This week, superstar LeBron James filed official NBA paperwork to change his number from 23 to 6. LeBron says that he wants to change his number out of respect to MJ ' the most famous #23. The cynic in me has to wonder if it's a tribute to Michael Jordan the player, or Michael Jordan the businessman and product endorser of Nike, McDonalds, Gatorade, Hanes, and upwards of a dozen others. If LeBron was such a basketball purist and really wanted to lay tribute to one of the game's greatest players, why would he choose 6? It might not have the iconography of 23, but it happens to be the number of some other slightly above average players by the name of Russell and Erving. Hmmm, makes you wonder if this decision was born out of Cleveland, OH or Portland, OR.
So why is this move such a big deal? Well, in the sports world it could mean everything from LeBron sticking around in Cleveland (if he was planning on leaving this summer, why go through the trouble?), to him just getting used to the idea of playing with #6 because he'll need to change it when he goes to Chicago next year (bold prediction). Regardless of what his decision is, this may be just as big of a story in the sports marketing and branding world. Okay fine, LeBron's 2010 fate is sort of a bigger deal, but let's examine what something as simple as a number change can do.
CHANGES IN BRANDING
LeBron has a logo. Most logos don't change very often, and when they do it's usually not as a result of one guy deciding he wants to wear something different to work. In the case of King James, the logo that appears on all of his clothing, and even Ohio State's basketball uniforms prominently displays the number 23 weaved inside his initials. So at the very least, someone at Nike is going to need to redesign that logo, all of the current apparel with the old logo displayed are going to end up in a similar place as the Patriots 19-0 Super Bowl t-shirts (single tear followed by multiple tears), and Nike is going to re-launch a new line of apparel.
NEW OPPORTUNITIES FOR MERCHANDISING
#23 and #6 aside, LeBron is #2. Huh? In terms of jersey sales, Cleveland's #23 is still only the second most popular jersey behind Kobe's #24 (for the second year in a row). LeBron appears to be adopting a similar strategy as Kobe when he switched from #8, a move that propelled him to the top of the jersey sales list. A true NBA 'fan'? wouldn't be caught dead in an outdated jersey, and I believe there's a 10 year grace period before something can be considered 'throwback'?. New jerseys equal new purchases.
CREATION OF CONSPIRACY THEORIES
Like most moves in the sports world, this one will lead to a list of conspiracy theories that speculate on ulterior motives, like:
- The 'going to Chicago'? thing. Not very likely.
- The 'stay in Cleveland'? thing. Somewhat more-likely.
- LeBron really said that he wanted to go to New Jersey next year, and Cleveland is just pretending they misheard him until this blows over. Not likely, but hopeful for Nets fans.
- The real reason is exactly what LeBron says. Least likely of them all.