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Without James, Cleveland says it will fall

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Tess Vigeland: For those of you who took a quick trip to the moon last night and haven’t heard the big news yet, LeBron James is leaving Cleveland for the Heat of Miami. The NBA star forward made the announcement on ESPN in an hour-long special that got the biggest ratings of the night for any program, broadcast or cable. The reaction in Cleveland was swift and furious. The Cavaliers’ owner called the decision a “cowardly betrayal…” And it got nastier from there. Part of Cleveland’s plea to keep King James was that the local economy would tank if he left. Marketplace’s Eve Troeh looks at whether his looming departure is really that apocalyptic.

Eve Troeh: If you do an online search for “Cleveland economy” this fake visitors bureau ad appears near the top:

Phony ad audio Our economy’s based on LeBron James. Buy a house for the price of a VCR.

It true, Cleveland’s been down on its luck. The city was deemed “most miserable in the U.S.” by Forbes magazine this year. But LeBron’s been a bright spot with an economic halo. Since he was drafted in 2003, Cavs games have gone from half-empty to sold out. Downtown restaurants and stores have been busy. Media ads and team merchandise have sold like hotcakes. All because of LeBron James. So the story goes, but:

Dan Rasher: When it gets down to dollars and cents, I don’t think his impact is that large.

Dan Rasher is president of Sports Economics in Oakland, California. He says the Cleveland area economy is $180 billion. Losing LeBron might cost a few million.

Rasher: Someone from Columbus, right, drives up to Cleveland because they want to see LeBron. Now they’re going to choose to stay in Columbus and watch the Ohio State Basketball team. Those were new dollars coming to Cleveland and now they’re not going to be there.

Cleveland has to remember it’s more than LeBron, says Dennis Roche. He’s president of the real Cleveland visitors bureau. He says a new casino opening in a few years will draw outsiders. And locals shamed by last night’s announcement feel a swell of civic pride today.

Roche: I think that anger’s giving way to determination. That underdog concept is taking hold.

And he says that could extend to local spending. Maybe what people in Cleveland need to get over their grief is dinner downtown and some retail therapy.

I’m Eve Troeh for Marketplace.

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