The off-season for football and basketball has only started. Free agency for the NBA has only been in play for two weeks, and the trade period is far from being concluded. Football’s transfer deadline isn’t for another couple of weeks, and the World Cup only just concluded, which always dominates headlines over any potential moves and transfers. Yet, we have just seen arguably the two biggest moves in each sport, over the last decade, take place within a week of each other. LeBron James to the Los Angeles Lakers, and Cristiano Ronaldo to Juventus. Both superstars are 33 years old, both are in top shape and still performing at their best, both are considered two of the best to have ever done, both are some of the richest athletes alive, and both decided to make a switch to a new team for a new challenge.
The Historical Significance:
As much as we hate to admit it, sports have always been about the biggest teams. When the biggest teams are successful, generally the sport benefits as a result due to the renewed outside interest. When the Lakers were at their best, the NBA benefitted, and for the most part the Lakers have always been at their best, which would explain their 16 championships. It’s only the last five years when they have been through a lot of turmoil, as Kobe Bryant’s ruptured Achilles in 2013, coupled with a poor front office, signalled the beginning of the end for a glorious two decades for the historic franchise. Although the legendary guard didn’t officially retire in 2016, scoring 60 points in his final game mind you, Lakers fans haven’t had anything to look forward to since Bryant’s injury in 2013, and the Lakers have faded into NBA purgatory as they witnessed bad contracts and front office changeups. It all changed when Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka took over the Lakers’ front office in 2017, and their mission was simple, bring the Lakers back to a winning level. They had a host of young talent to build upon, such as Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball and Kyle Kuzma, but they knew LA needed big fish in this market, and the biggest fish of them all was LeBron James. Now that they have secured his services on a 4-year deal for approximately $153m, LA has landed its first major free agent signing since Shaquille O’Neal in 1996, and their first superstar since Kobe Bryant. It’s brought the good times back to LA, there is a genuine buzz and excitement around the team not seen since their last championship in 2010, and for a franchise that prides itself on winning and having the biggest names in basketball, gaining a player like LeBron means the world to them. It isn’t job done just yet, they’ve still got a long way to go if they want to truly compete for a championship in the era of superteams and Golden State Warriors’ perpetual dominance, but it is a step in the right direction and will bring the good times back to the Lakers.
As for Juventus, they are Italy’s most decorated club, and one of Europe’s most successful clubs in the history of football. Like Los Angeles, Juventus has always had a knack for owning some of the best players of all time, including Michel Platini, Zinedine Zidane, Alessandro Del Piero and Gianluigi Buffon. Now, they have somehow landed Cristiano Ronaldo, perhaps the biggest name in football maybe ever, and one of the best of all time alongside his rival Lionel Messi. Having made a name for himself at Manchester United, where he stamped his name in the history books with mesmerising displays in England, he managed to win a world record transfer to Real Madrid in 2009, with the promise that he will usher in a new era of ‘Galacticos’ and allow Los Blancos to reach the top of the European game once again. He didn’t disappoint, in his nine years in Spain’s capital he became their all-time record goalscorer, scoring a frankly ludicrous 450 goals in 438 games. In his time there he also became the all-time record goalscorer in the UEFA Champions League, setting numerous records along the way including the most wins ever by a player, with five in total. After all this, it’s clear he wanted a new challenge, and Juventus came calling. For Juventus, this is the biggest move they have ever made. While they enjoyed a golden period in the 1990s and early 2000s, following the Calciopoli scandal in 2006, they were ripped apart and had to start all over again. They since recovered exponentially, and have monopolised the Italian Serie A, winning the last seven league titles, with no signs of stopping any time soon. Their biggest ambition remains the Champions League, which has eluded them since 1996. They’ve come close in recent years under Massimiliano Allegri, losing to a stellar Barcelona side in 2015, before succumbing to Real Madrid in 2017 whom were in the middle of their back-to-back-to-back triumphs, with Ronaldo himself scoring two goals and winning the Man of the Match. What’s the best way for Juventus to elevate themselves and win the Champions League? Well, signing the player that’s won it the most times certainly helps, and he will certainly help put them over the edge. If they came close with the misfiring Gonzalo Higuain leading the line, imagine the results when the greatest goalscorer of all time is on the end of those passes from Paolo Dybala and Miralem Pjanic, or heading in those crosses from Juan Cuadrado, it’s a scary prospect.
