LeBron makes calculated foray into Web

LeBron James sure is a mystery these days.

As of Wednesday, every one of his potential suitors -- Miami, Chicago, New Jersey, New York and Cleveland -- had reason to believe it was still in the game.

After all, LeBron has been rather silent. He's not talking to the media.

Each one of these locales has been bandied about for LeBron in the past 56 days -- the span of time since James and the Cleveland Cavaliers were eliminated from the playoffs (May 13) until Thursday. Each has a compelling case in its own right. Each has been linked strongly to him within the past week to 10 days.

The Mavericks and Clippers have also been in contention in the not-so-distant past.

As such, the suddenly most secretive man in America still has the nation on the edge of its seat, and though sentiment grew late Wednesday night that James could be leaning toward Miami, nothing is quite certain.

But Wednesday some of the most plugged-in reporters and sources surmised James had yet to make up his mind on his future plans.

But peek behind the veil a bit, and there's at least one plan here.

And it's tied to the one place LeBron is speaking: the Internet.

LeBron's Web presence, one that had once been curiously nonexistent, is now booming.

Travel back to July 1, the start of NBA free agency.

People started buzzing that LebronJames.com had sprung to life all of a sudden, a site that, until then, had only been active during James' career from 2003 to 2006, according to CNBC's Darren Rovell.

LeBron's site explained it "will keep you up to speed on his actions off the court" and asked for a name and e-mail address.

But upon typing your information and hitting enter, a curious wording appeared: "You'll be the first to know," followed by LeBron's signature.

Could his website be where he'd announced his decision?

Many thought so.

In fact, several speculated, and reported, that LeBron would indeed announce his decision on the site.

For a few days, the speculation hummed. But it's been largely put to rest. We now know James will announce his intentions during a one-hour special at 9 p.m. ET Thursday on ESPN. And by Thursday, the message sent after submitting your information on his website was simply "Thank You," followed by his signature.

And where did James' camp first publicly confirm the TV announcement? LeBronJames.com, straight from James' marketing company, LRMR Marketing.

"Maverick Carter, CEO of LRMR Marketing, said [Wednesday] that LeBron James will formally announce where he will play next season and beyond on 'The Decision,' which will air live on Thursday, July 8, at 9 p.m. ET on ESPN," the site reads.

"I think it's pretty obvious that the timing was not an accident," said AJ Vaynerchuk, co-founder of VaynerMedia, a brand-consulting company that works with the New York Jets and New Jersey Nets, among other sports properties. "I think LeBron has taken the free-agency thing in full stride. … Twitter, the website -- I think this marketing push is falling into place with this whole free-agency hoopla. LeBron is understanding this is a major event."

That's right: James is also on Twitter now, despite being described as not a Facebook or Twitter guy by Brian Windhorst of the Cleveland Plain Dealer on Tuesday.

Windhorst has covered James since high school. He's co-authored two books about him as well.

Chris Paul let the Twitter world know Tuesday that LeBron was now on the social-media service: "**Couldn't convince him to tell me which team he's goin to but convinced him to join Twitter lol … my brother from another mother @KINGJAMES."

Keith Estabrook, LeBron James' publicist, confirmed it was James' real account to a few media outlets shortly after the news from Paul.

A phone message left for Estabrook went unreturned.

A large contingent of the speculation and chatter was emanating from pundits on Twitter, which was then retweeted by followers and regurgitated in other media. James had placed himself right in the middle of the conversation, one that has been thriving for a solid week.

Paul's tweet doesn't appear to be quite the full story. A look at the account's public information noted the "KingJames" Twitter handle had been started March 6, 2009.

But there were no tweets to be had. It was a blank canvas.

Minutes after Paul broke the news, the account had around 12,000 followers or so. By Thursday morning, the account had skyrocketed to 301,498 followers. That's nearly twice the number of followers as Paul, a veteran tweeter.

"It's one of the fastest [follower jumps]," said MG Siegler of TechCrunch, who has covered LeBron's moving and shaking this week for the social media and tech blog. "The only ones that are comparable, off the top of my head, are Conan O'Brien and Bill Gates. Those are the big three that I've seen get followers that quickly."

And such a massive following on Twitter is bringing eyeballs to his website.

His third tweet, sent Wednesday morning, linked to LebronJames.com and told followers to "check [the link] for updated info on my decision." It led to the aforementioned Carter announcement about LeBron's live ESPN show on Thursday night.

According to bit.ly, the link had 173,274 clicks as of Thursday morning.

That's a lot.

LeBron's Twitter account is even engaging with followers leading up to his decision.

Thursday morning, it tweeted: "Good Morning! It's your chance to ask me a question about my decision, use #lebrondecision to submit and I'll answer them [Thursday night]."

James actually already had a Facebook account before free agency hit, but outside of some photos and video, there had been no activity from James or his camp. No words or status updates.

Yet, the Facebook page is now linking LebronJames.com, as well as a Vitamin Water-sponsored contest to ask James a question during the live show. James is a spokesman for Vitamin Water.

The account has amassed more than 2.5 million likes in its time online and its wall has been filled with chatter from fans.

James is already a big name. He's an icon, and he's in the midst of the most talked-about time in his career during a time in society when real-time news and information is increasingly at our fingertips.

If it's the only place he and his camp are speaking, we're tuning in.

The more eyeballs on something, the more people you can reach and the more branding and advertising you can facilitate.

Bing.com, Microsoft's search engine, has also affixed itself to James' emerging Web presence, by sponsoring the search bar on his website.

"We are excited to be a part of LeBron's important day and to be the official decision engine of the site LebronJames.com and one of the presenting sponsors of 'The Decision' program," Lisa Gurry, Bing's director, wrote on the Bing community blog Wednesday.

The NBA even realized James' pull online during this past week. Over the weekend, Siegler reported that the NBA had purchased a promoted trending topic on Twitter. What was it?

"LeBron James."

Clicking the link led users to real-time tweets with "LeBron James" in them. But a promoted trending topic also meant the NBA's tweet telling users to follow the free agency coverage on NBA.com was always glued to the top.

With a following that's only just begun online, James could have a sizable impact on consumerism in the future.

"LeBron has such an amazing reach," Vaynerchuk said. "As our world gets more social and as LeBron entrenches himself as a bigger and bigger brand, who knows how much power his social media following can have in the next three, four, five years."

Yet, Vaynerchuk cautions that LeBron's private nature and past feelings on social media might leave him inactive online again once the season starts and the free-agency hype is long gone.

In some circles, public sentiment has turned against James. They believe this seemingly orchestrated barrage of hints and teases isn't the classy way to go about such a decision.

On Wednesday, Kevin Durant tweeted and broke the news that he'd agreed to a five-year extension with the Oklahoma City Thunder to far lesser fanfare or drama. Quite the juxtaposition to James, which some applauded.

But there's no denying LeBron has capitalized on this enormous hype and likely couldn't have picked a better time to ramp up his Web presence -- one that will likely continue to grow his already massive brand.

What's that Nike slogan?

We, my friends, are all Web witnesses.

Ryan Corazza is a freelance writer and Web designer based in Chicago.