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In 2009, LeBron James was the second most popular athlete among kids and tweens, and the favorite among teens. Who beat him? Michael Phelps…And while we’re not denying that Phelps has some staying power, we can already see that in 2010, with the Olympics fading in kids’ collective memory, he fell to fourth.

In the first half of 2010, LeBron continues at the second spot overall among youth, but his popularity grew among tweens. 3% of tweens cite him as their “favorite professional athlete” versus 2% a year ago. While these numbers might seem small, with sports loyalties being local, any kind of consensus is meaningful. (Interestingly, Peyton Manning beats James among tweens, and Michael Jordan shows he will never die by continuing to win among kids. Who is ahead of him for teens? Fellow ballers, Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant…But taking the top spot: Tiger Woods. And that fact deserves a blog entry all its own.)

So what do kids, tweens and teens think about LeBron James’ decision to leave the Cleveland Cavaliers for the Miami Heat?

For adults, this story was hard to avoid. ESPN granted James a one-hour special to make his announcement. His choice of teams trumped most other national news. Other players seemed to be looking to him to make a move before they made their own decision – as if this was a schoolyard pick-up game rather than a multi-million dollar business venture. The lead-up to his decision was rivaled only by the continuous feed of the oil rig spewing in the Gulf.

So were kids as all-consumed as we were? In a nutshell, not so much. Over half of all kids (6-10, in elementary school) admitted that they either didn’t know who LeBron is or that they just didn’t care. Obviously, we have only our fair share of kids from Cleveland.

But perhaps more interesting is that kids seems to be siding with LeBron. When we asked them what they thought of LeBron James' decision to go to the Miami Heat, more kids said that he “did the right thing” than the “wrong one.”

Are kids just cold-hearted winner take all fans?  Perhaps. “There’s little that’s more important than being a “winner” to an 8, 9 or 10 year old,” as Dan Acuff asserts in What Kids Buy and Why. But perhaps kids are applying a more savvy value code than we might think.

First, kids know that good sportsmanship matters. And whatever we might think of James’ decision to leave a team where he started his career, his actions seem much more sportsmanlike than those of Cavs owner, Dan Gilbert. In case you haven’t seen his open letter to Cavs fans, we’ll summarize. We want to win…LeBron would help us win…He doesn’t like us anymore…We hate him.

Most elementary school kids recognize this as the kind of whining that they stopped engaging in long ago. And they probably sense a bit of cyberbullying in Gilbert’s tone. Can you imagine what he might have been texting? Kids might recognize this kind of taunting from the playground – and that might be precisely why they don’t like it.

Kids also seem to understand something that most adults seem to be forgetting; this is a business. And kids are not so innocent to ignore the dollars associated with professional athlete’s decisions. It’s not counter to the mystique – it’s part of it. Perhaps in some ways, they’re more mature about the reality that professional sports is a business. And while it may have always been, they don’t seem nostalgic for the days when pro athletes played for “the love of the game” like many of us adults might be.

Kids also seem to be more willing to accept that doing whatever you need to do to be on a winning team – within the rules of the game – is a sign of drive. And while this may be hard for our Ohio readers to swallow, it’s also a sign of loyalty. In some ways, LeBron is staying true to that dream that he might have had as a child and the dream that his many young fans have too. Kids sense something pure in his desire to be at the top of his field, and to dominate the court.  

Finally, this generation thinks about work differently than the generations before them – even Gen X. As Neil Howe opines in Millenials Rising, “this generation has been told that they’re special – and that they deserve to be treated that way – their whole lives.” Dan Gilbert is clearly of a different era. In his day, loyalty was loyalty and you stuck with the people who gave you your shot. But Millenials are inclined to ask, “What have you done for me lately?” And when they don’t get the answer they want to hear, they’ll take their ball and find another game.