LeBron James, love him or loathe him, has proven good for the business of basketball.
"LeBron has been a lightning rod for criticism," said his coach, Erik Spoelstra of the Miami Heat, whose season ended Sunday night with a Game 6 loss to the Dallas Mavericks in the National Basketball Association Finals.
James became the target of derision almost a year ago, when the two-time NBA Most Valuable Player appeared on national television to announce that he was leaving the Cleveland Cavaliers to join fellow All-Stars Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh with the Heat. The hour-long special, in which James said he was "taking my talents to South Beach," drew ESPN's highest rating for any non-National Football League program, the network said at the time.
Since then a number of season-long metrics, including television ratings, attendance and merchandise sales, show that James, 26, bolstered the bottom line of not only the Heat but the rest of the NBA, too.
"LeBron and the Heat, as a team to hate, certainly were helpful to the NBA product," said former Madison Square Garden President Bob Gutkowski, a partner in the New York-based sports consulting company Innovative Strategic Management. "LeBron was very good for the NBA."
The Heat, owned by billionaire Carnival Corp. Chairman Micky Arison, averaged a capacity 19,778 fans at home this season, 2,048 better than a year ago. James and the Heat drew a league-high 19,447 fans on the road, allowing the league's 29 other clubs to reap more revenue from tickets, parking and concessions.
The Heat and Kobe Bryant-led Los Angeles Lakers, who won the 2009 and 2010 championships, were the only clubs to average better than 19,000 fans on the road this season.
As for merchandise sales, James had the top-selling jersey in the league for the first time since 2004, when he completed his rookie season.
James moved past Bryant for the top spot, which was occupied by Wade in 2005 and 2006, the year the Heat beat the Mavericks in the NBA Finals. Wade ranked sixth in sales this season.
The Lakers had the top-selling gear in the league for the eighth time in nine years. They were followed by the Boston Celtics, the Heat and the New York Knicks.
The addition of James prompted the NBA's broadcast partners, Walt Disney Co. (DIS)'s ABC and ESPN and Time Warner Inc.'s TNT, to show the Heat the maximum number of times this season, providing wider exposure for team sponsors such as AMR Corp. (AMR)'s American Airlines.
James took aim at his critics after the final loss, saying it didn't bother him that so many were overjoyed at his failing to win the championship.
"All the people that was rooting on me to fail, at the end of the day they have to wake up and have the same life that they had before," James, who has a six-year, $110 million contract, said at a press conference. "They have the same personal problems. I'm going to continue to live the way I want to live."
Game 6 drew a 15 rating on ABC in the biggest U.S. markets, the highest in 11 years and the best-rated program of the evening on any outlet, according to Nielsen Media Research figures released by ESPN. It was 22 percent higher than last year's Game 6 between the Celtics and Lakers, and 35 percent higher than the last game of the 2006 Finals before the Mavericks and the Heat.
Through four games the network said the series had averaged 15.5 million viewers, the most-watched NBA championship in seven years. The four-game average was a 30 percent increase of the previous Mavericks-Heat Finals and up slightly from last season's matchup between the Lakers and Celtics, two of the marquee brands in sports.
"LeBron brings in viewers that aren't necessarily basketball fans," Gutkowski said. "He's been nothing but positive."
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