The King of Cleveland
LeBron James shocked the sports world in July 2014, when the NBA superstar and Akron, Ohio, native announced that he was coming home to play for the Cleveland Cavaliers, the team that drafted him in 2003 and that he controversially left for the Miami Heat in 2010. In a letter in Sports Illustrated, he cited among his reasons for returning his desire to help the area where he grew up.
“I want to give them hope when I can,” James wrote of his fellow Ohioans. “I want to inspire them when I can. My relationship with Northeast Ohio is bigger than basketball.”
Phillip and Jackie Wachter offer one example of how James has lived up to his statement. The Cleveland residents started a leather bag label, Fount, in late 2013, sometimes driving 12 hours to trade shows with their baby in tow. Through word of mouth and national magazine placements, the brand began to grow, but the Wachters planned to focus on selling through department stores and building an online presence rather than opening a local storefront. Cleveland didn’t have the cachet—or foot traffic—of New York or LA, and the economy was still recovering from the 2008 financial crisis. But then the couple was chosen to participate in Cleveland Hustles, a reality show executive-produced by James and his business partner, Maverick Carter. Twenty companies competed to be matched with local business leaders, who would help four winners open brick-and-mortar stores.
“Part of the show was that you had to do it, so we got on board with the idea,” Phillip Wachter says of the Fount storefront. “Now we’ve been open eight weeks [in Cleveland’s Detroit Shoreway neighborhood], and we are doing three times the daily revenue, if not more, than we’d planned.”
The Wachters, who partnered with famed local chef and author Jonathon Sawyer, now hope to open one storefront a year around the country over the next 12 years. They bought studio space in Cleveland’s Midtown neighborhood, where they make all of their bags by hand with leather shipped from Florence, Italy. And they’re now up to 22 employees and counting, manufacturing an average of 150 bags a week.
“People and businesses in Cleveland were hungry for something new, and to revive their name,” Jackie Wachter says. “LeBron coming back was that beacon of hope.”
Such moments of success weren’t so readily apparent here back in 2010. Early that year, Forbes “honored” the “Mistake on the Lake” with the top spot in its ranking of America’s Most Miserable Cities. Jobs had vanished, the metro area had shed 71,000 people over the previous five years, and no major pro sports team had won a championship in nearly half a century. That July, James publicly spurned Cleveland with “The Decision,” an ESPN-televised spectacle in which he infamously took his talents to South Beach. By 2012, when Destination Cleveland, the convention and visitors bureau for Cuyahoga County, surveyed area residents to find out if they’d recommend the city as a place to visit or to host a business conference, only 34 percent of respondents said yes.
James’s 2014 (lowercase) decision to return—along with the announcement three days earlier that Cleveland had won a bid to host the 2016 Republican National Convention—indicated a turning of the tide. “That was really a tipping point in how our market started to feel about itself,” says Len Komoroski, CEO of the Cavaliers and Quicken Loans Arena. At that point, 54 percent of Clevelanders said they’d recommend the city as a destination.
This uptick in self-esteem quickly became evident in the East Fourth Street district, a pedestrian walkway lined with bars and restaurants near Quicken Loans Arena and Progressive Field, the home of the Cleveland Indians.
“The minute we opened the doors after LeBron came back, it felt like the whole world came in,” says Keith Logan, manager of Butcher and the Brewer, a restaurant that opened on East Fourth in 2014. “The year before he returned, there wasn’t a lot going on downtown on game nights. Now, when the Cavaliers have home games, we’re two or three times busier than a normal night.”
That comes as little surprise, given the Cavs’ suddenly improved fortunes. The team reached the NBA Finals in James’s first season back home before losing to the Golden State Warriors, and the city saw a corresponding increase in spending. According to Crain’s Cleveland Business, demand for hotel rooms rose between 5 percent and 9.9 percent in April, May, and June of 2015 (coinciding with the NBA playoffs), while hotel revenue increased at least 11.5 percent in each of those months.
Then came the 2016 season, when James and the Cavs overcame a 3-1 deficit to win a Finals rematch with the Warriors—the first championship in franchise history and the first for the city since the Browns won the NFL title in 1964. Bar owners in the area reported revenue increases on game nights of between 30 and 200 percent over the entire season, and a study conducted by the Cavaliers and Conventions, Sports & Leisure International estimated a total revenue of $3.6 million for each home playoff game during the Finals.
“During the playoffs, this place was absolutely packed every night—you couldn’t move,” says Alena Zaslov, a hostess at The Corner Alley, a downtown bar and bowling alley. “It’s that sense of community; LeBron coming back has brought people together in a bigger way.”
