The Budding Brand of Bronny James

    • In less than nine months, Bronny's Instagram following has grown by 3.5 million.
    • Sierra Canyon has drawn crowds as large as 17,378 fans at a single game this season, more than triple the average attendance at a men's DI college clash.

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Bronny James stands, navy warmup still on, listening as Sierra Canyon’s starters are called out by the announcer at coastal New Jersey’s Metro Classic tournament. He’s not one of them. But as each drawn out, drum-rolled name reverberates through the three thousand person arena, the 15-year-old freshman’s face is still the focus of hundreds of cell phones and dozens of camera crews on site.

He bides his time on the bench and checks in just before the close of the quarter. He lands a lob from five-star guard BJ Boston. He finishes with a dunk at the rim, hanging for a hot second as he soaks in the loud reaction from the local crowd – who are so in awe of the spectacle of Bronny James that they seem to have forgotten that he’s widening the Trailblazers early lead over their team. 

He’s more than 2,700 miles from his sunny Los Angeles home and will finish the night with just four points and as many fouls, but Bronny was undeniably the center of attention.

The son of NBA star LeBron James, Bronny was born into an inescapable spotlight. He’s always represented the physical embodiment of his namesake’s legacy, the future of LeBron’s basketball imprint. His popularity is still indisputably linked to his father’s legend – attention on a player as young as Bronny only happens on rare occasions. Not even Zion Williamson, with his viral highlight videos, received the same amount of attention as a freshman.

But as Bronny begins to establish himself as a basketball player of his own merit, separating himself from his father to the extent that he can, and begins to build his brand, the young star has garnered national attention – and not only for himself. There are benefits for anyone in his orbit. 

The brand of Bronny James was alluring enough to bring Zaire Wade, the son of retired NBA star Dwyane Wade, Boston, a Kentucky commit, and the still-undecided Ziaire Williams, a top-5 recruit in the class of 2020, in as transfers. Coupled with 7’3 junior center Harold Yu, TCU commits Terren Frank and five-star sophomore guard Amari Bailey; Sierra Canyon assembled somewhat of a high school dream team, and as their exposure has increased with their success this season, both Bronny and the school have already started to reap the benefits.

The Trailblazers, two-time back-to-back defending state champions before the arrival of Bronny, have drawn astronomical crowds across the country this season. They fell to Minnehaha Academy in front of 17,378 fans at the Target Center in Minneapolis – more than three times the average attendance at men’s DI college games. They’ve sold out every game they’ve played, their presence prompting tournaments, like the Metro Classic, and teams to relocate to bigger venues. 

“With the season that they’re having, a top 10 ranking, with Bronny, it brings a new dimension,” Pryia Roy, director of the Metro Classic, said. “It’s added a lot of spice. And a lot of people.”

The elite east coast tournament played its first seven years at Kean University’s Harwood Arena, which only has a maximum capacity of 2,500. Hoping to capitalize on the hype of having Sierra Canyon in this year’s lineup, Roy and the tournament moved to RWJBarnabas Health Arena, where 3,208 fans could be accommodated. Tickets for both days sold out within weeks.

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“We moved it here because we knew we were going to get a huge crowd,” Roy said. “We probably could’ve sold 5,000 tickets. It’s rare to get a team like [Sierra Canyon] and a kid with a legacy like Bronny in New Jersey.”

The tournament’s games, which had previously been broadcast by MSG Networks, landed on ESPN3, one of 15 Sierra Canyon games picked up by the same sports giant who had made history broadcasting Bronny’s father.

“When LeBron [Sr.] came, and he became who everyone knew, it took St. Vincent-St. Mary to a national level, not just in athletics,” said Willie McGee, a former high school teammate of the elder James who now serves as St. Vincent-St. Mary’s athletic director. “We became a school that everyone knew. We were getting put on TV and landing sponsorships. You saw the following he had, and then the following the school had because of him. It’s pretty crazy to see the same thing happening now with Bronny.”