At the forefront of all this talk of history, winning and greatness, Juventus and Los Angeles are still businesses, and they still have to make business decisions. Luckily for them, these two pantheon players just so happen to be some of the most marketable athletes ever seen in modern sports. Take LeBron James, a man whose net worth is north of $400m, with good reason. Very few NBA players have been able to market themselves so effectively, whether it’s his lifetime $1bn shoe deal with Nike, or his various business ventures, LeBron is simply a genius when it comes to marketing and expanding his business and brand across the globe. He managed to land 6th on Forbes’ list of the highest earning athletes in 2018, with majority of his income coming in the form of endorsements, a testament to his marketability even as he reaches his mid-30s. Across active NBA stars with their own signature shoes, LeBron’s sneakers are still the highest selling, well-above Steph Curry, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant, only falling short of Jordan Brand, which is a goliath in and of itself. As for Jersey sales, LeBron is 2nd behind Stephen Curry as of 2018, but now that his no.23 as joined the Purple and Gold in Los Angeles, expect to see a host of LA fans worldwide clamour to add to their collection of jerseys. NBA jerseys are fashionable in their own right, but for the NBA’s biggest star to join its biggest teams, don’t be shocked if you walk the streets in the summer and see everyone rocking a Lakers top with James, no.23 sprawled across the back. You can’t overstate the marketing and financial benefits signing LeBron will bring to the LA Lakers.
Juventus haven’t had a player like Ronaldo in forever. Perhaps the last player they had, that you could call one of the top ten or five best footballers ever was Zinedine Zidane, and he left Juventus in 2001 for Real Madrid. It’s been a long time coming for a club like Juventus, and this will take them to the top financially. What doesn’t always work in their favour is that they lack the commercial appeal of a team like Real Madrid, Barcelona or Manchester United, and they lack the pure spending power of Manchester City and Chelsea, so the Bianconeri have had a different approach regarding their team building, signing players on the cheap or even for free, finding diamonds in the rough and turning them into stars. Andrea Pirlo was cast out of AC Milan, but Juventus snapped him up for free, got another four seasons out of him and arguably kicked off their period of Italian hegemony. Paul Pogba was taken for free from Manchester United, before they sold him back to the Red Devils for £89m. Paulo Dybala was signed for merely €32m and has now become their best player. These kinds of shrewd deals are what helped Juventus become the club that they are today. The only exception to this was Gonzalo Higauin, who was brought in from Napoli for £75m, and of course now with Cristiano Ronaldo. Ronaldo’s name alone has brought huge stock to the Italian giants, early in July 2018 as Ronaldo’s link to Juventus was gaining more traction, shares in Juventus increased well over 20% as speculation grew stronger and stronger, and that was before he was even confirmed at the club. In the first day after his official unveiling in Turin, Juventus had reportedly already sold $60m worth of his jerseys in one day, that’s immense. If you think about the global appeal that Ronaldo has, all eyes will be on Juventus. Will he play well in Italy? Can he take them to the Champions League? Even across the world, young fans all over will make the transition from a Real Madrid shirt with Ronaldo’s name, to a Juventus one, all because they managed to sign the biggest name in football while he is still in peak condition.
How will they play?
