Measuring the LeBron James Free-Agency Noise

LeBron James of the Miami Heat keeps the ball away from the San Antonio Spurs in Game Five of the 2014 NBA Finals on June 15 Photograph by Chris Covatta/Getty Images

The National Basketball Association is in peak free-agent frenzy at the moment, and question marks are in heavy rotation on ESPN’s Sportscenter: “Return of the King?”, “Melo back to New York?” The league’s most dominant player, LeBron James, is a free agent again, four years after his famous decision to take his talents to South Beach and the Miami Heat. He is the biggest piece in the puzzle of setting NBA rosters for next season. Fellow free agents Carmelo Anthony and Chris Bosh are reportedly waiting on his choice, as are just about every NBA team and a rabid pack of journalists hoping to break the story on Twitter.

The anticipation has reached the point that Web detectives are searching the code on James’s website for clues in his color choices:

For some this is a sign that, as Grantland put it recently, “the NBA’s off-season has swallowed the actual season.” There is some truth to this, though it’s a tad ironic coming from an ESPN property. The speed of online reporting and the complexity of the NBA salary cap (now its own field of study with professional “capologists“) have created a level of noise previously unseen in the NBA off-season. The Wall Street Journal, using Google Trends data, has found that interest in James over the past six years is never higher than during free agency.

A look at a different data set from just the past few months shows a slightly different picture. According to Networked Insights, which tracks media traffic for consumer brands, the volume of conversation about James during the Heat’s loss in the NBA finals (June 5-15) was higher than during the free agency scramble going on now (June 28-July 8). And both are above a baseline period from April 1 to May 31.

Networked Insights pulls mentions from Twitter, from anything on the popular Web-publishing platform WordPress (used to create this post), and from a broad section of online comments and forums. The company distills these data into a “share of voice” number, the percent of the total measured output occupied by a given topic. James, relative to everything else in the NBA, is dominant. During the finals, he took up 0.246 percent of the oxygen on the Web, more than five time as much as the San Antonio Spurs as a team and 16 times more than Tim Duncan.

The James conversation has actually settled down some during free agency, though it’s still well above everything else. For Anthony, the volume is up 336 percent from the finals to free agency. His New York Knicks were nowhere in sight for the playoffs. These data are good news for those turned off by the seemingly endless speculation over who will go where. While the most avid NBA fans are as tuned in as ever, if not more so, during free agency, the more casual (some might say normal) fans still care more about what happens on the floor.

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