Lebron, Johnny and the Rise of Cleveland Sports

browns stadium - alex harris

It started on May 8th. That Thursday evening I was at a performance of Jersey Boys with my wife and some friends at Playhouse Square. It was the first night of the NFL draft. For too long now drafts have been the most meaningful nights in Cleveland sports and this night was to be no different. There were talks that the Browns might take Johnny Manziel, the polarizing, Heisman-winning quarterback from Texas A&M.

At intermission of the musical seemingly every male at the State Theatre pulled their phones out and took to Twitter. The Browns had done some maneuvering, acquiring a first round pick from the Buffalo Bills and taken a talented cornerback named Justin Gilbert. People were satisfied with the pick, if not excited. We returned to the show knowing that we had one first round pick left and that Johnny was still available. As the curtain came down once again the crowd pulled their phones out. As luck would have it the Cleveland Browns were making the 22nd pick in the 2014 NFL draft.

Johnny. Freaking. Football.

What happened next was something I’ve never experienced. A massive group of strangers leaving a Broadway show erupted in cheers, high fives and hugs. Cars were honking their horns as people laughed and cheered. It was honestly like we’d won the Super Bowl. The buzz downtown was something I haven’t seen since LeBron.

Fast-forward 12 days to the NBA draft lottery. Despite having a less than 2% chance, the Cleveland Cavaliers ended up with the number one pick in the most loaded draft since…well since LeBron. We would end up using this pick to select Andrew Wiggins, who is already electrifying the NBA Summer League and has many analysts thinking he’ll be a star.

Just over three weeks later, after the craziest week in Cleveland Twitter history, LeBron James announced he would be coming home, for the first time in a long time, #Cleveland was trending nationwide because the, “chosen one” had chosen us.  With a simple (and beautiful) letter in Sports Illustrated, LeBron James told the world that he’d chosen Cleveland over every other city. It was time to return to Northeast Ohio and get to work.

Above: Screen shot of twitter images from the three day waiting period known as #LebronWatch2014

And with that, all of the sudden, Cleveland was the center of the sports world

In less than three months we went from punch line to headline.

Cleveland is now home to the two most talked about professional athletes in the world of social media. The heartbeat of professional sports now thumps in Cleveland, Ohio. ESPN has basically lived in our city for the last several weeks and you’ll continue to see a national media presence in our city for a long time to come.

Andrew Wiggins is a supremely talented young man who could be a star in the NBA and Justin Gilbert has the chance to shine opposite fan favorite Joe Haden. But the real story here is Johnny and LeBron. Two friends who share a management team and billion dollar smiles. What these two mean to the city is a return to relevancy. Every Cavs game will be sold out next year. Nearly all of them will be on national television. Every time Manziel takes the field the entire nation will wait to cheer or scrutinize every step he takes.

Last weekend ESPN’s rundown showed six straight stories about Cleveland sports. 

This, quite possibly, will be the norm moving forward.

LeBron and Johnny mean more than just excitement for the area. They also mean business. Savvy downtown vendors have already begun capitalizing on the buzz as shirts with “The Return of the King”, “Money Manziel”, “For6given”, “Johnny Football” and “Bronny Basketball” are drawing lines of people a city block long. It took all of three hours for signs and billboards to pop up around the city with slogans like “Re-Witness” and “Welcome Home”. In fact, when factoring in the new sponsorships, ticket sales and downtown revenue, County Executive Ed Fitzgerald expects the return of LeBron James to have a half billion dollar per year impact on the local economy. Half billion. With a B. According to Forbes, the Cavs value will increase by $400 million because of LeBron and they’re expected to add over 500 new jobs as a direct result of the signing as well.

Johnny Manziel has yet to take a single snap in the NFL and he is already one of the most marketable names in the entirety of the league. LeBron James is the unquestioned best basketball player on the planet as well as the most popular. Both of these men are now in Cleveland for the foreseeable future. Before the draft, Johnny Football expressed that he’d love to be the man to bring a championship to Cleveland. LeBron said the same thing in his SI letter last week. Two stars who, at the height of popularity in their respective sports, want to be in Cleveland; they want to help this city not only thrive, but achieve something the majority of us have never seen in our lifetimes. I will watch every moment of their games hoping for a championship but those are not guaranteed. What I can guarantee is that, regardless of the outcome, people on every major sports station will talk about Cleveland. This is the new Cleveland, the center of the sports world.

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