I was traveling much of yesterday, but in the afternoon I received an email from Richard Luchette, the press spokesperson for Cuyahoga County Executive Ed FitzGerald. Luchette said that, contrary to widespread media reports, FitzGerald’s office never meant to imply that LeBron James’ return to Cleveland would add $500 million to the local economy. Rather, he said, the estimated economic benefit of LeBron’s return will be more like $53 million, bringing the team’s total impact to $500 million.
It looks like the blame here mostly goes to some terrible reporting in the initial story by Bloomberg News, which cited FitzGerald’s economic development director Nathan Kelly as saying (in its paraphrase) that “a more robust Cavaliers with James playing increases the total economic impact to about $500 million a year with direct and indirect spending,” but in its lede interpreted this as meaning “the return of the star forward to his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers will have a $500 million a year impact on the local economy” — and doubled down on the wrong with a headline stating “LeBron James’s Return to Bring Cleveland $500 Million a Year.” Though Kelly certainly could have been clearer — I haven’t been able to find a direct quote of how he brought up the $500 million figure in Monday’s press conference — and taking two days to clarify a misstatement that was all over the Internet on Monday wasn’t great work on FitzGerald’s part either.
In any event, $500 million in total annual economic impact for the Cavs is still pretty implausible: The team currently only sells $30 million worth of tickets, remember, and much of that spending would take place elsewhere in Cuyahoga County even if the Cavs played entirely before empty seats. Even if you add in spending on concessions, LeBron souvenir jerseys, hotels for fans who travel from out of town just to see Cavs games (do such people really exist?), and a multiplier for all the money that LeBron-souvenir-jersey vendors will go out and spend at local stores, it’s hard to see getting anywhere near $500 million. I’m still hopeful that Kelly will get back to me with his calculations, though, so stay tuned.
In any event, this is a great cautionary tale about economic impact statements: You can make “economic activity” numbers say just about anything you want them to, and then the press will get it wrong anyway. But at least FitzGerald got on the telly.