June 25, 2009: He won three NBA titles in Los Angeles and another in Miami. Now, Shaquille O'Neal will seek his fifth title in the city that is home to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum via a trade that brings him to LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. In O'Neal, a 15-time NBA all-star who is 37, Cleveland gets a lead player who is still among the most imposing and marketable athletes in pro sports. (O'Neal's former team, the Phoenix Suns, which acquired him from the Miami Heat in 2008, get Ben Wallace, Aleksandar Pavlovic, $500,000 and a second-round pick in the 2009 NBA Draft.)
O'Neal earns about $15 million in endorsements via deals that include Chinese footwear and apparel brand Li-Ning, Enlyten nutraceutical dissolving strips and Comcast. (James tops all NBA players at about $25 million in endorsements, including Nike, Coca-Cola and State Farm.) O'Neal also has become one of Twitter's biggest spokespersons, although in a non-official capacity as a Twitter member. Fittingly, it only took a few hours for O'Neal to post on his Twitter page, "The Real Shaq" (where he has more than 1.4 million followers), a computer-generated image of himself wearing a Cleveland Cavaliers uniform that had been created by the Cavaliers, along with a Cavs logo. It came with several "tweets" from O'Neal, including, "Successful leadership is measured by influence, not authority." Another read, "This is how I really feel about the trade. Enjoy." Attached was a video of O'Neal lip-synching to Akon's "Over the Edge" ("I'm here at the crossroad/Where my life is heading? Man I don't know/Should I stay or should I go?/ 'Cause anything's better than what I been through.")
The immediate marketing impact will be felt by the Cavaliers, who can use James and O'Neal in all of its sales and ticket activations. But O'Neal's marketing partners have a new window of opportunity to tap into the "LeBron effect" by putting O'Neal's fresh start seeking a title in Cleveland into the spotlight. Li-Ning, which vies with Nike and adidas for attention in China, could take advantage of the situation in Cleveland to step up its plans to become better known in the U.S.
"Shaq's marketing is on a national level already so the Cleveland move won't necessarily bring him new deals," said David Schwab. vice-president at marketing agency Octagon, Washington, D.C., and managing director at First Call, Octagon's celebrity acquisition and activation division. "But current partners of his like Comcast may be able to buy into or leverage the increased number of nationally broadcasted games he will be in. As for Cleveland, LeBron has already done so much for tickets and sponsorship. This," said Schwab, "is the cherry on top.
In fact, the Cavaliers took little time to post on their home page the computer-generated photo of O'Neal wearing a Cleveland uniform, with the text: "Running on Diesel. Welcome to Cleveland, Shaq. The chances of O'Neal and James appearing together in national marketing other than Cavaliers or NBA promo-related spots are slim and none, as many of their deals are conflicting (Li-Ning vs. Nike, Enlyten vs. James' Vitaminwater) and the cost to hire both would be prohibitive.
But ESPN could pull it off, as both players have done spots for the sports network, by pairing them in a "This is SportsCenter" spot or in promos for its NBA coverage. TNT also has used multiple players to tout its NBA coverage, so a Shaq-LeBron duo could be a match made in Turner heaven. Beyond that, O'Neal could become a spokesperson for Cleveland landmarks such as the Rock Hall of Fame, and draw attention to other sports by showing up, for example, at a Cleveland Indians game. James and O'Neal are certain to make local appearances together, especially in "NBA Cares" related situations as the 2009-10 season approaches. And while some analysts are looking at this as a one-year-and-done deal for O'Neal, he has other plans, even if they are not with Cleveland. As O'Neal wrote on his Twitter page, "My numbers are not good enough to retire. 3 more years left."