“I’m not giving Sunglass Hut another $30!” — LeBron James.

James plays an exaggerated version of himself in Judd Apatow’s latest box office hit, Trainwreck. While he isn’t the star of the show — that title belongs to Amy Schumer — LeBron does steal a few laughs each time he hits the screen.
James’ on-screen performance exceeded expectations, but that’s not all he brought to the table in his role next to Schumer and Bill Hader. Maybe more importantly — to studio executives, anyway — James’ involvement can be linked to the film’s better-than-expected box office performance.

The result of James’ acting debut didn’t disappoint as Trainwreck’s first weekend reported big earnings. At $30.2 million, the movie ranks as Apatow’s second-highest opening weekend, just below Knocked Up’s $30.7 million opening weekend.

It’s amongst LeBron’s most loyal fans that his inclusion appears to have made the biggest impact. For the weekend, Cleveland’s turnout was 66 percent higher than expected. Nationwide, Trainwreck earned roughly $10 million more than predicted. Clevelanders who did turn out most likely enjoyed LeBron’s consistent lobbying of the city’s greatness. Did you know Superman was created in Cleveland? You do now.

Was James’ role the only factor in the film’s success? Absolutely not; Schumer is becoming increasingly beloved, as is Hader in his post-Saturday Night Live career. Both are extremely popular in the media hotspots of New York and Los Angeles, contributing to Trainwreck’s impressive performance in both cities. However, LeBron’s stardom cannot be overlooked.

Three A’s of Athlete Affiliation

For Trainwreck, LeBron’s involvement produced the three promises that come hand-in-hand with athlete affiliation:
1. Affinity
2. Awareness
3. Action

Affinity
Fans have an established personal passion and trust for their favorite athletes. When an entity, often a brand — or a major motion picture, in this case  promotes a positive association with that athlete, the fan is immediately more likely to trust and feel a natural liking for that entity.

For Trainwreck, the box office battle was won when the decision was made to promote LeBron’s role in the trailers leading up to the film’s release. As soon as those commercials began to air, LeBron fans were locked in. While LeBron’s detractors might make a lot of noise, he currently holds the title of America’s most popular athlete. While “The Decision” in 2010 caused his popularity to plummet, his heroic return to the Cleveland last summer boosted his popularity past that of Michael Jordan. The only athletes with an obvious edge worldwide are Cristiano Ronaldo and Neymar.

Awareness
As the most popular athlete in America, it’s safe to say that LeBron has a large audience. With that audience comes awareness. By promoting LeBron’s involvement in Trainwreck, the movie quickly reached a massive, engaged audience that may have otherwise not paid attention.

It’s in the awareness phase that LeBron’s inclusion in the film directly impacted me. I am not a fan of LeBron James. I love the NBA and respect his greatness, but he will never hold a spot on my list of favorite players. However, for the last two months, I’ve referred to Trainwreck as “that movie with LeBron,” and “That LeBron movie.” Because of his place in the trailer, the movie’s opening date stuck out in my mind and even influenced my decision to attend. Admittedly, I was almost cheering against his performance much like I had during the NBA Finals. Of course, LeBron was great in Trainwreck, too.

Action
The most prized of the three outcomes of athlete affiliation is, naturally, the most elusive. Affinity and awareness are easy. Of course fans are passionate about their favorite athletes and share that feeling with the brands and products affiliated with those athletes. Their massive audiences are quick to grasp and learn more about everything an athlete does or promotes. The action is how the audience ultimately responds. Much of this depends on the goals and options that an audience has. For traditional endorsements like shoe deals, the action is the purchase or consideration of a purchase. For some campaigns, the action can be a simple as clicking a link, visiting a web page, or sharing a tweet.

The desired action in this case was the purchase of a movie ticket. As described above, it appears that the action was positively influenced in this instance, especially with LeBron’s most passionate fans in Cleveland.

The Most Powerful Man In Sports?

Few athletes in the modern era of sports have wielded as much power as LeBron James. Recently, James has flexed that power like never before. In the past year, LeBron has:

  • Returned to Cleveland, spurning Pat Riley and forgiving Dan Gilbert’s infamous Comic Sans letter.
  • Forced the Cleveland front office’s hand to deal Number One Draft pick, Andrew Wiggins, and assets for Kevin Love.
  • Was elected to act as the first Vice President of the National Basketball Players Association.
  • Went on a two week mid-season sabbatical to rest and potentially influence Cleveland to add championship-caliber pieces.
  • Called out Kevin Love on Twitter to fit in with Cavs teammates.
  • Nearly won NBA Finals MVP while losing the series in six games — something that hasn’t been done since Jerry West won the MVP in a losing effort in 1969.
  • Was accused of repeatedly undermining Cleveland Head Coach, David Blatt, with the public and media reaction amounting to an overwhelming, “So?”
  • Went silent during the early stages of the 2015 summer free agency period, presumably to influence Cleveland’s front office to pay Tristan Thompson, who is represented by his friend and agent, Rich Paul.
  • Met Love poolside to successfully woo him into resigning with Cleveland.
  • Broke silence to re-sign with Cleveland for a two-year deal with a one-year opt out in order to maximize his earning power and increase leverage to convince Cleveland to continue to build a contender.
  • Helped to power a major motion picture to a $10 million higher-than-predicted opening weekend.

All the while, LeBron has headlined ad campaigns for Nike, Beats by Dre, Kia, and more. While he didn’t do the impossible in this year’s NBA Finals, it’s safe to say that LeBron is having a pretty good year. With his help, now Universal Pictures and Judd Apatow are, too.