Would Cleveland Be Better Off With LeBron James or a New DaimlerChrysler Plant?

In my?last post, I wrote about LeBron James‘s conflicting objectives of pursuing money and championships.? This conflict is particularly acute because the NBA salary cap prohibits many strong teams from offering James anything close to his market value.

But while NBA teams are constrained, nothing stops other actors from offering LeBron money to sign with a particular team.? Ford dealers in the greater New York area could offer LeBron millions if he agreed to promote their dealerships?and to sign with the Knicks or Nets.? Fans of the Dallas Mavericks could put money in escrow that would only be paid if he agreed to play in Dallas.

Of course, there would be a huge incentive for individual fans to?free ride on the efforts of others.? Even if I would gain $100 in utility if LeBron signed with the Celtics, I would prefer for others to foot the bill instead of me.

But local and state governments are natural agents to overcome this kind of free-riding problem.? The city of Cleveland or the state of Ohio could offer James a variety of financial incentives to re-sign with the Cavs.? Cities routinely give financial incentives to teams – for example, subsidizing the cost of arenas – to keep the teams from leaving.? The public subsidies are defended on a mixture of economic and hedonic grounds.? Professional sports teams can generate tourism and job growth.? And citizens might just be happier living in a place where they can have a local team to root for.

But these same arguments might also apply to a transcendent talent like James. In narrow economic terms, Cleveland and the state of Ohio might be hundreds of millions of dollars better off if LeBron stays put.? Moreover, many local fans will be heartbroken if he leaves.? Elected officials in Ohio understand both these points.? That’s why even Ohio Governor Ted Strickland was willing to join in?a musical plea (“We are LeBron” to the tune of “We Are the World”).

But if Ohio is willing to give business incentives, financial incentives, and?tax incentives to?encourage companies to move to Ohio, why not consider kicking in financially to try to keep one of the state’s prize assets.? Turn LeBron into his very own “enterprise zone.”

In 2004,?Ohio invested $535 million to expand a DaimlerChrysler Jeep facility in Toledo. But seriously, don’t you think the average voter would prefer to invest in LBJ?

Rent-seeking competition from other cities could push public LeBron bribes to astronomic levels.? In 1993, one academic estimated that?Alabama paid a whopping $200,000 per job created to lure Mercedes to its fair state.? Inter-city competition might easily devolve into an inefficient “beggar thy neighbor” equilibrium.

The NBA might also want to nip this kind of signing side-payment in the bud.? But at the moment, the league can’t block a city or state player tax incentive. (Memo to the league: during labor negotiations, you might push for a provision prohibiting players from entering into any contract that is conditioned upon a player signing for a particular team. Memo to union:? resist this proposal.) Generally, the league should worry that inter-city competition would favor the larger cities where a superstar can be adulated by more fans. (This is a literal example of Sherwin Rosen‘s classic “The Economics of Superstars.”) Tax incentives would tend to work against league parity.

But given?endowment effects, Cavalier fans may have more to lose than bigger cities have to gain from winning this King-sized prize.? If we add in a bit of Wizard of Oz loyalty – there’s no place like home – to James’s objective function, this tax-incentive arms race is a competition that the city of Cleveland just might win.


"But local and state governments are natural agents to overcome this kind of free-riding problem."

I presume by natural you mean, "well-suited" rather than "a product of nature." But I still think you are wrong.

Not everyone in Cleveland or Ohio has an interest in LBJ staying. Some don't care. Some don't like him. Getting the government involved means these people have to pay as well as the free-riders.

It's better to let some ride free, than force some to ride who actually dislike it.


is this post a joke?- what exactly has lebron won?- and why on earth would anyone distribute public $ into the private pocket of a multimillionaire?- ok, so it's a satire on public monies being handed over to private corporations- good call

Drill-Baby-Drill Drill Team

Introducing the 2010 Chrysler LeBron with Corinthian Leather, Power Rack and Pinion Steering and Seat Heaters.
Ricardo Montalban can be reconstituted electronically do some commercials.

Adam McCloskey

Posts like this, especially with links that allow me to go further down the rabbit hole, are why I read regularly. Nicely done.


And just think of the late night comedy jokes if he commits a crime. "Your tax dollars at work!"

I already hate the local politicians for funding sports teams that I'm not interested in.


Like or hate LeBron, the point is that if he is an economic boon to the community, it may make more sense to try to keep him around than to to let him go. I'd be interested in seeing an ROI analysis of public assets being used to keep him in-state. His salary and incentives may be small potoatoes compared to revenue generated by him and the Cavaliers should he decide to stay.

By the way, is it "root" or "route" for the home team?

Jeppe Lisdorf

Mantonat touches the general problem with this post about as smoothly as a drunken cat walking on coals. Hot coals.

What is the ROI for the City of Cleveland and/or state of Ohio in funding LeBron?

You need to prove beyond any doubt, that LeBron James (NOT the team) is worth all this extra money. And in my humble opinion, this is not easily done. Especially since I've just finished "Stumbling on wins". Allthough LeBron is the real deal, I still have not seen a sensible calculation for how, this extra investment would reflect back on the investers..

As an economist, this is basic knowledge. You need to account for the ROI in order to attract investment. Not many entrepreneurs got to where they are just by saying "It would be a great investment".

Tracey Marrow

Dear LeBron, We Need You

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I know that this is wrong. Where are the morals of people these days? What you are proposing is sick. Basically you are saying the local government has a financial interest in Lebron, and the success or failure of the city is due in part to Lebron's popularity and success on the court. Can't you see that this is beyond the scope of government? Can't you see that if Lebron gets injured, the town will suffer?

Based on the logic here, if Cleveland did this, all towns would start doing this. Soon every town will have a justification to start paying players more money, and it won't be a zero sum game. The winners will be the players and the losers will be the taxpayers. Where would it end?


Looks like this sort of already happened in NY...



The NBA salary cap is not a hard cap like the NFL has. Cleveland can simply exceed the cap and pay a "luxury tax" on the amount that they go over the cap by. Presumably anyone could volunteer to pay this for the team. What about an extra $2 per ticket to pay the luxury cap fee?



It's not quite THAT simple. The system you describe is more akin to the MLB salary structure. While teams CAN go over the cap and pay a tax, they can't simply sign and sign and sign. Teams over the cap can still sign guys to fill out their roster, but they can't offer max deals and such.

Paul N.

Of course, the dealership could pay the cost of the arrangement by entering into speculative contracts available on intrade.com (provided their were enough contracts available). The cost out of pocket for the side deal would be offset by the gains made on the speculative contracts. The dealership would get the benefit of the advertising and promotion without having to pay anything.


We didn't win here in Cleveland, and we're definitely feeling the pain!