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How Much is LeBron James Really Worth to Ohio?

He’s already considered one of the most iconic Ohioans ever. Not bad for a 25-year old. But while countless fans are worried about Cleveland Cavaliers star LeBron James’ injured elbow, there is also a palpable anxiety over what might happen to Ohio’s economy if LeBron leaves. About a month before he is likely to opt out of his current contract, how vital is LeBron James to his state’s economic outlook?

Ohio’s economy has certainly seen cause for serious concern. After losing 255,000 jobs in 2009, the state posted 11 percent unemployment in March. In 2008, a study predicted that the task of fixing Northeast Ohio (which includes Cleveland and James’ hometown of Akron) could take a decade. But on the eve of James’ potential departure, there have been some signs of hope. In the midst of some private ventures looking to retool the local economy, an annual investment survey recently ranked Ohio tops in the country for new plants and expansion. With a concerted effort to help both Akron and the state as a whole recover, James could be a lynchpin in the process, no matter how sophomoric it may sound.

Strategically, the hometown of the world’s best basketball player was already a viable economic partner of sorts, located within a 500-mile radius of 42 major U.S. cities and 57 percent of the country’s population. There are signs of an economic turnaround in the region, and Ohio is seeing the kind of growth that had been absent for some time. But James could still play a key role if he wants to.

That hasn’t been lost on Ohio natives, who have already begun a public campaign to encourage James to stay with the Cavaliers. With weak housing and jobs markets, James has essentially become the state’s star attraction, drawing sports fans who might not otherwise consider coming to Cleveland. While James doesn’t appear to have put any of his own money into the state infrastructure (other than taxes, of course), that attraction does serve a purpose for the state. And with his Cavs expected to make a run towards a championship this year, it contributes to things like admission tax and revenue for local businesses. That basketball-related economic bump could potentially be just part of what one of the world’s most-recognizable athletes contributes to a state economy looking to come back from the brink.

With endorsement deals alone approaching $200 million, James has portrayed himself as an innovative athlete/CEO hybrid. But other than keeping his home base in Akron, James and his private company, King James Inc,  don’t appear to have invested a great deal in Ohio’s local businesses.  With a new deal with Nike on the horizon, James could potentially stay in his home state and assist the economic rebound with more than his mere presence. And if he leaves? Well, that could be more trouble for the state.

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