“We are all witnesses.” Photo by partie traumatic on Flickr.

The inescapable news in the sports world last week was LeBron James’ decision on where to play professional basketball.  James spurned his current (and hometown) team, the Cleveland Cavaliers, in favor of joining forces with multiple, talented free agent players in Miami. 

The hoopla, as well as James’ decision to leave his hometown for greener pastures raises several interesting points about sports, place, labor mobility, and the economic benefits from professional sports and athletes.

Talent migration: Richard Florida takes note of how LeBron and his compatriots took control of their situation in picking a new location to showcase their talents, framing the decision as an entrepreneurial coup in the controlled world of professional sports.  The decision, he argues, isn’t all that different than the ones that many talented and skilled workers go through — minus the media circus.

Most people attempt to optimize their interests within the constraints imposed by their existing environment — what the great economist Joseph Schumpeter dubbed the typical “adaptive response.” But at critical junctures, certain kinds of entrepreneurs step outside the bounds of what is given and undertake to shape and actively construct an new environment of their own — what Schumpeter called the “creative response.”

Miami offered the best place where these three savvy, talented, and surpassingly entrepreneurial young men could create their own kind of space — a more open-ended space, where they could realize their ambitions and dreams.

Teams tied to place: Florida’s argument, however, doesn’t do much to dispute the common criticisms of LeBron’s decision (including one from the Cavaliers owner) that it was selfish and about ego more than anything else.  While professional athletes may be individuals free to chose between teams, the teams themselves are rooted in place.  Teams profit from their connection and emotional bonds with local fans.  It’s no surprise that fans see this as a direct insult to their sense of place. In Richard Florida’s context, they are the ones attempting to optimize their interests within given constraints.

The narrative that ties teams and cities together is extraordinarily strong.  The recent passing of New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner offered a chance to reflect on that complex connection between city, fans, team, and players:

The life of George Steinbrenner is a ramp across modern New York, a bridge that spans the whirlpool of one man’s spinning psyche and the transformation of America’s biggest, baddest city… He championed ordinary New Yorkers, then took them for every last penny…

He remembered the elation of the city when the Yankees won the World Series in 1978, a troubled time. “We put the trophy in the rotunda at City Hall,” [former Mayor Ed] Koch said. “I knew, as the Romans knew, that the people require circuses and theatrics.”

Economic impacts: Perhaps George Steinbrenner’s crowning achievement as owner of the Yankees has been the creation of New Yankee Stadium, on the backs of substantial public subsidy.  Plenty of economists consistently argue that stadium subsidies are not wise investments, but the emotional connection between team and city is difficult to quantify.

Likewise, there is a question of geography.  Sports teams might not have an impact at the metropolitan scale, but many in Cleveland have seen a direct impact from LeBron James in the area immediately adjacent to the arena.  A similar narrative exists for DC’s Verizon Center and the subsequent revitalization of Chinatown.

However, accurately calculating all the costs and benefits of the intangible, emotional connection between a city and their team might be next to impossible.

There is no ‘Next Big Thing’: Aaron Renn uses LeBron’s departure from the Midwest to take a long, hard look at the strategic decisions behind the move and the reaction:

In a sense though, Cleveland’s disappointment was inevitable. LeBron James was never going to turn around the city. No one person or one thing can. Unfortunately, Cleveland has continually pinned its hopes on a never-ending cycle of “next big things” to reverse decline.  This will never work. As local economic development guru Ed Morrison put it, “Overwhelmingly, the strategy is now driven by individual projects….This leads to the ‘Big Thing Theory’ of economic development: Prosperity results from building one more big thing.”

The ‘Big Thing’ theory has usually been applied to things like sports stadiums and arenas, not the individual players that use them.  Nevertheless, the comparison is illustrative.  The push to keep a team or even a player by giving them a new stadium might not make economic sense, but losing that player can be painful.  And even though a new stadium might not make economic sense for a metropolitan region, that doesn’t mean the team itself — despite being deeply rooted in a single place — can’t also migrate to greener pastures and better opportunities.  Unfortunately for Cleveland, that’s something they also know far too well.

There are a few other items of note, only semi sports-related:

LeBron likes bikes: One thing LeBron does like is bikes. He’s a partial owner of Cannondale and hosts a bike-a-thon for kids in his hometown of Akron, OH.  Given the negative reaction in Cleveland to his professional decision to play basketball in Miami, it’s unclear what will happen to events like this.

New York and Barcelona are boring: Mayor Bloomberg and others were on hand to see the final push of the tunnel boring machine for New York’s 7 line extension.  Second Avenue Sagas notes the challenges of urban tunneling, even with the advanced technology available today.  A few weeks ago, The Transport Politic took an in-depth look at Barcelona‘s massive subway expansion, also making extensive use of tunnel boring machines operating in dense urban environments.

Paris, automated: Jarret Walker, of the Human Transit blog, offers some observations from Line 1 of the Paris Metro.  The line is in the midst of an upgrade to fully automatic, driverless operation. That’s no small feat for a line initially built in 1900.

Cross-posted at City Block.