How Much Does Northeast Ohio Need LeBron?

LeBron James thinks he can boost the fortunes of Northeast Ohio by returning to the Cleveland Cavaliers. The area could use some help.

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Adam Hunger/Reuters

The biggest news in sports was briefly overshadowed on Sunday by a championship match marked by its unselfish play and indistinguishable players. Now that that's done, it's back to business, and in the U.S., business is 'Bron. The news that LeBron James is leaving the Miami Heat to return to the Cleveland Cavaliers has major implications for the most popular sport in China and—according to James—an entire U.S. region.

In the statement that James gave Sports Illustrated, James explained that he was coming home to make a difference in the area where he was raised. For a player whose televised decision to leave Cleveland after seven seasons has its own Wikipedia entry, James's choice to go back sounds surprisingly selfless, focusing on what it will mean for Northeast Ohio.

"My presence can make a difference in Miami, but I think it can mean more where I’m from," James told the magazine. "I want kids in Northeast Ohio ... to realize that there’s no better place to grow up. Maybe some of them will come home after college and start a family or open a business. That would make me smile."

Ohioans suffering from what David A. Graham diagnoses as Post-Traumatic Sports Disorder might just as soon smile over a championship ring. By the numbers, though, James is right: Demographically and economically, the need is greater in Northeast Ohio than it is in Miami. But if the city or region's needs is what James values most at this point in his career, then there may be other cities even more deserving of his unique skill set.     

Miami reacts to the news that LeBron James is taking his talents from South Beach. (Zachary Fagenson/Reuters)

Akron, where James grew up, is just one of six metropolitan statistical areas in Northeast Ohio, which comprises 18 counties. One of those MSAs, Cleveland–Elyria, is the largest metro area in the state. All told, the region's population numbers around 4.3 million: slightly more than the population of Croatia, but still smaller than Greater Miami.

In terms of population growth, one of the factors that James mentions as driving his decision to return, the news is reasonably good for Northeast Ohio. Across 17 of its 18 counties, population has been steady for decades. Then there's Cuyahoga County—which is home to the Cleveland Cavaliers.

U.S. Census

This is remarkable but not unique for cities that boast NBA teams. Only a handful have seen their population shrink since 2003 (the year that James joined the league). Cleveland is one of them. But several other cities have seen even worse shrinkage.

U.S. Census Bureau

Not shown here is the much larger city of Chicago, which is omitted simply for legibility's sake. Its population decline falls just behind that of Detroit and New Orleans. However, the overall Chicago metro area is still registering growth, albeit slow growth. Same with Miami, where the population of the city proper has stagnated while the region's population has exploded. Plainly, though, the Detroit Pistons and the New Orleans Pelicans could use the demographic boost that LeBron James hopes to inspire more than the Cleveland Cavaliers.  

In terms of jobs and economic performance—that's another angle that 'Bron mentioned—Cleveland can use all the help it can get. According to the most recent U.S. Conference of Mayors forecast, the Cleveland metro area ranks near the bottom of U.S. metro areas in terms of economic growth predicted between now and 2020. At 2.1 percent, Cleveland's anticipated average annual economic growth rate is the same as Akron's. Respectively, Akron and Cleveland rank 297th and 305th out of 363 U.S. metro areas in terms of future predicted growth.   

The Cleveland metro area unemployment rate of 6.6 percent (as of May 2014) beats out six different NBA markets: New York, Sacramento, Chicago, Los Angeles, Atlanta, and Detroit. Once again, though, the U.S. Conference of Mayors isn't bullish on Cleveland's future prospects. The report forecasts a return to peak employment for Cleveland way out in 2018—much later than every other city with high unemployment and an NBA team, except Detroit.

Plainly, if James wanted to do the most good for a U.S. city, period, he would have taken his talents to Motor City. But insofar as he can single-handedly lift the prospects of a metro area, or even a region, he could do worse than the place he loves: his native Northeast Ohio.

*Correction: An earlier version of this post described the Chicago metropolitan statistical area as a fast-growing metro region. In fact, its growth rate for 2013 was just 0.3 percent.

About the Author

  • Kriston Capps is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously a senior editor at Architect magazine, and a contributing writer to Washington City Paper and The Washington Post.