LeBron James vs. Michael Jordan

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Table of contents

  1. Introduction to the Social Media Era and Athlete Branding
  2. The Evolution of NBA Legends: From Chamberlain to James
  3. Michael Jordan: The Icon of Basketball and Branding
  4. LeBron James: A New Era of Athletic Excellence and Social Influence
  5. The Impact of Social Media on Athlete's Public Image
  6. Challenges and Criticisms: The Journey of LeBron James
  7. Conclusion: The Changing Landscape of Fame in the Digital Age
  8. References

Introduction to the Social Media Era and Athlete Branding

This era we live in today embodies the most heightened state of social media relevance yet. For a person to be significant in this era they must have an influential social media presence. In any industry be it music, technology, show business or sports, an active up to date grasp of social media networks is necessary. A perfect example of such a person who has seemingly mastered the essence of building a brand and fostering a favorable image through social media is LeBron James. In the sports industry, up until the advent of social media networks like Instagram, Facebook and Twitter, the athletes never truly had much of a say on how they were portrayed by the media towards the fans. They would often be caught after games in rushed postgame interviews during which their emotions still reeling cause their words to leave much room for misinterpretation. Or they would be asked very leading questions that trap them into saying things they do not really mean. Many athletes have taken to giving generic answers to the media and press because of this very instance. LeBron James is also a great case study for this as well.

The Evolution of NBA Legends: From Chamberlain to James

After many years since the NBA was created, we have seen numerous dominant players come and go. From the likes of Wilt Chamberlain who is still the only player to ever score one hundred points in a game, to Michael Jordan and now LeBron James. With millions of debates on who is the greatest of all time amongst these greats, it is easy to miss the events that lead up to these conversations happening in the first place. Undoubtedly, Michael Jordan and Lebron James are both extraordinary basketball players and have both succeeded in building legacies that will live on for a very long time, it only makes sense to ask how they were able to create a lasting mark both on and off the court. The fact remains that in the Michael Jordan era, the media had close to total control of the athlete’s image.

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Michael Jordan: The Icon of Basketball and Branding

Michael Jordan’s success in his era was ineffable. His absolute dominant athleticism and mastery of the art of putting the ball in the hoop, winning championships and all the while maintaining a favorable public image is what has ensured his status as a household name till this very day. His rise started in 1982 with this game winning shot while playing for UNC Chapel Hill, ever since, he was no longer Mike but Michael Jordan. Everyone wanted to be “Like Mike”. This went on for as long as he remained in the league. The next prodigy would not come until Kobe Bryant who ended up falling out of favor after his rape scandal. Such an accusation no matter the verity of it can do wonders in the act of tarnishing a man’s image. Kobe Bryant would never be looked at the same again after that. Luckily enough, a young phenom from Akron, Ohio was on the come up. His name was LeBron James and he had rallied such an impressive college career that he did not need to attend college like Michael Jordan did.

According to a scholarly essay titled LeBron James and “The Decision”An Empirical Examination of Image Repair in Sports “In terms of fan involvement, the sports industry rests largely on the dichotomy of heroes and villains (Mueller & Sutherland, 2010)... fan moods may change based on their liking of particular sports teams. In essence, “heroes are embraced, encouraged, and worshipped, while villains are cajoled, ridiculed, and scorned” (Mueller & Sutherland, 2010, p. 21).” This quote shows how some athletes are able to rise to a hero status in the eyes of the fans while others are seen in a more villainous light. In the case of Michael Jordan, one can easily say the media did all the heavy lifting to promote him to such an honorary status. People believed Jordan to be such a hero that when he announced his retirement from the NBA, it “was not just a sports story but an international news event. His farewell press conference was carried live on CNN, his face graced the front page of The New York Times, and when a White House event overlapped with Jordan's announcement, even Bill Clinton noted that 'most of the cameras are somewhere else.'” (Crowley) For media on an athlete to converge with important political White House events is hysterical but this was not just any athlete.

Researchers have deduced that the public hysteria surrounding Michael Jordan “had a lot to do with Jordan's unrivaled mastery of the game. But the Jordan phenomenon is much bigger than his scoring titles and six championship rings. Jordan has transcended his on-court achievements to become something more: a ubiquitous corporate pitchman who hawks for giant companies like Coke, McDonald's and Nike, an entertainer whose role in the movie 'Space Jam' helped it gross $450 million-in sum, he is the world's biggest celebrity.” (Crowley) This quote is important because it shows how many sponsorship deals Michael Jordan had under his belt from big American companies. Without those, he may have never reached such outstanding levels of fame and fortune. However, strip away all the sponsor deals, all the dazzling press releasing and riveting commercials about Jordan, underneath all of that, the proclaimes greatest basketball palyer of all time, actually lacked “an especially interesting personality. He tends to be bland, never spontaneous, sometimes petulant, and often arrogant. He is ruthlessly competitive, although not in the same comically endearing way as Ali. And Jordan has so far been utterly disinterested in discovering the potential that a man of his fame, wealth and stature possesses to make the world even a slightly better place.” (Crowley) This is where we see the gaps in the comparison and heated debates between the two legends, Jordan and James.

