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With a recent championship now a part of his brand, LeBron James has never been more marketable. Two years after the debacle of "The Decision," his image is partially rehabilitated and on the brink of improving even more. Claims the goal of becoming a "global icon" once drew criticism — that now seems to be a perfectly acceptable path for LeBron's career.
From a removed perspective, there seems to be little reason for James to change his representation, marketing team, or the relationship between the two. Yet, late Wednesday night, it was reported that he had parted ways with Creative Arts Agency and his agent Leon Rose and hired childhood friend Rich Paul — a CAA agent who will leave the firm — as his new representative. The news was first reported by Liz Mullen of SportsBusiness Journal on Twitter and later confirmed by Yahoo!'s Marc Spears, who indicated that the separation was amicable. Spears explained, in a column published early Thursday, that James signed the paperwork to leave CAA for Paul's nascent Klutch Sports Management on Wednesday afternoon.
[Marc J. Spears: LeBron James switches agents to team up with longtime friend]
There is some important context for this news. First, Paul is already affiliated with James through LRMR, the marketing firm that they (and Maverick Carter and Randy Mims, also long-time friends) started when a much-younger James ended his relationship with Goodwin Sports Management in the mid-'00s. LRMR has been much-criticized for its role in "The Decision," but it's done good work in the past two years, especially via its work with Nike.
On top of that, Paul is not just a friend hired due to strict nepotism. Through his employment with CAA, Paul also serves as the agent for Cleveland Cavaliers forward Tristan Thompson (discussed here), Los Angeles Clippers point guard Eric Bledsoe, and Charlotte Bobcats first-round pick Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. Paul isn't as experienced as other top agents around the league, but he's also not a neophyte. In four years as a CAA agent, he's earned a strong reputation.
The implications for LeBron are unclear, and perhaps minimal. As the NBA's best player, there is not much to be done in the way of negotiating contracts: Teams will offer him the maximum contract available and he will either accept the deal or ask for less, as he did when the Heat added him and Chris Bosh to join Dwyane Wade in the summer of 2010. While agents certainly have other responsibilities, the chief responsibility of managing LeBron James relates to his marketing, which is already handled by LRMR. If anything, this move away from CAA represents a consolidation of power, not a wholesale break with prior strategies.
However, the importance of this decision goes well beyond James. In many ways, LeBron helped build CAA's sports division into the major industry player it is today — in the years since, huge stars like Real Madrid soccer star Cristiano Ronaldo, New York Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter, and Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning have joined the agency. CAA also has major influence throughout the NBA, with major influence over franchises like the New York Knicks (where Carmelo Anthony, head coach Mike Woodson, and many other players claim CAA representation). As of now, even without LeBron on their side, CAA is arguably the most powerful agency in basketball.
Of course, LeBron was the single most important athlete in the CAA stable, and one who convinced many of his friends to join the agency. If his exit starts a trend — for instance, Chris Paul, a pending free agent, is a client of both CAA and LRMR, and Rich Paul's other clients could bolt, as well — then CAA could start to lose its considerable power. An agency that once looked set to take over the NBA could end up as a footnote in the league's history.
We don't yet know if that will be the case, and LeBron's move could very well be an outlier. (Plus, CAA's power in other sports ensures that it won't fade away completely.) Nevertheless, this news makes the situation worth monitoring, if not worthy of alarms quite yet. Agent-related gossip can sometimes seem like background noise to what we watch on the court, but player representatives often have more of an effect on front-office decisions and team construction then we like to admit. If the CAA situation changes dramatically, then we could see a very different NBA in the near future.
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