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Did LeBron James Really Hurt His Brand?

Wednesday, 14 Jul 2010 | 1:38 PM ET

It seemed like an interesting idea: Have the biggest of all free agents - LeBron James - announce the decision on where he’ll next sign on national television.

LeBron James
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LeBron James

But there was something in the way it went down that didn’t work out for James.

Is it possible that James, who had built a marketing empire over seven years, took a hit with the public way of announcing that he was going to the Miami Heat?While many online polls suggest that is the case, a new poll released to CNBC by the reveals that damage to James’ reputation is actually minimal.

The shots taken at James, both by the media and fans, were based on how secret the decision became and the platform he used to reveal it. Was it really possible that LeBron didn’t tell his soon-to-be-former team what his decision was before he uttered it on ESPN? That he would diss the Cavaliers faithful in front of a live television audience?

An ESPN.com SportsNation pollreflected that 60 percent of people said that they thought that James had “permanently damaged” his image. More specifically, 61 percent of people in an SI.com pollsaid that their opinion of James shifted from positive to negative thanks to the free agent process.

Prior to last week, LeBron was my favorite non-Jazz player in the NBA,” said Tom Bagley, a 30-year-old corporate attorney from Utah told us. Now Bagley says James is far off his radar because of the “self absorbed” way LeBron announced where he was going.

“I’m in the market for new basketball shoes and was strongly considering LeBron’s Nikes,” Bagley said. “Now I will definitely not purchase those shoes and, all things being equal, would be less likely to purchase a product endorsed by LeBron because I have been so turned off by him.”

At the same time, we were told by the NBA that James’ Heat No. 6 jersey was the most popular selling since Thursday and that jerseys had been ordered in all 50 states (yes, including Ohio) and 26 countries.

So what was the truth?

"His legacy will be more tarnished if he doesn’t win a championship." -Manager Global Consulting, Vada Manager

On May 24, the last time the poll was taken, James appealed to 71.5 percent of the population that knew him. Now? Just 60.5 percent. Also falling was the opinion of him as a trendsetter (from 65.2% to 64.6%) and the opinion of him as a trustworthy figure (from 56.6% to 53.0%)

But LeBron’s marks as a viable endorser did not significantly fall (from 69.9% to 67.6% of the population). He’s now being recognized as more influential and the population is more aware of him in general, according to the poll.

What do these numbers really mean? We asked the folks at the Celebrity Davie-Brown Indexto provide comparisons to LeBron’s stats before versus where he is now.

Previously, James was on par in endorsement with Robin Williams, Cameron Diaz and Jerry Rice. Now he compares to Jack Nicklaus, Tyra Banks, Dick Vitale and Bruce Willis.

Still, not a shabby group.

And people who conduct these polls know that, assuming LeBron doesn’t do anything else that is seen as negative this offseason, his overall numbers will rise when he steps back on the court.

That especially changes if he made the right decision and he is finally able to win an NBA championship.

“The fact is he takes a bigger hit if he doesn’t win anything,” said Vada Manager, a former senior director at Nike who now runs his own company, Manager Global Consulting. “His legacy will be more tarnished if he doesn’t win a championship.”

But since James didn’t go to the Knicks, Bulls, Nets or stay with the Cavs, where he would have continued to be the star — and instead went to the Heat — there’s a question as to whether a championship will raise his marketing star enough.

“It’s funny how people criticize him for being selfish with the way he announced his decision, but the actual decision was the most unselfish move he could make,” said Scott Becher, founder of Sports & Sponsorships, a Florida-based sports marketing firm. “If he wins a title, it’s not going to be all about him like it was for Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant in recent years. This is Dwyane Wade’s team.”

It certainly is for now. Just look at this week’s Sports Illustrated with Wade in the front, being flanked by James and Chris Bosh.

More on LeBron:

Questions? Comments? SportsBiz@cnbc.com

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