The billion-dollar Knick pitch

Experts seem to be fuzzy on one of the most important issues of free agency: Can a player earn more, on and off the court, if they play in a top market like New York?

Michael Jordan earned the most of any player ever, and he was in neither New York nor Los Angeles. On the other hand, the NBA has seen a string of role players -- from Charles Oakley to Derek Fisher -- become national household names after connecting with the extraordinary number of wealthy fans of those big-city teams.

Advertising on a local TV broadcast costs a lot more in New York than in, say, Cleveland, because that audience is bigger more valuable. Wouldn't the same principle apply?

Not really, according to Michael Jordan's agent, David Falk, who spoke to WFAN the other day (via Sports Radio Interviews). "As big as New York is," he explains, "this is not '96 anymore. Twitter, Facebook and all of the social media I think you can be on Neptune and be a brand if your name was LeBron James. ... New York offers New York. I think it is a really nice place but I don't think the marketing advantages like you had ten or fifteen years ago area as relevant as today."

So ... which is it? Can LeBron James earn more in New York, compared to Chicago, Cleveland, Miami and the like? Aren't there armies of marketing geeks out there somewhere who can look into this?

Indeed there are.

Forbes reports the Knicks hired the consultants at Interbrand -- "the world's largest branding consultancy" -- to answer the question in a presentation the team made to James in Ohio on Thursday.

Interbrand says they analyzed more than 200 variables (titles won, all-star appearances, MVPs won) compared to more than 20 historical players (Jordan, Charles Barkley, Wilt Chamberlain) and ran the model 50,000 times to see how much money James was likely to make living in different NBA cities.

Speaking of branding errors, James made one years ago when he alienated fans by saying that he wanted to be a billionaire. That desire was at the root of the Interbrand case that New York City is the best choice for future earnings.

You can watch the whole slideshow on the Forbes website, and you'll see that Interbrand says James is:

  • 46.6% likely to earn a billion dollars in New York. The strong Knicks' team brand, combined with a shortage of past titles, makes it ripe for James to be seen as heroic to a huge market with national and international media exposure.

  • 1.3% likely to earn a billion in Cleveland. His "hometown hero" status helps Cleveland leapfrog Chicago, as does the Cavalier's lack of past success -- win a title there and they'll love you forever.

  • 1.0% likely to earn a billion in Chicago. The challenge there comes from the "high threshold for creating that legacy" thanks to Jordan's six titles and a fanbase that is not easily wowed.

  • 0.0% likely to earn a billion in Miami. Interbrand finds that in Miami "low fan avidity, size of fan base, media reach do not able brand stretch."

There's not much in the presentation about what precisely went into this analysis, and you can't help but wonder what they may have left out. But one thing missing is blatantly obvious: The Nets! As in, the team that (as Matt Moore points out on CBS) had just left the room when the Knicks made this pitch.

It's tough to quantify their brand, I'm sure. They were in East Rutherford. They're going to be in Newark. They're on their way to Brooklyn in two years ... But are we not dealing with the world's largest branding consultancy? Surely there's a way to concoct some kind of estimate. In the absence of that, should we assume the New York numbers trotted out for the Knicks would work for any NBA team in the metropolitan area? And one last question: How do you calculate the value of having Mikhail Prokhorov and Jay-Z indebted to you for life?

Perhaps the most important piece of news in the study, however, aligns with what marketing experts have told me in recent weeks: For LeBron James' image and off-court income, nothing matters more than winning a title. If he does, he'll be validated as one of the best ever. If he doesn't ...

Interbrand calls a championship "the single most important driver of brand value."

And in their projections of where he'd earn the most money, how did they project where he's most likely to win a title? It's the most important question, but it's a mystery. Because even at the cutting edge of hoops geekiness, nobody is any good at predicting the next decade's title winners with any confidence -- especially when the relevant rosters are largely empty at the moment.

Assuming that's unknowable, however, shouldn't we take from this that on the most important driver of earnings falls outside this analysis?

Also worth noting is that while the presentation says New York stands far ahead of the class in terms of likelihood of earning a billion dollars, expressed a different way, it's less sexy. Elsewhere the presentation says that New York's "international exposure and media influence make it the only market that can substantially drive James' earnings -- he could raise his future earnings by up to 15%."

I don't doubt that a player is somewhat more valuable in New York City. That fanbase is enormous, and deep-pocketed, and Knick players do have better endorsement deals and a bigger presence in national and international media than they would have elsewhere.

But how much more can they earn? Up to 15% sounds about right. But remember that James and crew started this investigation looking for championships. Even while focusing just on money, and slicing and dicing the numbers to make the Big Apple look huge (and, amazingly, omitting both the Nets and any discussion of the tax and cost of living differences) this study doesn't move the tectonic plates under James' decision much: Whether it's about basketball, or income, or both, he needs to find the team that can get him a title.