It took years, but LeBron James is finally more popular than ever, according to an ESPN Sports Poll. In the latest September survey, 18.4 percent of NBA fans cited James as their favorite player, almost double the 9.4 percent figure from the 2011-12 season, when he was still mired in Decision backlash.
But LeBron's surge in popularity is confined to certain demographics.
The "I'm coming home" bump was pronounced among whites and Hispanics polled. In the 2012-13 season, 9.7 percent of white NBA fans listed LeBron as their favorite player. That figure crept up to 13.2 percent last season and registered at 16.0 percent in the latest September survey.
Hispanics supported LeBron to the tune of 13.5 percent during the 2013-14 season and now do so at 17.4 percent. Even though LeBron rejected a heavily Latino market in Miami, his homeward turn certainly didn't hurt him with Hispanics polled.
There wasn't much evidence of LeBron's move resonating with African-American NBA fans or younger NBA fans. LeBron was the favorite player for 28.1 percent of the African-American NBA fans polled during the 2013-14 season. Our latest figures show no "I'm coming home" impact in that demographic, with LeBron most recently registering as the favorite player for 27.8 percent of African-American fans.
Younger demographics also received the LeBron news with apathy. Fans ages 12 to 17 went from a 22.4 percent favorite rating during the season to 21.4 percent in our September report. Support among fans age 18 to 34 crept up only 0.6 percent during this time frame. The millennial NBA fan seems to care little as to where LeBron works.
In stark contrast, older fans wholly embraced LeBron's embrace of his old team. The 35-54 demographic went from 14.7 percent support to 18.4 percent. Fans over the age of 55 went from 11.7 percent to 16.6 percent. LeBron's summer bump was powered by fans over the age of 35.
There might be a connection between how LeBron's return was received and how inclined the fan receiving it is to root for a local team. Older fans are generally more likely to support the local squad. Last season, 57.5 percent of fans over the age of 55 said they support the team in their market. Only 39.1 percent of fans 12-17 said they support the in-market team. There's a similar contrast between white and African-American NBA fans, with 58 percent of white fans supporting the local team to 37 percent black fans pledging local allegiance.
LeBron's popularity had been slowly building after falling precipitously in the Decision aftermath. In surveys conducted during the 2013-14 season, 16.1 percent of NBA fans named him as their favorite player. In surveys conducted over July and August, that figure jumped to 20.7 percent. Some of that positive feeling has since ebbed -- James isn't the story in the sports news cycle like he was in the summer -- but much of the afterglow still surrounds him. His latest 18.4 percent favorite rating easily exceeds his old Cleveland apex of popularity in 2010 (15.6 percent).
In terms of reputation, leaving Miami has been the opposite of leaving Cleveland. When LeBron ditched the Cavs in 2010, his favorite rating sank from that 15.6 percent figure to 10.2 percent in his first season with the Heat. Spurning Cleveland meant a sudden loss in over a third of his fans. In stark contrast, breaking hearts in Miami has led to many new LeBron converts nationwide, especially among demographics that tend to root local.
It would appear that if you root for the home team, you're more predisposed to cheer LeBron for coming home. If you like rooting for local clothing, you were probably rooting for Cleveland.