When asked about James’s overall impact since his return, Butcher and the Brewer’s Logan smiles. “By my measure, LeBron is underpaid,” he says, “because the amount of economic activity that he generates is amazing.”
For all of his impact, James’s return is just one factor in the city’s revitalization. Cavs owner Dan Gilbert opened a casino downtown, and restaurants by chefs Jonathon Sawyer and Michael Symon were already drawing tourists. “Local leaders have said to me that you can’t base an economy on one man—it’s incredibly dangerous, and it’d be foolish to do so,” says Kevin Kleps, assistant editor and sports business reporter for Crain’s Cleveland Business. Still, Kleps adds, “There’s no doubt he’s provided a heck of a jolt since he came back.”
That jolt has coincided with a youthful renaissance. By the end of 2018, it’s estimated that 18,000 people will live within a half-mile radius of Cleveland’s downtown, driven largely by Millennials, who have seen a 77 percent increase since 2000. The city center now boasts a 97 percent occupancy rate. It perhaps shouldn’t be a surprise, then, that civic pride continues to swell: In August of 2016, after the Finals and the RNC, 75 percent of Clevelanders surveyed said they would recommend their city.
James is a both a significant source of and a generous contributor to that civic pride. When the Indians made the MLB playoffs in October, he attended several games, including Game Seven of the World Series, at which he wore a shirt that read “Cleveland or Nowhere.” Local TV ratings for the World Series finale—the Indians lost to the Chicago Cubs—were higher than the ratings for Game Seven of the NBA Finals.
“I think a mindset shifted around here once the Cavs won it all,” Kleps says. “People thought, ‘Holy cow, Cleveland really can do this,’ and the Indians benefitted from that in terms of attention.”
Far more significant for the area has been James’s charitable work. In 2003, during his first year in the NBA, he established the LeBron James Family Foundation in Akron. The foundation begins each year with a class of third graders, working with them on academic achievement and offering support all the way through high school graduation. James has been known to leave encouraging voicemails for students, participants often have their school supplies paid for, and parents can receive assistance toward completing their GEDs. The foundation now supports more than 1,100 students and their families, and, in late August, James announced that the LJFF, in partnership with the University of Akron, will pay for at least 1,100 four-year renewable scholarships for qualifying foundation participants to attend the university, at a cost of around $41.8 million. Thanks to this work, in 2015 the organization Athletes Gone Good named James the sixth-most charitable athlete in the world.
“As long as he’s been doing this program, every step of the way it’s gotten deeper and deeper,” says Michele Campbell, Executive Director of the LJFF. “When he plays on the court, he’s had to adjust every year if he wants to get better. He treats his foundation the same way.”
James also continues to fund the uniforms and equipment for the sports teams at his Akron alma mater, St. Vincent–St. Mary. On the wall of the basketball gym, near the entrance of LeBron James Court, is a mural dedicated to him. Amid the photos is a list of his many awards and accolades. At the conclusion of the list, in the largest print, it reads, “I’m just a kid from Akron.”
“He knows his influence over communities and the economic position he has wherever he decides to go,” says Willie McGee, athletic director at St. Vincent–St. Mary and a friend and former teammate of James’s. “I think he’s proud that he can bring that revitalization back to Northeast Ohio, his hometown, and his state, giving them a sense of pride.”
James—who in 2016 was ranked 12th, behind Apple CEO Tim Cook, on Vanity Fair’s New Establishment global influencers list—knows that he needs to maximize his influence while still at the peak of his career. “One of LeBron’s favorite sayings is, ‘Move while you have the muscle,’” says Cavs teammate Richard Jefferson. “If you win a championship, and you’re an MVP, and you’re trying to raise money for scholarships, people will show up. If you’re trying to make an impact, do it while you’re one of the best athletes on the planet.”
Perhaps the best encapsulation of James’s intent came from the King himself, two years after his Sports Illustrated letter, when he accepted the award for Best Moment at the 2016 ESPYs. “This is for everyone who grew up in Cleveland or is from Northeast Ohio, the struggles that we’ve had over the last 52 years, not only in sports, but just in everything: families losing jobs, communities, poverty all over Cleveland,” he said. “For us to be able to give a sense of hope to everyone who grew up in our town, the town we live in and the town we play in … for everyone in Cleveland, this is for you guys.”
Charlottesville, Virginia–based writer Anna Katherine Clemmons once missed a question on the TV game show Cash Cab asking what Midwestern river first caught fire in 1969. If only she’d visited Cleveland sooner.