Should LeBron James Give Up #23 Jersey?

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In what could be the sneaker marketing move of the century, LeBron James announced in a post-game interview last night that to honor Michael Jordan, he’ll not wear the same jersey number.

Pat Riley, President of the Miami Heat, hung Michael Jordan’s 23 jersey in the Heat’s arena, paying tribute to a player who never even played for them. Riley contends that Jordan is hands down the best player ever and that his jersey should be hung league-wide. James, whose Cavs beat the Heat last night, maintains the same theory, saying that no player should wear 23, and the league should retire Jordan’s jersey, a la the Jackie Robinson treatment. In the same interview, he said he planned to wear 6 next year, which he wore in the Olympics in 2008, and to start a petition saying that no player should ever wear 23 again.

The show of respect by LeBron is not only humbling, but it has very interesting marketing implications for Nike, LeBron and Jordan Brand. In this Sneaker Synopsis, we look at the possible inspirations and outcomes of the move to the number 6.

You’ll recall that in 2007, Kobe Bryant wore a new number without switching teams. His change to 24 from 8 had numerous explanations. A very popular explanation is that the move to 24 was meant to one-up MJ’s 23. Consider the possibility that this is true and it puts a very new spin on the Kobe vs. LeBron battle that dominates NBA talk–Kobe competes while LeBron gives tribute.

Is LeBron looking to pay tribute to MJ only, or to further separate himself, as a player, in the span of history? Any player who has ever worn 23 has drawn comparisons to the great one, coming up short every time. With all his potential, could LeBron ever really be content with being remembered as “the other 23?”

Reasons for the switch to the number 6 vary. From an on-court perspective, LeBron reached his here-in peak in 2008, when he won a gold medal with Team USA in the number 6 uniform. But the number is more than just related to his own performances–“My second-favorite player was Julius Erving, and he wore No. 6,” James said. “I wore 32 in high school because Dr. J wore it at first. My first child was born on Oct. 6, it’s my Olympic number, my second child was born in June.” It’s clear that the reasons for the number 6 are numerous, but it is impossible to assume that Nike, marketing and the LBJ brand don’t play some part in this.

If LeBron changes numbers, a new logo will have to be created to replace the LJ23 Crown logo currently used. Associated branding must also be changes on all goods, which are multi-million dollar products for Nike and James. A new logo and number means LBJ fans “have to” replace their old gear.

It also means a new marketing approach for King James. With Kobe’s signature line expanding, and the recent acquisition of D-Wade by Jordan, things are getting crowded at the top. From a marketing perspective, Nike must appropriately place all of its stars along a pricing scale. Clearly, LeBron is at the top, with Kobe trailing closely and Kevin Durant further down. With a load of Wade marketing expected for Jordan Brand this year and his approaching first signature silhouette, a number change for LeBron is a great reason to “reintroduce” one of the most marketable players ever and re-saturate the airwaves with a new campaign.

The number change seemingly arose out of thin air last night, but carries major implications. Also, consider that we don’t even know where LeBron will be playing. A potential new team means there could be even more reasons to buy new gear. Stay tuned for more updates though March, when the deadline for a jersey number change is due to the NBA.

Marketing move or genuine MJ tribute? As much talk as there has been about LeBron to NY, perhaps there will be some new chatter about LeBron teaming up with D Wade in MIA? What do you feel are the reasons LeBron will or will not switch numbers for 2010 and on?

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