How LeBron James is changing how athletes are paid

LeBron James #6 of the Miami Heat looks on during a game against the Chicago Bulls at AmericanAirlines Arena on January 4, 2013 in Miami, Fla.

There's a huge shift happening this month in the world of sports. We're in the middle of the free agency period, where NBA players are eligible to sign with any team.

And Lebron James, considered the best player in the NBA, is reinventing not only how NBA players get paid, but maybe professional athletes as a whole.

We wanted to explore why, so went down to the legendary West 4th Street basketball courts in New York City to meet up with sports business analyst Keith Reed.

Reed called LeBron maybe "the only truly free athlete in America."

"[LeBron] was an investor in Beats electronics. That just sold for $3 billion. He made $30 million sitting on his couch just from that Beats transaction. And so, when people talk about, 'Why is LeBron opting out of his contract, and what's he going to do?' At that stage of the game, he's made his money."

Brandon Grier is an agent who represents NBA players a little further down in the hierarchy, and sees how contracts go beyond just the single player on the court. "You're dealing with not just an individual's life, but the families that are affected by it as well. A lot of time these guys are the breadwinners as well."

Grier's company Principle Management represents four solid, but not superstar, NBA players. He says the free agency period is important to the average fan — not just the players.

"It affects the product that they consume for their enjoyment. I believe the super teams in big markets are great for the NBA, you either love them or you hate them. But one way or another you're watching. So the better the ratings are for the NBA, the better the business does in general. Because TV is the cash cow now.

And speaking of that cash cow, this weekend's number: 18 million. For 18 million viewers.

That's how many people tuned in to watch the San Antonio Spurs beat Lebron James and his teammates on the Miami Heat in this year's NBA finals, according to Nielsen, up 10 percent from last year.

About the author

Lizzie O'Leary is the new host of Marketplace Weekend.

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