LeBron James: Basketball star, economic booster

Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert says his basketball team wouldn't be where it is today without going through the pain of losing superstar forward LeBron James to the Miami Heat.

"The last four years have been a payment for where we are today," Gilbert said. It's an about-face for the Detroit-based businessman, who had a very public spat with the four-time MVP when he left Cleveland for Miami, calling James "heartless and callous" and wishing him bad karma.

But now, four years and a $42 million, two-year contract later, the two have made up. "Our relationship today is very good and solid," he said. "We had five great years and one bad night."

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On Thursday night, the Cavs will embark on a new era, as King James returns to the Quicken Loans Arena in what is sure to be a celebratory and emotional homecoming.

After posting one of the worst seasons in the NBA last year, the Cavs are now dominating on nearly every sales front—and the new season hasn't even technically started. Despite a decision by the team not to hike prices, the secondary market for tickets is soaring. The average price of a home game ticket this season is a whopping $388, according to secondary ticket aggregator TiqIQ, representing a 224 percent jump from this time last year. It's the most expensive sum for any team in the league, $80 higher than the second-most-expensive team, the New York Knicks.

LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers during a game against the Indiana Pacers at Cintas Center on October 15, 2014 in Cincinnati, Ohio.
Joe Robbins | Getty Images
LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers during a game against the Indiana Pacers at Cintas Center on October 15, 2014 in Cincinnati, Ohio.

Opening night in Cleveland against the Knicks is going to cost even more than that: $588 to see LeBron's first game back. On Stubhub, a Row 1 ticket to the game commands nearly $14,000.

Merchandise is seeing a similar trend. Fanatics, the largest online retailer of licensed team merchandise, says the Cavs are the top-selling NBA team, up 700 percent compared to this period last year. The top-selling jersey? You guessed it—LeBron James.

The appetite is manifesting digitally as well. Web traffic to Cavs.com has spiked, with page views up 438 percent from last year. The team just launched a new mobile app to update fans and stream content.

James' return is also garnering worldwide attention, and that means a huge opportunity for Cleveland itself. Cuyahoga County projects a $50 million boost to the local economy, as more jobs are created to meet visitor demand and more taxes collected due to increased consumer spending on tickets and in local businesses.

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Some economists expect the impact to be even greater, predicting an annual nine-figure windfall, taking into account indirect effects on the region overall.

Whatever the final dollar amount, local businesses are already welcoming a boost. "Every restaurant on the street is going to be full, and that's a big deal," said Jude Feyedelem, director of fine dining for Michael Symon Restaurants. His restaurant, Lola, located around the corner from the arena, is booked solid for opening night.

A couple blocks away at newly opened The 9 hotel, advanced bookings are climbing. "We are definitely seeing that with reservations in the future," said Keith Halfmann, COO of Geis Hospitality Group, which partners with Marriott on the property.

As for the forward who helped win two NBA championships, James is just happy to be back on the court in Cleveland, where he got his start in 2003 out of high school.

"It means everything to be here in Cleveland for these fans," he said, after finishing a practice with his new teammates. "It's going to be a special moment, and you can't take that for granted."