The Long Read: A look back at Cleveland’s MasterCard moment

Ahead of the new National Basketball Association (NBA) season, Cleveland Cavaliers chief executive Len Komoroski explains why winning a league title was "priceless" for the people of Ohio.

The Long Read: A look back at Cleveland’s MasterCard moment

Ahead of the new National Basketball Association (NBA) season, Cleveland Cavaliers chief executive Len Komoroski explains why winning a league title was "priceless" for the people of Ohio.

Bigger than basketball. That was how LeBron James described his connection to Ohio when he sensationally announced his return home ‘a better player and a better man’ in July 2014, and that is the message that still rings true for Len Komoroski today. Like his franchise's influential leader on the floor, the Cleveland Cavaliers' affable chief executive knows what sporting success can do for a city. 

In June, led by the man they call 'The King', the Cavs claimed their maiden National Basketball Association (NBA) title and Cleveland’s first major sports championship in over half a century, breaking a hoodoo that had hung over the city ever since the Browns won the NFL championship way back in 1964. “In a lot of respects, you would look at it as a Hollywood script,” Komoroski says now. “It had all the ingredients of a Disney movie and then some.”

For 17 days this summer, the Cavs’ rematch with the record-breaking Golden State Warriors was the talk of world sport, their Game 7 comeback win providing perhaps the most memorable finale to an NBA season in living memory. Broadcast to 215 territories and in 47 languages worldwide, the series captured the imagination well beyond the two duelling markets of Oakland and Ohio. But it was less about what they did than how they did it. Seemingly down and out, the Cavs achieved what 31 teams had attempted and failed to do before them, overhauling a 3-1 deficit to land the title against the reigning champions and all the odds. “At the end of it all, it was quintessentially Cleveland,” reflects Komoroski. “For Cleveland, it had to be the hard way.”

In an interview with SportsPro back in November 2014, Komoroski spoke at length about what James' homecoming was already doing for his franchise and his city. The return of ‘The King’ was, he said, “a tipping point for Cleveland”, one that had inspired an attitudinal shift among Clevelanders and brought about an “anything is possible” mentality across their otherwise overlooked, down-on-it's-luck city. Bringing a league title back to Cleveland was the one and only goal. "The beauty of where we are now is we have control of our own destiny and we have to execute,” Komoroski said at the time.

Last season’s title was, then, a case of mission accomplished. Today, the Cavs are preparing for a new campaign as defending champions for the first time, and while it is a role that James knows well having claimed two previous championship rings of his own in Miami, for Komoroski and the people of Cleveland, the all-new experience is one to relish.

“We’ve always looked at it as it’s bigger than basketball,” Komoroski says, echoing James. “Cleveland has been going through an amazing renaissance. Its been absolutely stunning to see the revival of downtown and the investment, the most investment in history. Over US$22 billion of investment in the Cleveland area over the last five years; more people living in downtown than ever, more people visiting downtown than ever. But yet we had this black cloud hanging over the city.

“The media, especially on a national basis, reminding us of our near misses: the shot, the drive, the fumble. Hearing that over and over again, the championship itself was so cathartic for our city in terms of just changing, in a lot of respects, and accelerating this attitudinal shift about our city and our market.”

The Cavs' success last season was Cleveland's first league title since the Browns won the NFL championship in 1964.

There is a reason why Komoroski likes to talk in terms of Cleveland rather than the Cavs. As chair of Destination Cleveland, the city’s convention and visitor’s bureau, he played a leading role in helping to attract inward investment and major events like this year’s Republican National Convention to a market that, not so long ago, could not have imagined the good times that lay ahead. As recently as four years ago, he says, Destination Cleveland “commissioned a number of studies to get a better idea of what people thought of the market”. The result only confirmed the city’s deep-set nadir.

“In 2012, only 34 per cent of people in the greater Cleveland area would recommend Cleveland as a place to visit,” he notes. “That was the lowest of the top 50 markets in the United States. The average was in the sixties, and for higher-tier markets, it was probably in the eighties. That’s how people who live here felt about our city.”

“In 2014, the numbers progressed to 54 per cent,” he continues. “Just recently, some research was completed again asking the same question. That number is now 75 per cent. In terms of what people of Cleveland attribute primarily for changing that perception overall, it is the Cavs winning the championship.”

For Komoroski, though, the impact of the Cavs' success cannot simply be boiled down to straightforward statistics. “It’s priceless,” he says. “I think one of the reasons why we’re in this business in sports is how it unites a community and brings a community together unlike anything else I’ve seen. That’s one of the privileges and honours of being associated with sports and our teams.” 

