AKRON, Ohio — It’s a unique promotional giveaway, one designed to get people talking and get them out to Saturday night’s University of Akron basketball game against Buffalo.
If it gets a few people — or even a few thousand — angry, then that’s part of the deal. And the very essence of the word promotion.
LeBron James Bobblehead Night at Akron is a potential lightning rod not just because of James himself, but because the three-time NBA MVP never actually attended or played for Akron.
James grew up in the city, played dozens of high school games at Akron’s James A. Rhodes Arena and through his longtime relationship with Zips coach Keith Dambrot remains both a public and private supporter of the program.
If so many people in Northeast Ohio didn’t see James as the enemy, the fit would be natural.
After seven seasons and two of those MVP awards with the Cleveland Cavaliers, James chose live national television to announce he was leaving for the Miami Heat via free agency in 2010. The breakup was ugly, both publicly and privately, with James making clear through several comments that he felt loyalty to Akron, but not the bigger city 35 miles north.
James has known Dambrot since he was a middle-schooler, played for him for his first two years of high school and not only stays in contact from afar, but has hosted Dambrot’s summer Nike Skills Academy on Akron’s campus and has been known to drop by Rhodes Arena with workout buddy Kevin Durant.
Saturday night, Akron will give away 1,500 bobbleheads molded in the image of James wearing an Akron warmup and sporting a gold medal and a headband placed so well at the bridge of his hair line that James would be impressed.
“LeBron is the best basketball player in the world, and he has a real connection with our school and our basketball program” said Brad Swanson, Akron’s director of athletics marketing. “It would be silly to not try to maximize that. I understand people might say that he never played for the Akron Zips, but he’s been very close to the program.”
Swanson said he and other Akron staffers knew early in the process of putting the promotion together that a James bobblehead might draw negative feedback, and in a way they also began to embrace it. Their policy for social media feedback is loose; as long as it wasn’t vulgar or offensive, they’d let it be. If people talking about LeBron are also talking about Akron basketball, that’s not a bad thing.
James held his second MVP award ceremony in Rhodes Arena in 2010. Since 2008, the Akron basketball program’s shoes, game uniforms, warm ups and accessories have been produced and licensed by the Nike-LBJ line. The only other college basketball programs outfitted by that line are Kentucky, Miami (Fla.) and Ohio State.
James has posed for magazine covers wearing Ohio State gear and has been an invited guest to Ohio State football and basketball games for years. Now, Akron sees its turn.
“We just thought the more we could be attached to LeBron, the better it is for our program,” Dambrot said. “We appreciate all he does for us. He’s done a lot with the equipment deal, and just the attachment helps recruiting.”
Swanson echoed that sentiment.
“Our stance is that he’s done a ton of good for our school and our basketball program, and this is an opportunity to spread the word about some of that stuff,” Swanson said. “He’s had an impact on our program in many ways for a long time.”
Akron is a mid-major program with a mid-major marketing budget. The bobblehead is one of three to be given away at games this year, and they’re purchased as a set. That’s why only 1,500 of each bobblehead will be available. Akron is using a first-come, first-served policy, and is expecting a line to form early on Saturday for the James bobblehead.
Like most things with James, the process was complicated. The opportunity to market an item in his image came about only when Coca-Cola and the University of Akron entered a partnership for the beginning of this school year, and marketing dollars from that deal made the purchase of the bobbleheads possible.
Swanson’s department has relied on social media to spread the word and has paid attention to feedback, both positive and negative.
Akron, which is averaging about a half-full arena for the season at approximately 2,800 fans per game, announced on Friday that only limited tickets are available for Saturday’s game.
There’s no way to tell exactly how many different James bobbleheads are out there, or exactly how much demand there will be for this newest one. But there were smiles across Akron’s campus three weeks ago when someone discovered that an Akron student had already listed one of the James bobbleheads on the popular online auction site eBay, with a starting price of $75 and a promise that he’d be first in line to secure one for the highest bidder.
At least one person had already circled Jan. 26 and the Akron basketball game on his calendar. It was an assurance that, again, James was driving dollars toward his hometown school.