Let's begin with the most obvious reason: ticket sales.
Since arriving, LeBron has helped the Heat jump from a middle-of-the-road team in terms of gate revenue to a top-three team.
After four straight years of sellouts, plus significant increases in ticket prices, the Heat have pulled in at least $60 million more in regular-season ticket sales compared to the prior four years.
Some of the future financial projections depend on who is around LeBron, but on a three-year deal, we project LeBron will continue to be responsible for selling roughly 3,000 seats per game for the next five years. Why? Because more than 60 percent of the Heat season-ticket holders are committed to three-year contracts with two years left. There is no reason to think the team won't do that again after Year 2 of a new contract. It's not unprecedented. Many Bulls ticket contracts lasted beyond Michael Jordan's playing days.
With conservative price increases and sellout crowds, LeBron can still be credited for $11 million a season in regular-season ticket sales. Even though his contract could be for three years, the impact is for five years -- giving the team $55 million in ticket sales alone.
And that doesn't even factor in revenue earned from playoff games, for which teams don't pay players an extra dime.
Miami has played in 47 home playoff games over the past four seasons. It had seven home playoff games in the four seasons before LeBron. Even with playoff revenue sharing with the league, sources conservatively put ticket revenue for the Heat at $1 million per game -- a total added value over the previous four years of $40 million. Even a conservative estimate of eight home playoff games each year gives Heat owner Micky Arison $8 million. It would be unfair to say this is all LeBron, but insiders say crediting him for 70 percent is reasonable. At $5.6 million a season, that's $16.8 million over three years.
So in ticket sales alone, giving LeBron a three-year deal is worth $71.8 million.
Then there's sponsorship. Since LeBron arrived in Miami, the cost to sponsor the Heat has at least doubled. Some Heat sponsors pay more than $100,000 a year to call themselves official partners but get no in-arena signage. LeBron is worth at least $1 million per year in sponsorship commitments and, again, that's a five-year value for a total of $5 million.
There's more. With the league sure to allow teams to soon sell corporate advertising on their jerseys, LeBron's appeal to advertisers is worth at least $5 million a year there. Let's assume jersey advertising starts the season after next. Although LeBron's hypothetical deal would be done only two years in, there's no reason to think the Heat will have a sponsor commit to fewer than three years. That's another $15 million in the LeBron column.
So total sponsorship dollars from LeBron push the total over $90 million.
Merchandise sales also play a role. Although revenue from merchandise sold outside the arena and in official team stores is shared among the league's 30 teams, sources say the Heat have, far and away, the highest in-stadium revenue in the league. That could make LeBron worth an additional $500,000 a year or more through the sale of fan gear.
All this could have a significant effect on the team's value, though that's muted by the fact that Arison has never said he plans on selling the team and his son is in line to take it over. That means that any valuation of the team, boosted by LeBron, won't ever be realized.
But NBA execs don't think the rise of the Heat brand under LeBron can be discounted. Having him another three years could easily raise the brand value of the Heat by $50 million.
Our running tally on the worth of LeBron on a three-year deal hits $143.3 million.
The Heat's television deal isn't up for another three seasons, meaning a three-year deal for James won't guarantee he'll still be on the team then, but another three years of service would certainly help boost Miami's brand and fan base to the point where it will allow the Heat to see at least $3 million more a year on a minimum six-year deal. That's another $18 million.
So it seems like LeBron truly is a free agent. As in free money for Miami if he returns to play for the team. That's three years of LeBron being worth $161.3 million, nearly $100 million more than what the Heat would have to pay him over three seasons.