There are, however, tangible metrics to illustrate the commercial impact of winning a league title. Ticket sales, merchandise sales, digital engagement, social following - Komoroski says all are now "at record levels" for the Cavs organisation and among the highest in the league. Business at The Q, the Cavs’ home arena, is booming, too. Not only is the team on a sell out streak of 102 games dating back to 2014, but they've taken the decision to cap season ticket sales once again in an effort to ensure as many fans as possible get to experience the in-arena spectacle.

“We’ve always looked at it as it’s bigger than basketball. Cleveland has been going through an amazing renaissance."

Away from The Q, meanwhile, there has been plenty more to shout about. More than 1.3 million fans lined the streets of Cleveland for their victory parade, surpassing every other such occasion in NBA history. In the two days after their title win, merchandise sales on the Cavs’ official online shop exceeded that of the entire 2014/15 season. Each game of the 2016 NBA finals was estimated to have generated around US$5 million for the local economy, with the Cavs organising watch parties throughout their entire 2015/16 playoff run that helped generate over US$700,000 for local charities.

“We’re seeing historically high metrics across the board for our franchise and our history,” says Komoroski. “The response has been terrific and the anticipation for this upcoming season is absolutely remarkable. The demand for the opening game is the highest certainly in our regular season history and amongst the highest ever in our history, period.”

With a first title in the bag and James on the books, Komoroski believes the Cavs are now a truly international team. A burgeoning fan base throughout the world and sponsors from far-flung places like China and Australia are testament, he says, to the team's growing global profile. Last season, the team surpassed ten million total social followers across Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat and Instagram, with more than a quarter of the traffic to the team’s website and over half of their 7.25 million Facebook fans coming from outside the US.

Domestically, the uptick has been equally profound. According to Nielsen, Cavs broadcasts provided locally by Fox Sports Ohio averaged a 9.31 household rating in Cleveland last season, making it the team’s highest rated season ever on the network. This year, as champions, they'll be given the maximum possible airtime on national television, providing a coveted showcase for Northwest Ohio and welcome negotiating power when they eventually sell their jersey advertising - permitted from 2017/18 under a new pilot scheme announced in April - in the coming months. 

“We’ve had very significant interest and a number of conversations going on,” Komoroski says on the subject of jersey sponsorship. “We see that as a great opportunity and it’s really a matter of going through the process to find the right partner that works for both parties. Its been a good process so far and we’re looking forward to successfully executing on that opportunity.”

More than 1.3 million fans lined the streets of Cleveland for the Cavs' victory parade, the most in NBA history. 

Since winning the title, the Cavs have pressed home their advantage in the way many anticipated they would. During a typically busy off-season, they've restructured both their roster and payroll, freeing up salary cap space in an effort to make James the highest-paid player in the NBA for the first time in his career. His new three-year contract, which includes a player option for the final year, is worth over US$100 million overall, a salary that, for many, is just reward for a four-time MVP and future Hall of Famer at the peak of his unparalleled powers.

“LeBron has had an amazing impact on Cleveland and Akron and northeast Ohio in general,” says Komoroski. “He’s someone who really espouses the value of this region, has given back through his incredible community efforts with the LeBron James Foundation, and certainly through his leadership efforts on the floor.”

By turning the Cavs into championship contenders overnight, James’ return was widely deemed the primary catalyst for the team’s change in fortunes. Yet their success is by no means down to one man. As Komoroski reflects, the title “really was all about the team”, with every department of the franchise, from general manager David Griffin and coach Tyronn Lue to the backroom and front office staff, contributing in one way or another to last season’s championship.

“We’re not a top five market,” he adds. “This is a great midwestern city with a tremendous work ethic, strong family values, and really focused on doing things the right way. It’s a team that really reflected those values.”

As the start of the new season nears, Komoroski says the Cavs have sought to prepare as they would for any other campaign. There is one key difference, though: a ring ceremony before their home opener against the New York Knicks on 25th October. “We haven't had one of those!” Komoroski laughs. “That, in and of itself, is an exciting proposition for anyone associated with our team.”

Beyond that occasion, the serious business of a title defence awaits. With the Warriors having strengthened their roster, bringing in Kevin Durant from Oklahoma to create a so-called ‘super-team’, winning a second successive championship will be no cakewalk. 

“We’re taking it one step at a time,” says Komoroski. “It’s going to be a fun journey. We feel our team is up for the battle. We have 29 other teams who want our spot. We’re defending champions. Everybody is focused on getting back and defending that title.”

Michael Long (@_MichaelLong) is SportsPro's Americas editor and this is his fortnightly column.