How big is the "LeBron Effect," really? Pretty big.
As LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers gear up for 2015 NBA Finals, the team's investment in the 11-time NBA All-Star is paying off. Not only has James led the Cavs to only their second appearance in the NBA Finals since they were founded in 1970, but the effect he's had from a business perspective is felt far and wide. New data reveal that the Cavs have seen a substantial increase in nearly every business category—from tickets to merchandise to TV time—compared with previous seasons.
"It's been a magical season with every aspect of what has taken place on and off the court," Len Komoroski, CEO of the Cleveland Cavaliers, told CNBC.
Komoroski says nearly every business metric of the organization is at all-time highs and shows no sign of abating.
In 2010, when James announced his decision to take his "talents to Miami," there was an outcry among Cleveland fans who felt betrayed by their hometown hero. Four years later, fans have officially recovered. The Cavs' fan base has grown 79 percent, and local TV viewership is up 166 percent, according to Repucom, an entertainment market research firm. The Cavs' fan base is now bigger than the Miami Heat's fan base. (Tweet This)
"The wounds of LeBron leaving Cleveland have healed over quite nicely," said Peter Laatz, executive vice president of Repucom.
Cavs tickets also saw a major boom this season. With an average attendance of 20,567 fans per game, the Cavs sold out a franchise-high 41 games. On the road, the Cavs were also a top draw, with opponents selling approximately 1,600 more tickets than average when the Cavs were in town. That demand in turn drove ticket prices higher, with fans paying more than $235 on average during the regular season, according to secondary ticket site TiqIQ—compared with the 2013-14 season, when fans were paying an average price of $68. That comes out to a 246 percent increase.
Meanwhile, NBA Finals tickets to see James match up against Stephen Curry of the Golden State Warriors are averaging $1,458—making it the most expensive NBA Finals since TiqIQ began tracking.
While the Cavs did not raise season tickets this season (or the past five seasons), Cavs fans can expect to pay approximately 15 percent more for season tickets next season.
When it comes to merchandise, fans couldn't get enough of the Cleveland "Wine & Gold" this season. Cleveland Cavs and LeBron James merchandise are both top-sellers, second only to Chicago for the most amount of team apparel sold through NBA.com. Fanatics, the largest online retailer of online and sports apparel, said LeBron James merchandise sales are up 80 percent since the playoffs began. James' number 23 jersey is the top-selling jersey in the league for the sixth year in a row.
James' return has also meant significantly more TV time and exposure for the Cavs, who had an additional nine nationally televised games this season compared with 2013-14. But it's not just games being televised. More LeBron equals more highlights, which translated to the Cavs' topping all NBA teams in minutes appearing on ESPN's SportsCenter, garnering nearly 12 percent of all NBA coverage this season, or nearly nine hours of exposure, according to Repucom, a 600 percent increase from last season.
The Cavs finished the season ranked third for sponsorship media value, a figure determined by Repucom according to audience size, duration and quality of exposure.
Sponsors such as mortgage lender Quicken Loans, insurer State Farm and automaker Kia Motors saw a 133 percent increase in media value during this regular season over last, Repucom says. Quicken Loans, which has the naming rights to the Cleveland arena, often referred to as the "Q," received the highest value for basketball court on-surface branding in the NBA.
A Repucom social media valuation indicates that just one LeBron James Facebook post featuring the Kia K900 King James Edition was worth nearly $200,000 for Kia, based on fan engagement through comments, likes and shares.
The Rock and Roll capital of the world has also benefited from LeBron's return. According to a study by Convention Sports & Leisure (CSL), the Cavaliers' 2015 playoff run will generate an estimated $3.6 million per game for the local economy. While experts often disagree on the total economic effect James has had on the region, there's no debating that he has helped drive traffic once again to local bars, restaurants and hotels.
"We feel privileged and honored to be part of Cleveland's rising story," said Komoroski.
The Cavs take on the Golden State Warriors in Game 1 of the NBA Finals on Thursday.