It always made the most sense for LeBron to become LABron.
Signing as free agent with the Los Angeles Lakers, at least from a basketball standpoint, seemed most likely to offer LeBron James the best opportunity to compete for NBA championships. With $62 million in salary cap space and one of the league’s youngest rosters, the Lakers had the most flexibility to surround James with the talent required to knock the two-time defending champion Golden State Warriors from their lofty perch.
But there’s more to it than basketball, says Jim Cavale, CEO and founder of Influencer (INFLCR), a software-as-a-service that helps teams and leagues partner with their athletes to grow their audiences together on social media. And there are lessons all athletes — from high school to the pros — can learn from the way James has managed his career.
“The young athlete, no matter how young he is, needs to watch what LeBron James is doing right now,” Cavale says. “Not because he’s made a move that is going to help him potentially win another championship before his career is over. Yes, that is possible, but you could also argue that this move is lateral in regards to what it is going to take for him to figure out how to overcome the superteam that is Golden State.
“It’s more because this move is about brand and business more than it is about basketball. And those three Bs — brand, business and basketball — have been something that LeBron James has been about since before he came out of St. Vincent-St. Mary as a high school kid. He was smart enough to start a sports agency at a young age with his friends, who he trusts, and positioned them to not only manage his career but many other NBA careers at a market value that is extremely fair. He’s done such a great job at building businesses outside of sports using his brand and voice, that it has already opened up a tremendous amount of opportunities for him after sports is over.”
It’s no slam-dunk that this will work out on the court. First, of course, there is the matter of dethroning the Warriors, who only got stronger after agreeing to a deal with 4-time All-Star center Demarcus Cousins. And LA isn’t exactly off to a rousing start in putting talent around LBJ, prompting at least one columnist to suggest he back out of the deal. Still, re-signing with the Cavaliers wasn’t going to boost James’ reach or opportunities beyond their current ceiling there. Going to Houston may have paired him with superstars such as James Harden and Chris Paul, but that too wouldn’t have the overall reach of being in LA.
At 33, James is the biggest star in pro basketball’s galaxy — and its most powerful and most authentic storyteller. Going to the Lakers puts him in the center of the storytelling galaxy with an opportunity to take that story to new levels. He’s been to eight straight NBA Finals with the Miami Heat and Cleveland Cavaliers; restoring the NBA’s most storied franchise to that level would be a crowning achievement for The King.
Mix in his extensive business and endorsement interests, the Hollywood opportunities and star-power of LA and LeBron stands a great chance to fulfill his stated goal of becoming a billionaire before he retires.
James is ranked as the No. 1 player in the NBA on social media, according to MVPIndex.com. With more than 101 million followers on social, his reach dwarfs that of other superstars such as Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant.
Cavale says that is no accident.
“What is interesting to me is that LeBron James controls his own voice on social media,” Cavale says. “LeBron James creates his own content and leverages the content of the media that covers him on his own on social media on a regular basis.
“Those deposits — him telling his story every day himself — has made people feel connected enough to his voice that when he wants to take a so-called withdrawal and do something that has another brand involved, has an endorsement involved or might even be an ad, people engage because he has their trust because of what he is doing in his free storytelling strategy with content on daily basis.”
“We’re seeing the best athlete in American sports do this, and he doesn’t even have to,” Cavale says. “He’s already got hundreds of millions of dollars but he wants to be a billionaire and he wants to use his influence for things that go way beyond the transactions of money and more into relationships, social impact, his family, his family tree and legacy — things that matter.
“If he can do it, if he can do his own social media, if he can tell his story every day, then why can’t every athlete consider doing that instead of entrusting it to somebody else or doing it the wrong way or just not doing it all.
“Just like you want to be like LeBron on the court, be like him off the court.”
Cavale has advice for athletes who want to raise their social-media game.
“What it means for young athletes, even if they are in high school, if you think that you are too good to be on social media, you are thinking the wrong way,” he says. “You have to have a presence there. Being on social media is just as important as being on the team because when people see you make a play, they are going to try to find you on social media. And you’d better not only have an account, but you’d better have an account that they can find because your username has your name in it, and from there, you’d better have an account that is actually congruent with what you’d want to look like if you were meeting someone for the first time.
“You’d want to be dressed a certain way, you’d want to look them in the eye and shake their hand, you’d want to be able to tell them in 30 seconds about who you are and what you are about beyond sports. And if you don’t have your accounts — your Instagram, your Twitter — already flowing your story out there every day so they can go see it when you make the big play and they want to get to know you more, then they are not going to get to know you at all.”
James shares his story beyond basketball. He often posts about his family, his friends, his teammates. He takes his followers on the journey with him. Cavale says that authenticity matters.
“As a player, you better have a plan to make sure that when they go to your social accounts, they are seeing somebody that has character,” he says. “You have to make sure that what you are putting out there is congruent with who you are and and what you are about, and you need to take the time to define that. I am talking about everything from what music you like to to what entertainment you like, to what type of family you have, if you have kids, are you involving them? Your teammates and how you are with them. Your life and your career, not just on the court but working hard in practice, working hard in the weight room, how you eat, how you dress — these are all things that make you who you are and make you unique.
“That is what should be your target on social media — figuring out what those things are and focusing on ways you can grab content already being done by your team, by the media, by the people around you and use it to tell people about those things, and shooting content when you are doing things all the time so that people can follow your journey as you go. This is just so important I can’t talk about it enough.”
James is the perfect example but one doesn’t have to be the best basketball player in the world to leverage a brief time in sports for a lifetime.
“The reality is, this career, whether you are in high school and you’re a star, or in college and you’re a star, or you make it to the pros — all those places you need to keep doing your own social media and you need to keep telling your own story,” Cavale says. “When you do that, what happens is that you earn the trust with the audience to engage with them and have a brand that you can leverage after sports is over for decades more than you ever played sports.”
He uses as an example former NFL player Reggie Torbor, who starred at Auburn before playing in a Super Bowl with the New York Giants.
“Reggie always says, ‘on my funeral, if people are only talking about how I played football, man I have failed. Hopefully they are going to be talking about a lot of the things I did after I played football. And I got to do those things because I played football. And I used the platform of football to have those opportunities.’
“You have to think the same thing as an athlete, and your social media is the tangible place for the platform that gets you those opportunities. You have to defend against playing the sport being the peak of your career. Instead, it’s your launching point. It’s where your career starts, not where it ends, and when the sports career is over, now you have the rest of your life to leverage the platform, the relationships and social brand and personal brand you built while you played to do whatever it is you want to do.”
LeBron James has done this better than anyone, and now he’ll add to the story with some Hollywood flair.