So, this space was supposed to be reserved for an exultation of the Golden State Warriors’ second consecutive NBA title and an exploration of their innovative fan outreach. The Warriors, for the past 24 months, have been the NBA’s flagship brand, led family values, kid-friendly Stephen Curry, a player who is every marketers dream. They have no less than six bona fide stars on their team, and consistently lead the league in jersey sales.
However, that storyline went out the window Sunday night when Kyrie Irving hit a late three-pointer and LeBron James sealed the win with a free throw, earning the Cleveland Cavaliers the franchise’s first NBA championship and Cleveland’s first championship in more than 50 years.
There might be no bigger brand turnaround story than the Cleveland Cavaliers. Owner Dan Gilbert’s franchise has pulled a 360 during the past decade. In 2007, a much younger James led Cleveland to the NBA finals, where the San Antonio Spurs summarily crushed them. In 2010, James—the hometown hero who made the Cavs relevant nearly single-handedly—signed with the Miami Heat as a free agent, leading that team to four finals trips and two titles. Meanwhile, the talent bereft Cavaliers began a putrid four-year stretch as the worst team in the league.
Then The King came back. When James announced he would return to Cleveland in 2014, it portended better times, and they were immediately improved as they played their way to the championship round despite a hobbled supporting cast. However, the Cavs lost to the Warriors in 2015. Still, James’ return immediately made the team twice as valuable, rocketing up the list of NBA valuations.
And that was before Sunday’s win. After a historic comeback against grim odds, the Cavs have completed their comeback as a brand refreshed. Some 31 million viewers watched the final game, making it the most-watched NBA Finals game since Michael Jordan’s heyday. Returns are early, but bandwaggoneers are already clearing shelves and online inventory of team apparel. Kids across the country are wearing Cleveland’s number 23. Season ticket sales for NBA champs are invariably higher than the previous seasons, assuming no loss of star power. On that topic, James, who reasserted his claim as the best player alive, is expected to re-sign with the Cavaliers during his impending free agency. Six years ago under similar circumstances, Cleveland fans were left disappointed when LeBron took his “talents to South Beach.” Such a move is highly unlikely this year.
Everything is coming up Cleveland. It’s a great story about an underdog made good. James and Cavaliers have proven that the NBA is a rare brand ecosystem where one talented person, properly focused and channeled, can literally reverse a brand’s destiny.