LeBron’s Big Choice: The Dollars and Cents of His Next Host City

BY dchinni  July 8, 2010 at 5:32 PM EDT

Thursday night at 9:00 p.m. EST LeBron James will come down from Mount Basketball with an announcement. After months of deliberation, James, the 26-year-old NBA All-Star, will reveal to the world what many are waiting to hear: which of the many multi-million-dollar offers he will accept to play pro basketball next year.

James’ decision will be the focus of a one-hour live ESPN report entitled “The Decision” that will be broadcast on TV, the radio and the Web.

If you are not an NBA fan – or perhaps a fan of money – you may wonder why this matters. But for the sake of argument, and to play along with this summer’s current distraction, Patchwork Nation decided to take a look at the NBA’s Hamlet on Lake Erie and answer one question: of the four primary suitors left in the LeBron-stakes – New York, Miami, Chicago and Cleveland — who needs James most?

Moneyball

We decided to remove all sentimentality from our analysis and make it strictly about dollars and cents. This may offend purists, but anyone who has watched the NBA money-grab this summer has to acknowledge this debate is not for fainthearted.

As Paul Solman noted in a recent NewsHour report, James’ time in Cleveland has meant packed houses at Quicken Loans Arena, where the NBA’s Cavaliers play. The team sold out every game last season and the bars and restaurants downtown near the hoops palace have reported sharp rises in business for the 41-game nine-month NBA season.

Throw in TV rights, merchandising, even fan pilgrimages and you are looking at “untold millions,” according to one AP report. An economics professor at nearby Case Western Reserve University estimated James might help bring $20 million annually to downtown Cleveland from the surrounding burbs.

To guide our analysis we decided to use Patchwork Nation’s Economic Hardship Index – a measure of economic suffering using key indicators including unemployment, foreclosures and gas prices. We looked at the most recent scores for the four counties in the running – New York, Miami-Dade, Cook (Chicago) and Cuyahoga (Cleveland) – the results may surprise.

The Next Home?

Cuyahoga, home of the city of Cleveland, which desperately wants to hold onto its star, actually had the lowest (that’s best) hardship score of the four counties in the most recent analysis in June – 25.24. How can that be for a town most people consider to be suffering? Cuyahoga is not just Cleveland, it’s a big county holding a lot of wealthy suburbs that really get little form Lebron’s residency beyond rooting interests.

New York was the next lowest, with a hardship score of 32.76. While the Big Apple is a big city that has taken a hit like any other metropolis, it is buoyed by the financial and media industries. Plus, on a non-economic point, while the Knicks may need help, city sports fans already have the Yankees.

Cook County, home to Chicago, has had a tougher time with a hardship score of 38.31, and is suffering through an unemployment rate of 10.9 percent. Chicago, however, already has the well-known Bulls and the NHL champion Blackhawks. Considering that the NHL and NBA season overlap considerably, one can only wonder how much of a difference James would make in the T-shirt-selling and bar sectors of the Windy City’s economy if he joined the Bulls.

But when you get right down to it, LeBron could arguably bring the biggest economic boost to Miami-Dade County, home of the Miami Heat. Miami-Dade had a score of 39.98 in the last Hardship Index. The county’s unemployment rate is over 11 percent and one of every 127 homes there is in some state of foreclosure – more than 7,600 properties in total.

For many NBA fans the idea of James going to Miami will certainly be anathema. This week, the Heat re-signed star Dwyane Wade and lured another star from the Toronto Raptors, Chris Bosh to join him. Adding James seems like piling on.

But maybe, considering all the struggles in Miami-Dade County, it’s only fair. And at the very least, the idea of James (and Wade and Bosh) as economic stimulus would at least get a real test.

Dante Chinni is the project director for Patchwork Nation.