LeBron James’ return is bigger for Cleveland than it is for the Cleveland Cavaliers

After weeks, if not years, of anticipation, and a thrilling turn of events, LeBron James is returning to Cleveland.

Basketball fans, especially those nestled in Ohio, are surely rejoicing. And rightly so—if betting lines are any indication, LeBron's return has already turned the Cleveland Cavaliers into the favorites to win next year's NBA title. Suddenly a team that failed to make the playoffs has its sights set on the finals.

But LeBron's return is bigger than basketball. Much, much bigger than basketball.

LeBron knows it. He said it himself in his thoughtful letter published in Sports Illustrated this afternoon.

I feel my calling here goes above basketball. I have a responsibility to lead, in more ways than one, and I take that very seriously. My presence can make a difference in Miami, but I think it can mean more where I’m from. I want kids in Northeast Ohio, like the hundreds of Akron third-graders I sponsor through my foundation, to realize that there’s no better place to grow up. Maybe some of them will come home after college and start a family or open a business. That would make me smile. Our community, which has struggled so much, needs all the talent it can get.

In Northeast Ohio, nothing is given. Everything is earned. You work for what you have.

Cleveland knows this all too well. While he was a Cavalier, LeBron's economic impact on the city was estimated to be between $50 million and $80 million a year, according to NBA-affiliated TV station WKYC. His departure for Miami back in 2010 was believed to have cost Northeast Ohio a cool $50 million directly, and likely a good deal more indirectly. His impact extended well beyond basketball. Without LeBron, Northeast Ohio lost not only game attendees (attendance dropped from 2nd to 19th in the league the season after he left, per ESPN), but with them, millions of dollars in spillover commerce. Fans and sports goers were suddenly spending less on parking, food, and hotel businesses in the greater Cleveland area. Even a cosmopolitan city like Miami stands to feel a significant post-LeBron pinch—his departure could cost the city upwards of $100 million, according to Forbes. And Cleveland, in turn, could become that much richer.

What's more, Cleveland needs the help—more than many cities in America. And LeBron seems to be suggesting that he wants to bring more than ticket sales and merchandize revenue to the city. "My relationship with Northeast Ohio is bigger than basketball," he told Sports Illustrated. "I didn't realize that four years ago. I do now."

"There was a lot of pain and disappointment when he left," said former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland, who was in office at the time. Strickland added that he thought the state had forgiven LeBron and would be excited to have him back. "What he can contribute going forward is almost immeasurable in terms of inspiration and example."

As my colleague Emily Badger pointed out shortly after the Republican National Convention selected Cleveland earlier this week as the host of its 2016 convention, the city isn't in great shape in many ways. Cleveland's poverty rate is more than twice the national level, and more than 50 percent of its children live in poverty. The city has proved particularly poor at convincing young people to stay and providing job opportunities for black men.

Of course, LeBron's words — downplaying championships and emphasizing the Cleveland community — could be more about publicity than public good. But if he's even half as serious as he claims about engaging with the city's youth and taking that community under his wing, his return could have enormous positive repercussions for a part of America that's been particularly down on its luck since he left.

Max Ehrenfreund contributed reporting.

Roberto A. Ferdman is a reporter for Wonkblog covering food policy, consumer business, and Latin American economics. He was previously a staff writer at Quartz.
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