This is a special contribution from Dynasty Athlete Representation‘s Human Resources Director, Justin Herzig.
What you do know: Lebron left Cleveland.
What you may not know: Owner Dan Gilbert made a rather unexpected response. I suggest you read his letter before continuing on with this post.
The immediate reactions to this letter have undoubtedly been charged by emotions, as is completely understood. On various blogs and message boards, many are praising Gilbert for his candidness while others criticize his immaturity in the way he reacted. Some are even comparing his letter to a (long) drunken text message you send to an ex. Rather, let’s put our business hats on and try to understand the motives behind this letter. I have a feeling this letter will be analyzed in sport business classes for years to come.
Quickly, let’s look at the target audience. As stated in the first line, this letter is for any and all Cleveland fans. Granted, there are inevitably some potential spillover effects, but when analyzing this letter, it must be done while understanding that the target audience is Cleveland fans.
Some might argue that Gilbert should have been above this and remained more professional, and usually this school of thought is correct. But given the circumstances, I disagree. The problem is he has been attacked in the past for “not caring enough” or “not committing enough to help Lebron win a championship.” If he would have taken the high road stance here and not said anything, I think the anger against Lebron would soon turn into anger against the organization. Had the situation played out a bit differently, it is not a stretch to believe that Lebron could have left Cleveland and still been liked and respected by the fans. However, this would be the absolute WORST case scenario for Gilbert and the Cavs. Any new fans they gained during the Lebron era would be in jeopardy as fans would have to choose between their former hero, Lebron, and the current state of the Cavaliers. Not a choice Gilbert wants to risk. Losing that large part of their fan base would send the team into an even worse downward spiral. People would start pointing fingers, and inevitably the finger pointing would turn towards Gilbert for first not surrounding Lebron with enough legitimate talent, and then for not doing enough to re-sign him. Thus, Gilbert decided to focus on pathos and capitalize on the situation.
Reading the letter, it sounds impromptu. It sounds like someone who is thinking irrationally and speaking out of anger. It sounds like it is coming from a run of the mill fan, because the views expressed in that letter, whether true or not, are some of the very common views expressed by fans. They felt this was Lebron being narcissistic and self-promotional, they felt they were betrayed, and they felt completely taken advantage of. Gilbert’s letter indirectly tells them their feelings are alright to possess. It is okay to feel hurt, because Lebron is a bad person with bad motives and we are better off without him.
Many non-Cleveland fans don’t understand the complaining about Lebron leaving or the claims of betrayal. They see it as no significant difference from what every other free agent goes through. Sure, you can say this is completely different because the way it was handled by Lebron, but in the end, it really isn’t that significant. Gilbert, though, isn’t going to take the chance of allowing fans to reach that conclusion. He’s not going to let people take a step back and look at the whole picture, removing the immediate emotions and potentially siding with Lebron. Instead, his letter successfully unites the fan base towards his line of thinking. Yes, maybe Lebron’s lack of foresight with ESPN’s programming of “The Decision” is being exploited, but Gilbert is doing what he feels his best for his team. In the stages of grief, anger is quickly followed by bargaining. And at the time of the letter’s release, nearly everyone was still in that anger stage. Gilbert knew he could not afford to let the fans get to the bargaining stage on their own; he needed to push them in the right direction.
He mentions how last night’s events are best for the greater good of Cleveland, as Lebron is ridding the city of its curse. He promises the fans a championship before Lebron wins one. Simply, he promises everyone a new and brighter tomorrow. I am not quick to use this word, but these promises are potential genius. A downtown area looks to be financially destroyed. A team is in its darkest hours since pre-Lebron. And whether or not people believe in this curse, is there absolutely no reasoning behind whimsically claiming Lebron has taken it with him? But none of this matters. Individually, each claim sounds almost silly, but together they paint a picture of a front office willing to do whatever it takes to win. And that’s the bargaining tool the fans can use; they can use the hope of a brighter future to avoid the following stage of depression.
Effectively, Gilbert has used a letter people thought was originally written by hackers to the NBA website, to potentially save the future of his team and the city of Cleveland. Undoubtedly, this was an amazing piece of PR by Gilbert and his team, and I applaud them on this letter.