LeBron James: A New Era of Athletic Excellence and Social Influence

Lebron is not just a basketball player. He’s an extraordinary athlete who has become a global brand , thanks in part, to unprecedented sponsorship deals. Since the beginning of his NBA career in 2003, Nike noticed his incredible talent and potential on the court and decided to sign him immediately, overcoming Reebok and Adidas. In fact, his first contract with the major American sport brand was worth 90 M $ for 7 yrs. In 2010, his turbulent transfer to Miami caused diverse opinions. He was harshly criticised by some of the most iconic players in NBA - like Michael Jordan and Charles Barkley. However, his image did not suffer much, mostly as a result of his 2 NBA titles with Miami.

When he went back to Cleveland in 2014, he led the team to their first ever NBA title in 2016 and established himself as one the best players ever. In recent years, LeBron’s brand grew noticeably, adding new sponsors and collaborations to his portfolio: for example, Nike itself did not give up on him and renewed the agreement, so he could become the cover athlete of the brand and create his first line of branded sneakers (just like Michael Jordan’s). But the American sports company took a step further, closing a historic agreement with him: LeBron James was the first ever athlete to score a lifetime agreement in the history of Nike.

Besides, Nike isn’t the only brand who sponsors the Chosen One: from Intel to Verizon, from Beats by Dr Dre to KIA Motors, or Coca-Cola and McDonald’s make us think that LeBron has also developed a great marketing capability to rely on top brands, making him a true businessman.

At a staggering 6-foot-8, 260 pounds, striking athleticism, a strong work ethic that has manifested itself into a steady development of his game over the years – LeBron James, the best player in the world also happens to be the best quote in the NBA. After the disaster of the “Decision 1” he has transformed himself into a media favorite with a “smart, subtle and always available approach”. The LeBron James brand has been carefully cultivated over the years. Like most American pro-athletes, LeBron James commands a powerful followership on social media. On Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook, he reaches millions of fans daily. With are studied engagement of the media and sports analysts, he has become the narrative and a permanent fixture in discussions about the greatest sportsmen of all time. In the new economy, LeBron James’ 42.4 million followers are more than the top 10 most followed NFL players combined. This list includes names like Tom Brady, Odell Beckham Jr., and Antonio Brown! In the internet age, LeBron James is literally King. When he sends out his opinion or markets his brand on the internet, tens of millions of people are tuned in.

The Impact of Social Media on Athlete's Public Image

Recent speculations have stated that Lebron James has fallen from glory. A quick Google search of Lebron James would reveal that The King has suffered Humiliation at the Hands of a virtual nobody named Mario Hezonja. Ever since LeBron joined the young Lakers team, the media has been circulating all sorts of information anticipating how the season will play out for them. This year as many media outlets have been quick to point out, will be the first one in over six years that neither Lebron james or Kobe Bryant has been in the playoffs. Does this signify the fall of The King? “LeBron James is Slowing Down, The Lakers are suffering because of it.” The five time NBA champion who was a rookie in the nab at 18 years old has managed to rise to and fall from grace in the eyes of the audience. This most recent plummet however is not the first time LBJ has experienced such backlash from media and viewers across the globe, back in (insert year) Lebron after goin 1st round draft pick and having played for six years at Cleveland left the Cavaliers after issuing this 1 hour long press released titled The Decision, pretty much outlining his decision to leave the title-less Cavaliers for superstar-filled Miami Heat.

Challenges and Criticisms: The Journey of LeBron James

The advent of the iPhone and its portable internet access properties has allowed for not just weekly news, or daily broadcasts but rather news and current even being updated on the hour,, on the minute, by the second. The era of social media has made it possible for everyone to build a brand and one of the best to ever take advantage of this is Lebron James. In every facet of his life, the superstar elite athlete has shaped, carved and molded his narrative from the sound up. Hashtagging every instagram post #MoreThanAnAthlete and #ThatKidFromAkron, he has not only managed to grow his franchise, also build a following, while retaining his own personal voice and opinions. The days of grown ups not knowing how to operate these “new age kid gadgets” are long gone. Lebron who is often listed as one of the older veterans in the game has much more notoriety and social presence than any young players. None of this is accidental. Ever since LeBron acquired his Nike sponsorship, he has achieved a seat at the table as not just a spokesperson for Nike, one of the most powerful brand company in sports and athletics, but a partner as well.

Conclusion: The Changing Landscape of Fame in the Digital Age

Times have changed drastically since the Jordan era in 1992 till now. Back then “the American media-and not just sportswriters-have unquestioningly accepted the Jordan mythology. Dozens of news commentators have proclaimed Jordan the greatest basketball player of all time, hands down, as if Wilt Chamberlain somehow doesn't count because he played before the advent of ESPN.” (Crowley)


  1. Brown, K., Dickhaus, J., & Long, M. (2012). LeBron James and “The Decision”: An Empirical Examination of Image Repair in Sports. Journal of Sports Media, 7(1), 149-175.
  2. Coombs, D., & Cassilo, D. (2017). Athletes and/or Activists: LeBron James and Black Lives Matter. Journal of Sport & Social Issues, 41(5), 425-444.
  3. Mocarski, R., & Billings, A. (2014). Manufacturing a Messiah: How Nike and LeBron James Co-Constructed the Legend of King James. Communication & Sport, 2(1), 3-23.
  4. Crowley, Michael. (1999). Muhammad Ali Was a Rebel. Michael Jordan Is a Brand Name.(professional athletes). Nieman Reports, 53(3), 41-43.
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