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The Art of Negotiation: The LeBron James Deal

July 12, 2014 • Uncategorized
Photo Credit: Keith Allison

The sports world has been abuzz today with the announcement that LeBron James will return to the Cleveland Cavaliers, capping off an improbable return to the team he left four years ago.  The negotiation process is fascinating, especially one that is under such incredible scrutiny.  With all the unexpected twists and turns, we can learn a few things from the process that apply to any deal you want to get done.

1. Set the stage.

While it initially seemed the bridges had been burned following James’s departure from the team in 2010, lines of communication were slowly re-opened through various constituents on each side.  In an exclusive for Sports Illustrated, James says he knew he would at some point return to Cleveland.  The Cavs meanwhile, seized the opportunity of a door cracked open.  They wheeled and dealed to clear the necessary salary space to sign James, while simultaneously locking in their young talent and opening up discussions with other trade and free agent targets.  The key was to set the stage, showing James they were committed to getting the deal done and could put the right pieces together for long-term success.

2. No deal happens in a vacuum. 

360-degree awareness is key to getting a deal done.  After signing for less with the Heat in 2010 to chase championships, James made it clear that he was going to command max salary in this free agent market.  With more flexibility in salary cap, this was an advantage for Cleveland and a potential problem for Miami.  What about other influences?  From a basketball perspective, James appeared drawn to the challenge of bringing a championship to Cleveland.  He refers to his family and his hometown multiple times and talks about his decision this time around as being “bigger than basketball.”  No deal happens in a vacuum.  Just look at the many factors that played into his decision, as well as the ripple effect throughout the league that will occur now that James is off the market.  In any deal, try to determine the gaps, motivations and influencers.  They aren’t always obvious.

3. Dial back great emotion.

James’s departure from Cleveland was acrimonious at best.  A hometown hero, who had left Cleveland as a villain, was considering a return to the Cavs.  The great emotion of the possibility alone could cause the deal to fall apart.  Perhaps to counteract this, James had his agent and team handle all the initial conversations.  He purposefully and publicly removed himself from much of the process.  While the media covered every twist and turn, both sides kept the progress remarkably private given the public magnifying glass.  This time there was no TV special, no press conference, no party.  By announcing his decision in a SI.com exclusive, James could carefully weigh his words.  He learned his lesson from 2010– be wary of great emotion taking over a deal.       

4. Learn from the past.

Four years ago, the relationship between Cavs owner Dan Gilbert and James seemed irreparable.  After James bolted for Cleveland on national TV, Gilbert issued a scathing open letter in which he referred to James as a “coward.”  So how did the two most important pieces of the negotiation puzzle mend their differences and find themselves reunited in Cleveland?  Both parties came together for a lengthy face-to-face conversation that solidified James’s return to Cleveland.  They each owned their mistakes and expressed the regrets and embarrassment they felt as a result of their actions.  Ultimately, they saw the chance to move forward together with a second chance.  As Gilbert told James in their conversation, “We had five great years together and one terrible night.”  Negotiations are an ongoing conversation and the relationship should be built for the long term.  For Gilbert and James, they had to repair that relationship.  The important lesson here?  When a deal doesn’t get done or ends badly, learn from the experience.

The Molly Fletcher Company inspires leaders, teams and organizations to kick-start growth. A keynote speaker and author, Molly draws on her decades of experiences working as a sports agent. Her company’s Game Changer Negotiation Training workshops teach businesspeople the framework for successful negotiating, so that you can close more deals while building stronger relationships. Sign up here to receive our weekly newsletter and subscribe to the Game Changers with Molly Fletcher podcast on iTunes.