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Liverpool and LeBron

So the world is now a place in which LeBron James can own a stake in Liverpool. On Twitter yesterday, the news was greeted first breathlessly and then, by People Who Know Things, with derision. Ives Galarcep pointed out that athletes buy small stakes in teams all the time. Jen Chang declared that this was no different than if David Beckham bought 0.1% of the L.A. Dodgers. (But wouldn’t it sort of be a story if David Beckham bought a share of an American baseball team?) Calm down, was the general cognoscenti idea. This isn’t real. It’s just a marketing stunt.

And that’s absolutely true, at least if you exclude marketing stunts from your idea of what’s real in contemporary sports. LeBron James will not be donning Liver Bird cufflinks and driving in to Melwood to hash out transfer policy. Damien Comolli will not phone him to ask for ideas. He will, occasionally, appear, either at Anfield or not at Anfield, wearing Liverpool colors. He will infrequently issue to the press quotations about Liverpool’s performance that seem to have been generated by a computer. He will have no input into the day-to-day running of the club.

What he’s after—which is, again, real or not real, or a story or not a story, depending on what you think is meaningful in sports at this particular moment—is to extend the reach of his brand/identity/persona into international markets where Liverpool is huge and basketball is an emerging sport. If you’re a passionate Liverpool fan in China with a dawning interest in the NBA, and you’re thinking of buying a basketball jersey, you are confronted, like an airline passenger, with a choice among many options, most of which probably seem somewhat similar. But if there’s a superstar who (arguably tenuously) shares your own (arguably tenuous) connection to Merseyside, then maybe you buy his jersey, and maybe you pay a little more attention the next time one of his games pixelates across your Sopcast screen. And then you’re a customer, and thank you for flying Air Bron.

So yes, it’s a marketing ploy. But saying it’s not interesting for that reason, or that this deal is no more mindbending than the Williams sisters buying a share in the Dolphins, is missing the point. Marketing ploys—maybe you’ve heard this—are a big part of how sports culture works these days. And—maybe you’ve heard this, too—sports culture is an impossibly gargantuan behemoth within the only-very-slightly-larger sphere of culture itself. LeBron owning a piece of Liverpool is a story precisely because it’s a marketing stunt, because it occurred to someone as a viable marketing stunt: because a few years ago, becoming a stakeholder in an English soccer club had absolutely no presence on an NBA superstar’s horizon of personal brand management. I haven’t looked into this, but I’d guess there’s a really good chance that Larry Bird hadn’t heard of Liverpool Football Club, much less thought to own a minority stake in it. By the same token, and the Jordan megalith obviously excepted, NBA players weren’t a high association-priority for Premier League clubs until the very recent past—probably when Steve Nash started parading his love for Tottenham, which was more a lucky accident for Spurs than a deliberate marketing strategy.

In other words, the LeBron deal is a story because it’s an index of a bunch of different, independently interesting and important trends: the global reach of the Premier League (Team James didn’t do this to sell Heat sweatbands in Croxteth), the increasing global reach of basketball (Yao Ming, etc.), the increasing cultural convergence of basketball and soccer (Kobe and Barcelona, etc.), the increasing cultural convergence of English and American sports (the mere presence of FSNEGMSV in Liverpool, etc.) Because it doesn’t have a lot of practical consequences, it’s not a major story within any one of these trends—ursus arctos compared it to the Yankees/Manchester United partnership yesterday, which is probably about right—but it’s striking because it combines all of them under the flag of one enormous celebrity, which I think is why a general “wow” preceded the general “come off it.” It’s worth talking about because it’s a milestone of sorts, and because there will be more of them.

Or, because this is actually the sort of thing I can see Comolli doing, he will not care what they are if he does.

Of course it’s always possible that he could form a genuine connection with the club and the fans, get really into soccer, and make this a sincere interest or even a passion—it’s been happening more and more with basketball players and soccer—but I’m assuming the tenor of his involvement is summed up by his quote that ran in all the stories about the deal, namely that the moment he stepped on an NBA court he became a businessman.

For Fenway Marketing New Sport England Ventures Group, the motive is presumably to use LeBron’s (still-potent, Decision aside) popularity to raise the stateside profile of LFC; that is, it’s the sub-motive within the larger motive of marketing and representing him generally, within which larger deal this Liverpool sub-deal is only a small component.

The rumor among Liverpool fans seems to be that FMNSEVG had a stake in the team to offload due to current part-owner Thomas DiBenedetto’s impending purchase of Roma, but whether that’s the stake LeBron is inheriting we can’t yet say for sure.

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Liverpool and LeBron

by Brian Phillips · April 7, 2011

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