What Cleveland Lost When It Lost LeBron

LeBron James left Cleveland in the cold Thursday night, taking an hour-long ESPN special to let down the city where he was raised, the city that embraced him and pinned so many hopes on his reign of basketball kingship, to follow the impulse that afflicts so 25-year-old young men: to leave home and pursue his dreams elsewhere, in this case with two of his friends in Miami, the party capitol of the United States.

But what did Cleveland lose, exactly, when LeBron left?

Much has been made of the economic impact LeBron's leaving would have on economically depressed Northeast Ohio, where the manufacturing jobs have left, probably for good, and where people are struggling through 10.9% unemployment in LeBron's own hometown of Akron.

On Thursday, a few hours before LeBron was to make his decision (a few hours plus about 20 minutes, as it turns out) I talked to Joe Roman, CEO of the Greater Cleveland Partnership, the city's main business coalition. He was a bit peeved that reporters had been asking him all day about how badly LeBron's departure could devastate the regional economy.

"The Northeastern Ohio economy is $180 billion in scale. It is the 12th or 13th largest regional marketplace in the United States, and no matter whose number you use in terms of a projection of the economic value of either the Cavaliers or LeBron James pales by comparison to that number," Roman said.

"Now, at the same time, we Clevelanders love our sports, and we know what a very vibrant full stadium or arena can generate in a downtown during successful cycles of your sports teams, so it's an imp attribute and component to our downtown sports economy," he told me.

How much is that vibrant, full arena worth to Cleveland? Positively Cleveland, the city's tourism group, has estimated that each home game nets the city $3.7 million, or over $150 million for the entire season. $2 billion in new investments, including some loft housing near Q arena, are being built.

A 70%-full arena and the Cavs missing the playoffs may not mean 30% of that revenue is gone, and the lofts will of course still be built, but the city's bars and restaurants will probably suffer without the draw of LeBron during home games, possibly to the tune of millions over the season, even if that economic impact is marginal to the region's $180 billion economy.

Another chamber of commerce, meanwhile, estimates a much larger LeBron effect: Jerry Roper of the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce valued LeBron's potential signing with the Bulls, according to the best estimates he's seen, at $2.5 billion.

He compared LeBron's impact to Michael Jordan's when I talked to him Thursday: "Michael Jordan took us out of the Capone era to a global city known for sports," Roper said. LeBron as a Bull would have been huge "in terms of spending and advertising, etc, but the unknown is what that would mean around the world and we can't put a pricetag on that."

It goes without saying that Cleveland lost something bigger than dollar signs when LeBron left. It lost a source of pride, hope, and inspiration for everyone there, everyone in Akron suffering through the unemployment, and everyone in the city of Cleveland suffering less, actually, from lower-than-average unemployment at 8.9%.

LeBron's value, of course, is intangible, and the psychic effect of his departure cuts deeper than restaurant and bar business. The shots of Cavs fans burning his jersey on Thursday night were a testament to that.

LeBron was the biggest thing Cleveland had going for it. The Browns aren't good. The Indians are in last place in the AL Central. He was a point of pride. Manned spaceflight gives people hope that there is something greater in human achievement to aspire to, and it gives kids a vague notion that it pays to be good at math and physics. LeBron was sort of like that.

And now he's gone.