Here’s a question that’s bound to divide the room and turn friends into enemies: Who’s the Greatest Of All Time (GOAT) in professional basketball – Michael “Air” Jordan or LeBron James?

It’s a heated issue, and we’re not talking about the Miami Heat, either. 

From an athletic standpoint, both MJ and LeBron are in a league of their own, soaring beyond their contemporaries. 

James is currently the NBA’s highest scoring active player with a career average of 27.5 points per game (ppg). Jordan still holds the NBA’s all-time scoring record with 30.1 ppg. Plus, he won six NBA titles and five Most Valuable Player (MVP) awards in his 15-season career as a pro. LeBron, currently playing his 11th pro season, already stacked four MVP titles and two championships under his belt. He’s only 29 years old, with more #winning yet to come. 

And that’s exactly the point where statistics end and personal opinions take over.

So to settle one of the greatest debates in sports history once and for all, let’s take the marketing perspective: Who landed the most slam dunks when it comes to pushing their personal brands, endorsing record-selling products, and dominating those Twitter feeds? 

Join us courtside for the no-holds-barred showdown. Jordan VS. LeBron – here’s the play-by-play:

Personal brand 

As a freshman at the University of North Carolina, Michael Jordan carried the jersey number 23 to a 1982 NCAA victory. Turning pro for the Chicago Bulls, he made his Tar Heels jersey number his signature, until 23 became the mark of Jordan and his eponymous brand. 

Fueling the flames, Nike’s Air Jordan sneakers became the talk of town in 1985, when NBA commissioner David Stern banned the kicks for violating official dress codes. Unimpressed, Jordan continued wearing his signature shoes, while Nike picked up the $5,000 per-game fines. The rest is history: No matter if people wanted to “Be Like Mike” or not – they talked about Jordan. And being in the conversation is what branding is all about.

LeBron James single-handedly put his brand on time-out in 2010 with the much-publicized announcement – broadcast in the ESPN television special “The Decision” – of leaving his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers team for the Miami Heat. After two championship titles, LeBron’s reputation is back on track as ESPN’s most popular NBA player with 18.4 percent of the vote – double his 2010 post-Decision ratings. 

Currently in harness with the Cavaliers for two years on a $42.1 million contract – compared to MJ’s salary of $610,000 per season in 1985 (about $1.3 million today) – LeBron’s personal brand was valued at $37 million in 2014. Hard to beat? Well, Michael Jordan still receives $100 million per year in royalties from Nike – without having to break a sweat. We have to give this one to MJ.   

Winner: Michael “Air” Jordan.

Social media

Admittedly, Michael Jordan hails from an era when “social” media meant sharing a copy of your favorite basketball magazine with your friends. Then again, MJ may have landed the closest thing to a viral video hit with over twenty Spike Lee-directed Gatorade TV commercials cued to the “Be Like Mike” theme song. 

But nowadays, the man who put the “Air” into basketball – and sneakers – is not even on Twitter. The “real” Michael Jordan – handle @TherealMJ23 – is just a fan who stopped tweeting in 2010. Somebody dropped the ball on that one…  

LeBron, on the other hand, is social media gold. His verified @KingJames Twitter account keeps 19.3 million followers hanging on to everyday minutiae from the 6-foot-8 social media giant. And he’s no stranger to controversy either, putting 140 characters worth of commentary on issues like the War in Darfur and the War on Racism without hurting his rep’. 

Uplifting tweets like, “THANK YOU FANS!! It was such a honor to play in the All-Star game in the Garden!!” garner thousands of re-Tweets within hours, earning King James the Social Media crown.

Winner: LeBron James


Product endorsements

Coming in hot, LeBron James barged into the pro ranks in 2003 amidst a three-way bidding war between adidas, Reebok, and Nike. Ultimately, the Swoosh brand signed the rookie for an alleged $90 million, and he has been leading NBA pro jersey sales – taking the number “23” in tribute to his idol, Michael Jordan – for six seasons now. LeBron also outsells all other NBA players with his pro-endorsed Nike shoe – currently on its 12th iteration – while his Beats by Dre headphone commercials rack up over 13.5 million views, and counting.

While LeBron’s commercial prowess are impressive, Michael Jordan left some immensely big shoes to fill – quite literally. Now in its 30th year, the Air Jordan footwear franchise – under the umbrella of the Jordan™ brand – generates over $1 billion in sales for Nike. One of the longest-running professional athlete shoe series in the business, the Air Jordan legacy spans over 23 different models; from the original Air Jordan I to today’s Jordan XX9, designed by Tinker Hatfield, creator of the Nike Air Max sneaker. 

And with a following of over 2.21 million fans, the @jumpman23 brand still has footwear fanatics lining up around the block for limited edition shoe releases. The ongoing success of the brand with the Jumpman™ logo is proof that being the Greatest Of All Time takes just that – time!

Winner: Michael “Air” Jordan

Conclusion: Jordan takes the crown for Greatest Of All Time from a marketing perspective. But let’s keep in mind that LeBron James is only on his 11th pro season and is currently crushing the competition. A big part of the Jordan Brand Story rests upon his six championship rings and the way he overcame adversity in the form of the Detroit Pistons and the death of his father to achieve them.

That’s a tough brand story to compete with. But from a marketing perspective, James may have just made about the smartest possible move by returning home to Cleveland. By heading back to his beloved Cavs where a championship eluded him in his younger years, the “King James” story could yet be crowned by creating a legacy in Cleveland. 

Now it’s up to LeBron to take a page out of the “Air” Jordan brand-building playbook and keep on reaching higher ground.

What do you think? Let us know your thoughts on our GOAT-Marketing perspective by contacting us via @selligent on Twitter. 


Photo Credits:
„Jordan by Lipofsky 16577“ by Steve Lipofsky at
Licenced under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons
LeBron James by Keith Allison from Hanover, MD, USA
Licenced under CC BY-SA 2.0


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