This is too speculative to suggest, as it is far too early to see what each team’s respective line-up will look like, come the beginning of the season. For the LA Lakers, they still have a lot to work on, as it stands their core is still far too young, with Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma, Brandon Ingram and Josh Hart all under the age of 23. It is still incomplete, as LA know they’ll need at least one more star player to elevate themselves to legitimate contenders, but this is the best start they could possibly have. LeBron James is LeBron James, he will make it work with any roster and the addition of veterans such as Rajon Rondo, Lance Stephenson and Javale McGee will help get the job done. Last season they managed to win 35 games, which is solid given the competition in the Western Conference, the youth in their squad and the fact that Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram both spent significant time out with injuries. But there is a lot to be excited for, Lonzo Ball will only improve, Brando Ingram doubled his stats last season from his rookie season, Kyle Kuzma was the steal of the draft at pick no.27, and even Josh Hart showed what he can do recently winning the NBA’S Summer League MVP. Add a great young core, the best player in the world, they are automatically in the playoffs and competing for home court in the playoffs. Exciting times will be back in Los Angeles.
In Juventus’ case, the only thing that changes is the addition of Cristiano Ronaldo. He likely goes up top, possibly replacing Gonzalo Higuain as the Argentinian is shopped around Europe, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Ronaldo’s game has evolved, he’s no longer the showboating winger who blistered defenders with his speed and guile, but rather he’s a clever poacher and finisher who knows how to score in every way possible. It works for Juventus, as they have the players and the team around him to do the dirty work, to defend and to set up the Portuguese to score numerous goals. It is likely that he will rest a lot of Serie A games, especially against the lower opposition. Serie A, with all due respect, has far less competition than La Liga, so there isn’t a need to play Ronaldo in every game. Even in his final season in Spain, he only played in 27 league games, as Zinedine Zidane opted to rest him for the most important matches, particularly in the Champions League. Expect Juventus to follow the same gameplan, especially as their main prerogative with signing Ronaldo was winning the Champions League, as they can easily coast the Serie A season with or without him.
So how have Basketball and Football changed?
The easiest observation to be made from LeBron moving is that he has switched conferences. Since he was drafted in 2003, LeBron James has exclusively played in the Eastern Conference, be it with Cleveland or with the Miami Heat. This is his first foray out West, and it means a world of difference for the other side of the NBA. Since 2011, whichever team he has been on has made the NBA Finals as the Eastern representative, for better or worse. He created a monopoly, and no matter what the East threw at him, nothing could stop his quests to the Finals, be it Chicago, Indiana, Toronto or Boston. Now that he is gone, this could be the first time since 2010 that he isn’t present in the Finals, and the first time since that same season where he isn’t representing the East. Boston have a great squad and a stellar coach, Philadelphia are perhaps the most exciting young team in the league, and Toronto finally don’t have their boogieman standing in their way. It is no longer a case of, ‘whatever LeBron’s team is, that’s who wins the East’. Out West, an already ludicrously competitive conference just got more competitive. Make no mistake, the Golden State Warriors are still the proverbial favourite to win anything and everything this season, especially now that they have acquired DeMarcus Cousins, but they will be looking over their shoulders now that LeBron will be there to meet them. Houston already gave them a fight in the Western Conference Finals last season, and Oklahoma City are as big of a wildcard as any, it perhaps won’t be the free ride to the Finals that Golden State are used to, they will be pushed to their absolute limit. Even if they win it all, which they most likely will, it will be a battle to make it a three-peat.
Real Madrid are the first team to retain the Champions League after they won it in 2016 and 2017, then earlier this year against Liverpool they became the only team to win it three consecutive times. Ronaldo was the top scorer in each of those title winning seasons and the Ballon d’Or winner, undoubtedly proving himself to be the competition’s, and the world’s greatest player. It is all about a shift in the balance of power, Real Madrid have been the Kings of Europe for many years and now, the balance of power seems to be shifted towards Juventus. Barcelona will likely go unchallenged again in La Liga, as a new coach and a new era without Ronaldo should see Madrid struggle to win domestically, and there is very little chance they win in Europe again. Barcelona could finally make a strong push to return to the top of Europe, PSG would hope to bounce back from two successive Round of 16 exits in the Neymar-Mbappe era, Bayern Munich will always be a threat and even Manchester City grow stronger as they look to assert themselves in Europe. Of course, Juventus are automatically the favourite to win it all, as an already strong team that made two finals in three years just added the competition’s best player, but regardless of who wins, Real Madrid’s monopoly on the Champions League looks to be over.