Should Pittsburgh Sign LeBron James?

NBA superstar LeBron James is a free agent, which means that he is shopping himself around the league. My law professor colleague Ian Ayres, who brings an unusually keen economist's eye to the world, wonders aloud whether Cleveland (or the State of Ohio) should chip in public cash to keep LeBron in that city -- as in, LeBron might be a better economic development vehicle for Ohio than, say, a new automobile plant. The idea is captured in a single sentence: Offer both direct payments to LeBron and tax incentives for the Cavaliers, and "Turn LeBron into his very own 'enterprise zone.'"

That post emboldens me to extend a casual comment that I made to an out-of-town friend over the weekend. Given Pittsburgh's proximity to Cleveland, he wondered whether Pittsburgh was in contention to sign LeBron. I pointed out that Pittsburgh has no NBA franchise.

But why should that matter? If LeBron really is primarily a regional economic asset, like an automobile plant (or a casino, or a new arena), then it behooves the powers of Pittsburgh to consider making a bid. Sign him to a long-term contract underwritten by state-supplied tax incentives and money borrowed against the future revenues to be derived from having LeBron associated with Pittsburgh: LeBron would become an ambassador for the city, a walking and talking spokesman for all that is big and tall and bold about the Steel City. Pittsburgh would recoup its up-front investment by contracting with one or more NBA franchises for LeBron's on-court services, and of course the city could once again thumb its nose in the face of its hated rival, Cleveland.

Or, and finally, we could think constructively. Regional collaboration is all the rage; why not partner with Cleveland and invest in LeBron's future in that city? Pittsburgh could supply a bunch of cash to the Cavaliers and help that team keep its superstar. In return, Pittsburgh could negotiate for personal appearances, a share of endorsement revenue -- maybe even a larger number of Cavs games at the new Consol Energy Center.

Professional athletes as parts of public/private partnerships? As municipal employees? I suspect that I've uncovered the tip of a larger iceberg. A new day dawns.


2 Responses to "Should Pittsburgh Sign LeBron James?"

Dean Jackson said... 7/06/2010 10:35 AM

Pittsburgh, lacking a franchise, doesn't have the infrastructure necessary to exploit Lebron's earnings potential for the city.

Conversely, how the hell is Cleveland making money from Lebron? If it was from the miniscule amount cities get back from professional sports... the team should be making more money than God already from having him there.

Then again, maybe the Pirates could draft him. They've tried every other stunt besides keeping decent players around.

MH said... 7/08/2010 11:24 AM

We don't have the infrastructure necessary to exploit the internal combustion engine either, but that hasn't stopped us yet.

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Pittsblog 2.0 is written by Mike Madison, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh. Send email to michael.j.madison[at] Mike also blogs at, on law and technology. Chris Briem of Null Space drops by from time to time.

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