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PLAYERS & TEAM EARNINGS

Why LeBron James’ Return to No. 6 Goes Beyond Basketball

Switching numbers one last time could help LeBron cement his place as the merchandise GOAT.

LeBron James is officially switching from his No. 23 jersey back to No. 6. In making the swap, the Lakers superstar will once again don the number he wore during three Olympics appearances and his four seasons playing with the Miami Heat, arguably his best overall years as an NBA player.

But that’s not the whole story behind the decision.

He’s also wearing No. 6 for the iconic Tune Squad in his soon-to-be-released film, Space Jam: A New Legacy.

This kind of tie-in represents a level of marketing synergy we haven’t quite seen before in sports. And it speaks to LeBron’s unique status as an athlete entrepreneur — and his all-time potential in the brand marketing space.

LeBron’s Legacy at No. 23 vs. No. 6

James entered the NBA wearing No. 23 paying homage to one of his idol, Michael Jordan. He kept that number for the first seven seasons of his career, all with the Cleveland Cavaliers.

When he left northeast Ohio in 2010 for the Miami Heat, he decided to don No. 6 to pay respect to another idol: Julius Erving (Bill Russell also happened to wear the number). He ultimately went back to No. 23 when he rejoined the Cavs in 2014 and kept the number when he signed with the Lakers in 2018.

Interestingly, James then tried to switch back to No. 6 in 2019 as the Lakers welcomed Anthony Davis, who had famously worn No. 23 since childhood. LBJ’s request, however, proved to be a non-starter — not because the NBA wasn’t on board, but because Nike wasn’t a fan due to the fact that unused inventory of No. 23 jerseys would have led to a loss “well into tens of millions of dollars.”

LeBron hasn’t said much of anything about why he’s now making the move to No. 6 so late in his career. But a closer look at his arc as a singular force in marketing, merchandise, and collectibles provides some helpful context.

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Yes, the timing of this decision is curious, but one thing is beyond certain: There’s a lot of money to be made from the move.

And not just by the Lakers and the NBA. Warner Bros., Nike, and James himself can surely expect a windfall.

An Out-of-this-world Merchandising Opportunity

The long-awaited sequel to 1996’s Space Jam premieres July 16 in theaters and on HBO Max, but there’s plenty of buzz already surrounding an all-new apparel and sneaker line featured in the movie courtesy of Nike and Converse.

The Space Jam: A New Legacy collection is highlighted by not only the new Nike LeBron 19 sneakers and three styles of the LeBron 18 Low line, but let’s not forget about that No. 6 Tune Squad jersey.

King James fans, not to mention fans with emotional connections to the movie franchise itself, can be fully expected to rush out to purchase James’ new Space Jam-inspired No. 6 jersey once it goes up for sale.

And if merchandising sales from the original 1996 film starring Michael Jordan is any indication of success — we’re talking $1 billion worldwide — we can anticipate the new gear doing serious numbers.

So, with not one, but three new James jerseys expected to hit the shelves later summer — Lakers home, Lakers away, and Tune Squad, to say nothing of limited and alternate editions — it’s only fair to assume that King James will continue his dominance atop the Mount Rushmore of jersey sales and set an even higher watermark that no current star will be all that likely to match.

After all, even before Space Jam was ever in the discussion, it was clear that James’ jersey was a best-seller of historic proportions.

The King of Jersey Sales

All told, LeBron has had the best-selling jersey in the NBA in six different seasons through 2020:

  • 2003-04: Cleveland Cavaliers No. 23
  • 2010-11: Miami Heat No. 6
  • 2013-14: Miami Heat No. 6
  • 2014-15: Cleveland Cavaliers No. 23
  • 2018-19: Los Angeles Lakers No. 23
  • 2019-20: Los Angeles Lakers No. 23

And in the years where he didn’t earn the best-selling jersey, James was always in the conversation, often coming in second or third in terms of sales.

Unfortunately, there’ no real way of knowing just how many LeBron James jerseys have sold in his career, as the NBA doesn’t publicize jersey sales numbers. But when we factor in the expected popularity of his new Space Jam digs, his 18 record-setting years in the league, and the hype he’s generated since his early high school days, it’s safe to say that LeBron could go down as having not just the best-selling jersey in NBA history, but four of them.

(Plus the most popular fictional basketball jersey just for kicks.)

As the superstar inches closer to the end of his playing career and transitions into the life of a full-time mogul, the move back to No. 6 gives LeBron James a chance to make even more history.

And another huge payday.