LeBron James
LeBron James (Photo by Keith Allison)

While Miami Heat fans mourn the loss of LeBron James, his departure could very well be felt beyond wins and losses.

James is an economic engine. His likeness adorns buildings and businesses around American Airlines Arena in downtown Miami.

His jersey is the top-selling gear in the NBA for 2014 and his return to Cleveland will impact Miami vendors of all stripes, ticket sales, advertising, downtown venues and maybe even South Beach clubs where “King James” sometimes held court.

James’ financial impact may remain intact in some ways. He announced plans this month to open 10 Blaze pizza restaurants, the first three in South Florida.

When James came to Miami in 2010, economists touted it as akin to The Beatles taking up residency.

When he left Cleveland back then, it was estimated the city would lose $48 million. Forbes magazine has said the Miami Heat will lose $100 million in value with James heading back to Ohio.

Since James took his talents to South Beach, the Heat franchise more than doubled in value from $364 million in 2010 to $770 million in 2014.

“He certainly did help the bottom line,” said Alyce Robertson, executive director of the Miami Downtown Development Authority. “When the team was in the finals, we got a lot of free publicity with our skyline being projected across the world, and so a team that is rebuilding is not going to get that kind of media coverage.”

Team Rebuilding

Barry Johnson, president of the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce, said James arrived just in time, helping downtown Miami emerge from its most devastating real estate recession in history.

“As the team’s success continued, so did the rebuilding of downtown,” he said. “Both those forces came together.”

That said, Johnson said there are certainly more downtown restaurants, but how much of that can be attributed to the Heat’s success and how much to the larger population is hard to say.

Some restaurants, such as the basketball-theme Hoops Sports Bar and Grill, failed during the James era.

Johnson said the impact of James’ exit will depend on how Heat president Pat Riley rebuilds the team. He noted it wasn’t just James who helped bring two NBA championships home to Miami. He was teamed up with fellow superstars Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh to make the fabled Big Three.

Economist Kwame Donaldson, who analyzes Florida for Moody Analytics, said Miamians shouldn’t fret about the James factor on the financial front.

“LeBron James’ decision to take his talents back to Cleveland will not impact the Miami economy in any discernible respect,” Donaldson said. “Basketball fans in the area will merely shift their spending and attention to other entertainment venues.”

What’s bad for the Heat could be good for the Florida Panthers or the local movie theater, he said.

But what about Heat fans? How much will James’ exit affect their loyalty when it comes to reaching into their wallets.

Miami businesswoman Patricia Davila describes herself as a diehard James fan. She’s not going to burn his jersey like Cleveland fans did when he first left Ohio.

Davila is looking at the positive, saying game tickets should now be more affordable.

“I am going to support the Miami team, and I’m going to go to more games now I can afford it,” she said. “Maybe one day we can meet him in the finals and beat him. Not because I’m angry, but because I am going to stay with the Miami Heat.”