In 2010, if you want to be the King of the NBA, you need to have a digital presence. That’s what LeBron James is quickly learning as he ponders his current contract decision. The man currently known as the “best basketball player in the world” may be ending his reign as America’s most sought after free agent on ESPN tomorrow night, but this whole process has shown how big social media’s role has become in real-time events. Sports writers, fans and even cities have been immersed in the process online.

And now LeBron is deploying his digital strategy. He’s got a shiny new Twitter feed (KingJames), a soon to launch website, and an hour long ESPN special to announce his decision. It may be the most elaborate PR strategy ever for an unsigned basketball star. Which leaves a question unanswered: Is he ready for people turn on him?

LeBron’s fanbase will stick around if he delivers baskets once he starts playing next season. But LeBron and his team are treating this decision as a major social media event for the LeBron James brand, and they may not like the reaction online.

As I’ve previously written, cities across
America have launched social media campaigns to woo the player to their
teams
. Sports writers and fans have also used social media to tout the most well-documented free agency bid in NBA history.

And now LeBron is getting into the game. Yesterday, he joined Twitter. And while celebrities new to Twitter often win lots of followers right away, the NBA wasn’t taking any chances. They paid to make LeBron’s entrance into microblogging one of the day’s sponsored
trending topics
.

There were an influx of articles noting this momentous decision, despite the fact that LeBron had not yet tweeted. Currently has garnered 240,033 followers with just three tweets. His decision to join Twitter seems like a concerted ploy to grow attention for the LeBron brand online.

As Capital points out:

“Henry
Abbott, who runs ESPN.com’s TrueHoop
blog
, wrote
on his own feed, “Just struck me: Free agency 2010 will be the
definitive Twitter event. People not on Twitter will have a tough time
keeping up.”

And LeBron’s team wants to harness every last bit of attention around this decision. KingJames’ latest tweet directs followers to lebronjames.com “for updated info on my decision.”

The basketball star is draining every last bit of curiosity surrounding his prolonged decision making process. Tomorrow, LeBron will announce on ESPN what team he has chosen (considering his Twitter handle boasts that he is “King of Cleveland,” perhaps he’s staying put). If so, this whole thing might seem like a big tease.

Stretching out the decision process for maximum media coverage is one way to draw attention to LeBron. But Jame’s basketball career is as much dependent on his image as the skillset he brings to the game.

He is going to make a lot of money from an NBA contract next year. But LeBron stands to make even more from endorsements. And while many basketball fans (and cities) are eagerly anticipating this momentous decision, some are growing weary. Among the myriad complaints about ESPN’s decision to air the LeBron special were this one:

@trenni: HELL NO! Narcicissm at it’s worst RT @SSJ_WHB
? Will you watch LeBron’s decision on ESPN tomorrow
night? Why or why not?

Proceeds from the one hour program will go to Boys and Girls Club of America, which lessens the egomania slightly. But, LeBron, ESPN and the NBA are doing their best to use this moment as a way to drive business their way. 

And as soon as LeBron makes his announcement on TV, it will be spread and owned online by whoever tweets and shares it. We’ll have to wait another day to see if all the hype pays off. Because as much as social media can help spread and grow a branding message, the medium is also well-known for how quickly it can spread a backlash. As one Twitterer put it:

@sdotcurry: Is lebron really gonna have a espn special about his
decision??? Haha wow.. He better not go back to Cleveland after all this
hype!

Image: CajunBoy