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Under the Big Top

Through mirth, armored cars, and singing pigs, the Cavs are becoming Cleveland's Team.

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LeBron Bobblehead Night may well go down as the - greatest moment in sports-marketing history. - WALTER  NOVAK
  • Walter Novak
  • LeBron Bobblehead Night may well go down as the greatest moment in sports-marketing history.

It's 4:30 in the afternoon, and fat lines ring Gund Arena. Thousands of people have arrived 2 1/2 hours early to see the home team, which is 12 games under .500, play some guys who might finish a respectable third in the Bedford CYO league.

Yet the draw is not the game. The Cavaliers have chosen this night to give away 10,000 dolls that, if you have glaucoma, might fleetingly resemble LeBron James. Bobblehead Night is a ubiquitous promotion, practiced by bad teams to produce modest bumps in attendance. But we have all fled work early to stand and wait, as if it's Free Gold Bullion Night.

Talk in the line is that the dolls are selling for $400 on eBay. Perhaps that's why adults outnumber kids nine to one. The prices won't last, of course, for the world has only a limited supply of stiffs willing to pay top dollar for cheap stuff made in China.

Yet your young son's lips quiver -- the stage just before tears. We're late. He's certain he'll be without this treasure, which he would have cherished for upwards of 15 minutes, then buried in his closet forevermore. And you? You feel like a moron. You're waiting for a doll, for chrissakes. Yet you can't help but admire the people who charmed you into coming. Call them masterful, call them ingenious, or just call them the Cavs front office.

Last Wednesday may well go down as the greatest moment in sports-marketing history. The Cavs were in an unenviable position. They had to convince people to actually pay to see the Atlanta Hawks, whose starting lineup features a French guy and someone named Przybilla -- a team so bad it may violate obscenity laws.

So days before, the Cavs announced that the bobbleheads would be delivered by armored car. It was a stretch, of course, since dolls are not a preferred commodity in the hijacking industry. But just to be safe, additional security was provided by a mascot dressed in a dog costume. For pure hype, it was all so beautiful.

TV helicopters dutifully followed the armored car's route. The story became national news. By game time, what was initially just a bad basketball game -- the Cavs won by 32 -- had grown to the event of the season. It was a testament to the new Cavaliers. Though the arrival of LeBron has received all the attention, the business side has quietly gone from ugly stepsister to Cleveland's greatest economic development story.

Rewind to a year ago, when the Cavs had the NBA's worst attendance and crowds officially billed at 11,000 looked closer to 5. Teens roamed the empty concourse while the Cavs got hammered inside. It had the feel of a wake for an uncle no one really knew.

That's when Len Komoroski became president. A former executive of the Philadelphia Eagles, he understood what he was getting into. "Frankly, we had nowhere to go but up. The event had a lot to be desired."

It didn't hurt that he would soon be given the gift of LeBron. Or that talented but petulant "stars" like Ricky Davis and Darius Miles were jettisoned for the likes of Eric Williams and Tony Battie, guys who work for a living. The changes produced the numbers of a dot-com, circa 1996: TV ratings, up 300 percent. Attendance, up 66 percent. Radio listeners, more than doubled. Merchandise sales, third in the league.

But something equally impressive was happening at the Gund. Your uncle's wake had turned into a circus. The concourse now featured face-painting, banner-making, tattoo stations, and live bears and monkeys. Inside, pigs snorted along to music, monkeys rode pigs, and employees masquerading as fans performed stripteases, only to be hauled away by security. Marriage proposals were made on the big screen. And if there weren't any real proposals to be had, the Cavs made 'em up, planting someone to pop the question, only to be refused. "The crowd was stunned," says Komoroski. "They thought it was real." So the guy went up five rows, proposed to someone else, and they walked off into the sunset.

"You try to mix in the unexpected," says Komoroski. "Philosophically, we treat it like a theme park."

Call it fun, call it stupid, but don't call it boring. The Cavs know exactly who their clientele is.

For years basketball languished as Cleveland's third sport -- an afterthought, if it was thought of at all. "We have a lot of people who are new, first-time attendees of Cavs games," says Komoroski. That was in evidence last Wednesday. While Cleveland stomped Atlanta, the loudest cheer was for a free-pizza giveaway.

In a city that likes to whine about its sad, sad state, this is one business showing mirth and inventiveness. Talk to Tribe officials, and they leave the impression that you're lucky to even speak to them. They don't understand that they're no longer defending champs -- just guys peddling minor-league baseball at Yankees prices. Go to a midseason Browns game last fall, and what used to resemble Free Liquor Night at Attica had turned into the 18th green at Pebble Beach.

On the court, the Cavs are no better than the Browns or the Tribe. They're promising and likable, but they remain a sub-.500 team in a very bad conference. The difference is attitude. While the Indians have the swagger of a small man who believes he's a giant, and the Browns possess the excitement of MBNA's executive lunchroom, the Cavs are humble, outgoing, without pretense. They don't expect your allegiance; they aim to earn it. Even if it means using armored cars and singing pigs.

Which is why they've become the city's greatest economic-success story. It is also why they will soon be -- if they're not already -- Cleveland's Team.

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