LeBron James' departure could mean trouble for Cleveland's economy

By Meghan Barr
Monday, July 5, 2010; A10

CLEVELAND -- Before LeBron James, there were thousands of empty seats for most Cleveland Cavaliers games, and downtown was silent after dark. With him, every game is a sellout, and nearby bars and restaurants bustle.

As they face the possibility of losing the free-agent NBA superstar, residents wonder if the man they call King James might take a little of this struggling city's economy with him.

"The kingdom lies where the king resides," said Nick Kostis, owner of a restaurant and comedy club on East Fourth Street, a pedestrian-only district near the Cavaliers' arena that began to take off in the early 2000s.

James has been with Cleveland since he was drafted in 2003 but now is at the center of a high-profile pursuit by several NBA teams. The Cavs can offer him a longer and more lucrative contract under league rules, but other teams are trying to convince him that they are his ticket to the championships that have so far eluded him.

James has helped inject untold millions into Cleveland's economy. His team, which had an average home attendance of about 11,500 the year before he joined, sold out every game in its 20,000-seat arena last season. Having arguably the NBA's biggest star also has meant more television revenue and more jersey sales for the Cavs, and a higher profile for their often-maligned city.

"He has created another reason to come visit downtown," said Kostis, owner of Pickwick and Frolic. "He is, in fact, the greatest show on earth. And we love a great show." East Fourth Street, strung with twinkling lights, is packed with restaurants, coffee shops, bars and -- on most nights -- people. It has been a beam of hope for Cleveland's downtown, which goes mostly dark after the sun sets.

Kostis, affectionately known as the founding father of East Fourth, acknowledged that the loss of LeBron would be a blow but believes the area is strong enough to withstand it.

"We're not going to fold up our tents, obviously," he said.

While the presence of a global superstar would be a boon to any city, people here believe that recession-wracked Cleveland needs LeBron more than other hopeful cities trying to woo him away.

It's impossible to say exactly how much money the city might lose if James leaves, but Dave Gilbert, the sports commission's chief executive, said LeBron equals travel and tourism money.

Each home game during the regular season nets about $3.7 million, including ticket sales, souvenirs, food and hotel bookings, said Tamera Brown, vice president of marketing for Positively Cleveland, a convention and visitors bureau that promotes city tourism. Multiplied by 41 home games, that's more than $150 million.

Obviously, much of that will stay in town even if James leaves. How much depends largely on how well the Cavaliers perform, but Gilbert said LeBron has his own special fan base because of his two-time MVP status and because he grew up in nearby Akron.

"Having less of those fans certainly means less money being spent," Gilbert said.

-- Associated Press

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