The population growth in Ohio has been quite slow over the last few decades, far below the national trends. One of the biggest reasons has been the decline of the Rust Belt. The Rust Belt is the region of the country largely surrounding the Great Lakes areas. They’re known for their significant manufacturing presence. And before rail and highways were everywhere, this region was critical for shipping goods around the country due to the river systems. More or less, many of the major industries in the state have just been in decline, especially compared to the population growth. The people that do grow up in Ohio are now moving out to the major employing cities elsewhere in the country.

The Prodigal Son story of LeBron James returning the Cleveland is being used by some media outlets as a symbolic view for new optimism in places like Ohio. He once left the city he called home to see the world. After four years in Miami and some success as a basketball player it’s time for him to return home. A city that burned his jersey when he skipped town has completely forgiven him and welcomed him back. Stories like this are often used to draw our attention to other issues. In the case of the link above, LeBron’s story is used to sucker us in to some broader economic bull-honky. This is the headline: LeBron’s return to Cleveland is about more than basketball: It’s about saving the Midwest

LeBron is not about saving the Midwest. But the author does have a point. While in Miami James elevated the value of the Heat basketball team. People want to watch this guy play. I’m not a big NBA guy but will admit to watching a game or two of his. When they say a rising tide lifts all boats, LeBron James is a rising tide for the entire NBA. His return to Cleveland will likely have a measurable impact on the economy.

A measurable impact is likely, a large impact is not. It’s easy for him to go back to a smaller TV market because his world revolves around him. Advertisers will travel to his house, ESPN will come to him, and the few companies he controls are already located there. But even if James brings the same success back to Cleveland he had in Miami his financial impact would be less than 1/10 of 1% of the Cleveland economy.

In order for James to have a significant impact on the economy of the city and state, he’ll have to become the brand of the state, something no athlete has ever really done. James would have to invest hundreds of millions of his own money and raise perhaps billions from investors to create new commercial real estate and companies, convince other firms to relocate, and foster entrepreneurship on a massive scale.

Perhaps he is equipped to do this, but this hill is a large one to climb. If there is a resurgence of economic activity in the Midwest, James can certainly represent the symbolism of that story. But to try and connect his free agency to the weak economic activity of a region is a stretch for headlines and reader clicks.

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categories: business, economics, sports