When exactly did our beloved ballers become viewed, exclusively, as BRAND?
Was it 1984, when David Falk took a lanky, Carolina Airness into the endorsement stratosphere and turned Swoosh into fan-crazed sacrament? (The same birth year, I might add, of another mind-controlling, trance-inducer—the first Mac. Maybe Orwell had it right: Is it too far-fetched to cast corporate marketers in the role of “Big Brother?”) Or, was it much, much later—July 8, 2010—at the altar of ESPN’s The Decision, the Net Generation’s re-enactment of Greek myth-temple worship masquerading as slam dunk reality TV?
“I’m taking my talents to South Beach,” revealed LeBron James on the program, officially driving a stake into the aortas of the Cleveland faithful. With that, a bewildered 10 million viewers were then lured into a bath of brand-baptism following his on-air announcement—10 minutes of some peripheral, some explicit brand exposure on the tube, the equivalent of roughly $3 million of comparable broadcast-exposure value. VitaminWater, the University of Phoenix, and Bing, were just a few.
Reactions to LeBron’s logorama-confessional have been swift and critical: “the Championship of Me,” “sycophantish idolatry,” and “arrogant exercise,” were but a few, and downright genteel compared to Cavs owner Dan Gilbert’s LeBron-thrashing rant.
And we have Maverick Carter to thank. Carter, LeBron’s boyhood friend and overseer of everything LeBron-and-brand, is widely credited with growing and solidifying LeBron’s stakes in major brand players—Bubblicious, Upper Deck Cards, Microsoft, McDonald’s, State Farm—while honing a golden laser towards the ultimate global cash cow: the Chinese Market. He’s also partly responsible for hatching ESPN’s bumbling spectacle. In other words, Carter is an unapologetic brand man, and the brand’s the thing. But maybe in this case, as the public and media backlash have shown, that posture became the problem. “We created this monster, and [LeBron’s] just playing along,” ESPN’s Jackie MacMullan observed (as noted in the New York Times). And as one NBA official concluded, as quoted by sports writer Adrian Wojnarowski, “[LeBron’s] brand is [bleep] now. He’s destroyed everything.”
LeBron James—Akron-bred wunderkind, high-flying, otherworldly acrobat, dust-throwing charismatic and local hero—’Bron the human being, wasn’t apparently enough, so he (we?) destroyed his brand instead. But does that even matter? When we make brands of everything, including the over-branding of people (who, contrary to marketers’ fantasies, are individuals first, not merely entities), we trade humanity and virtue for our thirst for the transactional kill.
Or, let me risk professional ridicule and steal from the playbook of fictional brander and mega-agent Jerry Maguire, who incidentally took one primary client, like Maverick Carter, and went all the way, albeit in a more soul-saving, only-in-a-movie kinda way. Here’s my corollary to Jerry’s original mission statement: in the quest for branding athletes/celebrities/stars (read: people), how about toning down hype, minimizing myth … how about less branding.
Sometimes, there’s a great cost to be paid for human brand perpetuation: an audience gets fed otherworldly illusion, then winces when that illusion comes back down to earth as merely mortal, embodying—not just projecting—both vice and virtue (recall Nike god Tiger Woods). Is it any surprise then that we’ve lost the ability to differentiate brand from human being, or, brand values from human values? Are we doomed to live in an age where that division has long since blurred?
No, it’d be better to let some brands die, I think. In LeBron’s case, his hometown “brand” faced a quick burial. But the potential winners in the grander sweepstakes would be us, the fans, and we, the people … the only witnesses that matter.