Mind of the Fan: LeBron James

The Decision, Miami move continue to affect public opinion of NBA's biggest star

Updated: June 4, 2014, 2:16 PM ET
By Ethan Sherwood Strauss | ESPN.com

LeBron JamesNathaniel S. Butler/NBAE/Getty ImagesEven as he has become more successful, not all fans have embraced LeBron's rise in Miami.

LeBron James' Decision and the Spurs' long arc of glory don't just exist in a vacuum. They are experienced, reacted to, and ultimately remembered by fans thousands of miles apart. Many of us share little more in common than the event we're watching. Now, we'd like to share what we learn with you.

Thanks to the research provided by ESPN Sports Poll data, we hope to give you a clearer understanding into those of us whose passions and habits keep the games going. Who are we? What do we think? And what do these findings say about us?

That's what "Mind of the Fan" is about.


The Decision and its discontents

On July 8, 2010, LeBron changed everything with a flatly intoned, "I'm going to take my talents to South Beach." His live, televised Decision shook up the NBA landscape while unleashing anger from all over.

The fury was immediate, palpable. Many felt that LeBron had wronged the Cavs, that he'd made an unseemly power play, that he'd retreated to the ease of joining with similarly talented buddies. These kinds of anti-LeBron sentiments were far from mutually exclusive to one another. Suddenly, people had a multitude of reasons to despise a once popular athlete.

It wasn't just fans who harbored negative opinions about LeBron. The move to Miami resulted in heavy criticism from former NBA greats like Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Charles Barkley. Animus toward the league's best player wasn't just in vogue around this time; it was near-consensus.

ESPN.com's Henry Abbott responded to this climate the morning after it happened, writing, "People hate the Heat. I have heard people say they will buy NBA League Pass for the first time in their lives just to root against the Heat. Poke around on Twitter, or even on the Cavaliers' official team website, and you'll see that James is being called every name in the book, from cowardly to egomaniacal."

Perceptions of cowardice and egomania stuck to LeBron and took a toll on his image. In the season after The Decision, LeBron plummeted from 15.6 percent of respondents calling him their favorite player to 10.4 percent.

The embarrassing NBA Finals loss to Dallas in 2011 didn't help matters, as he dropped to 9.4 percent in the following season. It's difficult to envision a proper analog for this kind of drop in popularity, given how LeBron wasn't caught cheating at his sport or in his marriage, and he wasn't in trouble with the law. LeBron was supposed to follow Jordan's superstar footsteps, but Jordan had been a uniquely popular figure. The heir to His Airness had suffered a unique bout of infamy. Since then, it's been a steep climb up from where he fell.

For an aspiring global icon, The Decision was a daring trade. LeBron was exchanging the short-term anger of the masses for a team that could succeed enough to eventually win them back. And the amazing thing is, he's still not there after four Finals trips and two titles.


The LeBron holdouts skew white

LeBron was once asked by CNN if race played a role in the post-Decision backlash. His response seems rather benign when extracted from the frenzied context of late 2010: "I think so, at times. There's always a race factor," James said, stating what appears to be objective fact when you dig into the numbers. His dry "at times" assessment of course provoked outrage. LeBron was right, though.

In ESPN's poll results, we can see that The Decision markedly hurt LeBron's popularity across the board. The impact wasn't felt equally across demographics, though.

Before the Decision, 14.80 percent of white NBA fans listed LeBron as their favorite player. The next season, that number nosedived to 8.56 percent. The next season, 6.83 percent of white NBA fans also listed LeBron No. 1, less than half his initial white fanbase. According to our most recent data, LeBron rode multiple championships to a 9.69 percent mark among white fans -- still far below his 2010 apogee. Within this demographic LeBron's the rare player who was far more popular before winning two championships.

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The reluctance of white fans to embrace LeBron again is the principle reason his overall popularity lags behind what it was with the Cavs. It's easy to come up with theories on why this is so, and harder to prove those theories. Other demographics have been far more forgiving, though.


New LeBron fans skew black, Hispanic

Over the 2009-10 season, 21 percent of black NBA fans listed LeBron as their favorite player. That figured dropped to 16.5 percent the season after The Decision. A steep drop, to be sure, but look at LeBron's popularity since. The season of his first title, as he lost more traction with white fans, LeBron crept back up to 19.25 percent among black fans. Our most recent figures have him at 23.5 percent among black fans, higher than his pre-Decision popularity.

