150 million in revenue and perhaps even damage the local government. The reality of the departure of the "LeBronomy" has turned out to be a little bit different.
Purely in terms of how James' spring to Miami has affected attendance at downtown Cleveland's Quicken Loans Arena ("the Q") and the overall value of the team, there are some sobering numbers. The Cavs dropped from second in total attendance in the NBA during James' final season in 2010 to 19th in the 2012 season, according to ESPN.
While a consecutive home sell out streak stayed strong for a while without James, their road attendance suffered without James as a cross-country pull. The worth of the Cavaliers took the brunt of the impact, dropping 26 percent in value, according to Forbes in January 2011, with another 7 percent drop in 2012. Despite this drop and an NBA record in futility with 26 straight losses for the 2010-2011 season, the Cavs turned the third-highest profit in the NBA with $33 million, due to help from a $30 million payroll cut and no luxury tax. New collective bargaining terms borne out of the NBA lockout also look to help small market teams like Cleveland compete with the bigger cities in the future. Meanwhile in Miami, LeBron's arrival, along with stars Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, has some people thinking of the acquisition as a "billion dollar stimulus package" for the local economy over the next five years.
But what about the little guys around the Quicken Loans Arena -- the sports bars and restaurants that saw profits rise in correlation with James' superstardom? "We haven’t suffered as much as ESPN would have you believe," said Rob Shoens, general manager of the Winking Lizard Tavern, a bar stationed only a few hundred feet from the Q and Progressive Field where the Cleveland Indians play. "We saw a hit in business after LeBron left, especially that first year when the Cavs were in the toilet, but we saw true Cavs fans come out. When LeBron was here it was a spectacle, with businesses taking groups -- now you're seeing the true Cavs fans."
With a young point guard in Kyrie Irving fresh off Rookie of the Year honors leading a revitalized young group and high draft picks for coming seasons, Cavs fans have reason to stay interested in the team. One interesting trend is Clevelanders who are willing to come out purely in hopes that James and the Heat lose. Shoens has seen this throughout Heat playoff series in 2011 and 2012, especially with the current Eastern Conference finals battle between the Heat and the Boston Celtics.
"Cleveland fans don't tend to deviate from who they root for," Shoens said. "In the LeBron era, people hated the Celtics. All of us detested them. Now that LeBron has gone to Miami, a lot of the Cleveland fans are rooting for the Celtics -- even me -- and I'll admit I hated the Celtics when we faced them with LeBron. We see people coming in with Celtics jerseys, among other teams."
Still, feelings of hate fueled by betrayal can't help other extraneous events that damaged Cleveland's stability. James' leaving coincided with reverberations of a poor economic climate, leaving many people in Cleveland suffering. After PNC took over Cleveland's National City Corp. in 2008, thousands of jobs were lost in Cleveland, adding to the thousands of Ford, Delphi and Timken workers laid off in northeast Ohio in 2009.
Cavs owner Dan Gilbert, who penned an infamous nasty letter to LeBron upon his departure, is working to revitalize the area without James in the face of the recession. Gilbert owns Quicken Loans and, upon moving to Cleveland, built an office for the company, a move that is still bringing in jobs. He recently opened a new casino and has plans to open another next year, an initiative looking to bring more people into the downtown area. For some, losing a passionate owner like Gilbert might have been a more detrimental loss for Cleveland than losing a skilled player like James.
For now, Gilbert's progress, the promise of a better Cavalier tomorrow and the giddiness from James' shortcomings will look to keep these businesses going through a transitional period. "I see it getting better and better with crowds coming back slowly," Shoens said. "Irving came and we saw a 30 percent increase in our crowds, so it's improving slowly but surely. For now, I'm rooting for the Celtics. I never thought I'd be rooting for a former enemy, but it's weird how things work out." The Celtics eliminated the Cavaliers in the 2010 Eastern Conference finals, the final game of James' career in Cleveland.
The Heat and Celtics will play Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals Saturday night at 8:30 p.m. It won't be hard to hear the cheers in downtown Cleveland every time you-know-who puts up a brick.
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