In comparison, when LeBron Sr. was a high school star in Akron, Ohio, ESPN picked up a broadcast, making it the first high school game ever broadcast on national television.

The network rights to Sierra Canyon this season mark another change in strategy centered, at least in large part, around a LeBron, this time toward airing more high school hoops. And like his son’s team, LeBron Sr. also started selling out increasingly larger venues, prompting St. Vincent-St. Mary’s to move from the high school gym to the University of Akron.

More fans, more ticket sales, and television deals also mean more revenue for the schools involved. But above all else, it means more exposure. And exposure is valuable for any entity, whether it be the school or other players on the team who get an extra boost from the Bronny spotlight.

“Every brand or organization needs a watershed moment that redefines their future to elevate their status,” Brad Horn, Syracuse public relations professor and sports PR professional, said. “When the attraction is someone as big as Bronny James, it immediately becomes showtime. That translates. You look at the past five years, and Sierra Canyon high school has been completely flat in terms of searches on Google up until you get to last spring and Bronny announcing that he was headed to Sierra Canyon as an incoming freshman. The earned media opportunities are unparalleled.”

Horn continued, “In many ways, what Sierra Canyon has to work with is better than any university has in terms of an incoming recruit or a city has in terms of a signature event like a Final Four or a Super Bowl because they’re only now in year one of a four-year build.”

Having Bronny on board for four years, even though many of his current teammates will soon move on to the college or professional realms, gives the school time to capitalize on his brand within and beyond athletics. The potential mirrors how LeBron Sr. ‘s high school success translated beyond the walls of a basketball arena.

“Sold out games at an Akron-specific venue, people fighting for the hottest ticket in the state, coming to the city just to see [LeBron], buying food, paying for parking,” McGee said. “It was absolutely a boost for Akron.”

While the local Los Angeles economy might not be as in need of a boost as Akron, Sierra Canyon itself is still likely to see one.

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“The fan interest piece of a once-in-a-lifetime player like LeBron is transcendent. LeBron [Sr.] captures the national interest, and that transcends to Bronny,” Horn said. “When you have ‘LeBron James Jr.,’ you’ve got this already built-in name recognition, and now you’ve got ‘Bronny’ being built as a brand. That brand is linked to Sierra Canyon.” 

The Bronny brand has also brought a new audience into the school’s potential sphere of influence.

“The Overtime audience, the TikTok crowd, the Gen Z quick-hit content consumers from social, [are] all now targeted toward and geolocated at content about this school that before Bronny’s arrival, the vast majority had never heard of,” Horn continued. “It adds an entirely different dimension of fan dynamic of opportunity for the school, and now you’ve got a dateline for the next four years.”

Catering to the niche of celebrity and celebrity athlete students isn’t new for Sierra Canyon. Still, the brand of Bronny James taps into a new audience for them at a level of greater national interest than players like Marvin Bagley III have brought in the past. Sierra Canyon games have become not only an on-site destination but a social media one as well. 

When Bronny joined Instagram last May, he amassed one million followers on his first day on the platform. 4.5 million fans now follow him – and the Sierra Canyon brand, plastered on every basketball-related picture on his page, is now accessible to that same audience. The school currently has what Horn describes as “a whole different subculture of followers tuning into this one school.”

While the Chatsworth, California, school declined to say if that has impacted application numbers this season, it did acknowledge an overall uptick in recent years. 

“We certainly know there’s a lot more exposure and a lot more attention this year,” a spokesperson for school administration said. “There’s been a light that’s shined, but once you look at the content of who we are, the program and the academics are why people send their children here. It’s just maybe more people looking into that.”

The increased exposure can also benefit the school beyond basketball and that, Horn argues, might be more valuable to Sierra Canyon. 

“Basketball is not why Sierra Canyon is unique,” Horn said. “But basketball is the reason that so many new audience members, so many new views and so much interest will be brought to the school. There will only be one Bronny James, but there will be a thousand other Sierra Canyon students that this gives them a perfect opportunity to reach, to message, and to create other unique programs around given the current interest in their name recognition.”