We can see similar results among Hispanic NBA fans. LeBron's up in that demographic to 12.41 percent, a slice above his Cavs peak of 10.73 percent.

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This demographic divide extends to team affiliation. Our most recent poll recorded 22.6 percent of black NBA fans listing the Heat as their favorite team, in stark contrast to 6.8 percent of white fans listing the Heat No. 1. Some of this dynamic might be attributable to Miami's playoff battles with the Boston Celtics, a team that claims a disproportionate amount of white supporters (9.7 percent of white fans cite the Celtics as their favorite team).

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Trailing His Airness

Though many tuned in for the thrilling Games 6 and 7 of the 2013 Finals, ratings slid on nationally televised games last season. The gloom continued into this season, with viewership flattening on cable, and declining on network games.

In the wake of LeBron Hate amplifying passions, LeBron's redemption narrative only drives so much interest. NFL draft TV ratings squashed the NBA's biggest superstar as he faced off against a big market in a playoff game. Then that same superstar scored 49 points in that same series, but the NBA buzz revolved around the deplorable Donald Sterling. His fourth trip to the Finals was greeted with less audience interest than in previous battles.

While LeBron is comparable to Jordan statistically, the general public isn't nearly as vested in the former's success. For example, Jordan's third Finals trip netted a 17.9 average rating, while LeBron's third Finals netted a 10.1. It's easy to attribute this gap on the waning influence of network television, but this is an era where the Super Bowl keeps setting viewership records. The public just liked Jordan a lot better and tuned in to see him in greater numbers.

"Sample size" caveats abound, but an interesting thing happened in last season's playoffs. Over the Eastern Conference finals and NBA Finals, ratings went down four of six times after Heat victories. That's tough to accomplish considering that ratings tend to go up as a series progresses. One of the games that bucked the trend was Game 7 of the Finals, an elimination game that came on the heels of a classic Game 6 (and which, like Game 6, featured the prospect of the Heat getting eliminated).

In contrast, ratings went up five of six times after Heat losses. It would seem that much of public isn't tuning in to live vicariously through the best player's accomplishments. The risk of a Miami Heat collapse animates much of the interest.

It's easy to believe that winning a ring just makes all the ill will go away, that the hoisting of a trophy is a magic spell that turns your haters into fans. The truth is a little more complicated. LeBron doesn't win hearts and minds overnight because winning people back is different from winning them over in the first place.


The long road back

According to our most recent polls, LeBron today is 28.3 percent less popular with average NBA fans than he was in Cleveland, and 19.4 percent less popular among casual NBA fans than he was in those days. The redemption narrative has largely been embraced by avid NBA fans, who like LeBron slightly better than they did before the Decision.

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LeBron has done well in Miami, but his South Beach arrival still haunts the way we feel about him. Even as memories of The Decision and his first season in Miami recede into the past, the initial impact lingers. To many casual sports fans, LeBron will remain the guy who cruelly embarrassed Cleveland fans on national television, at least for a while. LeBron dropped the villain role long ago, but becoming a hero isn't a simple matter of choice.

At the same time, more fans chose LeBron as their favorite player than any other in the league. He's popular, even if he isn't quite as popular as the young prodigy who played for the Cavs.

"He'll never be Michael Jordan" was a common refrain in response to the decision that stoked so much outrage. The idea was that Jordan would never have done this, that this move to a better team revealed some sort of weakness. That's highly debatable, but there seems to be truth in the notion that this choice eliminated LeBron from ever reaching MJ's status of overwhelming approval.

LeBron may indeed win more championships, and surpass Jordan on the court. Perhaps these playoffs will be part of LeBron overtaking Jordan, the basketball player. But in joining a new franchise to chase Jordan's team accomplishments, LeBron traded away his ability to "be Jordan" to the fans.

The ESPN Sports Poll is conducted via telephone 350 days per year among a random nationally representative sample of Americans age 12 and older, including landline and cell phone-only respondents, and English and Spanish language interviews. In this study, interviews were selected from the first day of the NBA regular season through the last day of the NBA Finals for each year.

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