Loved or loathed, cash-register ringing for Heat

By Simon Evans

MIAMI (Reuters) - Love them or loathe them, the Miami Heat have become the most talked about team in the NBA since signing up LeBron James and Chris Bosh to play alongside Dwyane Wade but with revenue rising, the franchise are not worrying too much about becoming the bad guys.

"I think it is just part of the game, the interesting thing is that while some of that is true, the fact that we are getting orders from all around the world for our jerseys dispels that notion a little bit," Michael McCullough, the Heat's chief marketing officer, told Reuters.

The Heat were described as the "Evil Empire" in a column in the newspaper The Plain Dealer in Cleveland, where feelings still run high about James's decision to quit Ohio for South Florida.

Across the NBA there is a feeling of waiting to see if the Heat can live up to their own billing -- if they can deliver the success that the trio are presumed to be bringing. The waiting ends in a season-opening trip to the Boston Celtics on October 26.

But while radio talk shows, internet forums and newspaper columns may be full of jibes at the Heat, the cash registers are busy with season tickets and sold out premium seating packages.

At Miami International Airport, visitors are now greeted by Heat tee-shirts featuring James, Bosh and Wade, on sale at newsstands.

McCullough says that Heat are now number one in NBA retail sales, with James's number six vest the top-selling jersey in the league and it is clearly not only fans in Florida that are snaffling up the red, white and black gear.

"The media has done a pretty good job of playing up 'so-and-so is saying this about the Heat' but when you look at where the requests are coming from -- we aren't number one in jersey sales because people in Miami are buying it -- people all over the U.S. and the world are buying our jerseys and that shows the interest in our team," says McCullough.

THROWING ACCOLADES

He added: "There will be a lot of people who choose to make us the villain. I think that is just part of the territory if you are a really, really good team or you have something extraordinary such as what has happened with us and people are throwing accolades that we probably haven't earned yet because we haven't played yet.

"But I also think there are a number of people around the world who will gravitate toward this team and we have seen that by people putting their money where their mouth is."

The Heat and the NBA will look to take advantage of international support for the team but it could well be the players who stand to profit from global interest.

Much of that worldwide fan base now interacts online and James has over three millions "fans" of his Facebook page. The team has just 178,000.

The players' presence in social media offers huge potential according to digital sports marketing consultant, Pat Coyle.

"LeBron announced a lot of what he was doing in free agency on Twitter -- his own following is growing. That is a whole new situation, the individual player having his own brand and digital channel to market through," said Coyle.

The old business -- of selling seats -- is pretty much exhausted for the Heat though -- even the highest-priced premium seats, usually reserved for celebrities have all been snaffled up.

"We looked to fill as many orders as we could and at some point we just ran out of inventory."

(Writing by Simon Evans in Miami; Editing by Dave Thompson)