King James has proven to be everything but conventional.
From entering the NBA straight out of high school, partnering with three degree-less friends who knew squat about sports marketing and founding LRMR Marketing, and his nasty reverse dunks, the NBA superstar continues to surprise us.
Most notably, he shocked the NBA in 2010 when he tested the free agent market in search of a championship-driven team, and announced his move from the Cleveland Cavaliers to the Miami Heat in a highly publicized ESPN special, “The Decision,” which evoked much criticism.
Yet amidst the publicity and the dunks, there is innovation — an ability to think differently and defy convention. Culled from a recent in-depth profile of James in ESPN, here are five of the strategies he’s used to become the most influential player in the NBA.
1. Call your own shots.
One of the few times James took the traditional route was immediately when he became a professional and signed with an agent. He quickly realised that he wanted to call his own shots, and left his agent to start his firm, LRMR Marketing. He told ESPN that this desire to be in control comes from being a fatherless, only child:
I had to become man of the house very fast. I felt empowered when I knew I had to grow up faster than the kids who had fathers, or maybe an older brother. That feeling stuck with me throughout grade school and high school. When I became a professional, I went the traditional way of signing with an agent and thought that was the way to do it because it was traditional. But I didn’t feel like I felt when I became the man of my house when I was 7 years old.
At the close of each season, James has choices to make. The decision-making is not in the hands of Cleveland owner Dan Gilbert or prospective suitors — the decisions are up to James. This control and flexibility is possible because of the contracts that he and his team at LRMR have made.
James has discovered the power of controlling your own destiny.
2. Build a close-knit team.
James has chosen to surround himself with trustworthy people. He did not search for marketing experts or ivy league geniuses when building LRMR. Rather, he turned to friends, a trio he grew up with in Akron, Ohio. ESPN reports James saying:
People said that I was making the worst decision ever. Why would I give all this to three guys who didn’t finish college? Who had no education about what sports marketing means? Who didn’t know what being a professional is? Who don’t know how to make money or build a brand? We got dirt thrown on all four of us. But I always just believed in those guys. We used that as a motivation, and we’re here today.
Degrees and accolades are not always the most important attributes. A loyal team can be invaluable.
3. Negotiate everything.
At age 16, James showed up at the prominent Adidas-sponsored ABCD basketball camp wearing Nike kicks. Later that summer, he was invited to participate in the Nike-sponsored All-American camp, and showed up wearing a pair of Adidas.
James delayed committing to either brand long enough that Reebok also got into the mix, and the bidding for the future star began. This strategic move resulted in the negotiation of a record endorsement deal with Nike — six years, $US90 million — before his NBA debut.
He understands how to exercise leverage, as well as the importance of taking your time, weighing your options, and making a decision that you feel good about.
4. Take calculated risks.
James is notable for changing the league by introducing a new way to think about free agency. Turning down a long-term contract to become an unrestricted free agent offers control, choice, and freedom, but it is risky business. The long-term contract guarantees money and security, which are highly valued in such a high-risk, physical sport where the average career lasts only 4.8 years.
The risk is worth it for James. He would rather have leverage and power, which is why he signed a two-year, $US42.1 million contract in 2014. This contract was unprecedented and unique, in that it gave him the most power he could have asked for in the short term and the most money he could have gotten in the long term.
Smart risks can open up great opportunity.
5. Question the norm and defy convention.
James defied convention when he chose his close-knit team over the traditional agent, when he declared free agency over a long-term contract, and when he showed up at an Adidas-sponsored camp flashing the Nike swoosh.
Over and over again, he has chosen to march to his own beat, and as a result, players, fans, and entrepreneurs look to him for guidance. In so doing, he has not only established himself as the game’s best player, he has established himself as its most influential leader.
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