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SBD/Issue 204/Sports MediaPrint All
James' Camp Specifically
Requested Gray For Special
ESPN's broadcast of LeBron James' long-awaited free agency decision materialized when LRMR Marketing CEO Maverick Carter contacted the network with the idea late last week, said ESPN Exec VP/Production Norby Williamson. James' reps came to ESPN with a blueprint for tonight's 9:00pm ET special, dubbed "The Decision." That included a specific request for Jim Gray to introduce James' decision and subsequently interview the two-time NBA MVP. ESPN agreed to work with Gray, a former reporter on the net. "We know his work and we know his ability to ask very straightforward, tough questions," Williamson said. "We've had discussions with Jim in preparation for the announcement of LeBron's interview, as well as the preparation with Jim in and around that." ESPN feels comfortable with its rather unprecedented decision to dedicate a 60-minute special to James' announcement, in addition to hours of planned ancillary programming throughout this evening, Williamson said. "We took a lot of time, we asked ourselves internally a ton of questions. ... This one's a little bit different. We understand that. We tried to be thoughtful about the process." While LRMR pitched the idea to ESPN, the network maintains that it has control over how it will cover James' announcement. "LeBron's in control of his own destiny, and he's always been in control of that," Williamson said. "Where he's going to play and what he's going to do next. ... We're going to obviously have the opportunity to have opinion." He added, "We believe this is a unique program. It contains newsworthy content that I think any other television or media company would love to have the opportunity to offer."
INSIDE THE DEAL: ESPN did not pay James for the exclusive, nor would the network consider it a time buy since LRMR did not purchase the air time. "The only financial arrangement is that time was made available for LeBron's camp to bring in sponsors to run spots in the show for the benefit of the Boys & Girls Club," Williamson said. He added, "We have complete editorial control and direction, with the exception of what's gonna come out of his mouth." James' reps reserved the rights to sell ad inventory for the 60-minute special, and secured many of his sponsors for it. The Univ. of Phoenix and Microsoft's Bing are serving as co-presenting sponsors, while Vitaminwater and McDonald's also are on board and will have commercials airing nationally. Williamson conceded that ESPN is, more or less, donating the programming block originally slated for FIFA World Cup coverage to James' team. "Given the very specific parameters of the ask, we were comfortable going there," Williamson said. "We do not believe that we're paying for interviews. ... Given the scope of this and the intricacies of it, and the cause and the way LeBron positioned this to us as wanting to really do something with this announcement, to give back and make some additional good out of it, we're comfortable with the way it played out." Williamson said he did not know whether James and his team offered this exclusive to any other network. "There wasn't a lot of negotiating," he added. "It was more like, 'How do we execute this?' ... It was very mutual when they brought this opportunity to us."
LET'S GET TO THE POINT: Though many networks and shows -- ESPN and "American Idol" included -- have made a habit of dragging out the story, James' announcement is expected to come in the opening minutes of tonight's telecast. Williamson: "We're going to tee it up a little bit -- who knows what happens during the day -- and then we're going to get right to it. Our plan is to just get to the announcement in the first 10-15 minutes of the show, just get to it. We're not going to string it along." While ESPN is dedicating a 60-minute block for James' announcement, its programming schedule allows it to remain flexible should the night go differently than planned. "If this goes less than an hour, we're fine with that. If it goes more than an hour, we're fine with that," Williamson said. He added, "We're gonna go with it. It's a news event, it's a big announcement. We're going to vet it out. We think the dust will settle a little bit and there will be a lot to talk about with the NBA." Gray and James will be together at the Boys & Girls Club of Greenwich, Conn., and will appear via satellite as part of the telecast. ESPN's slew of NBA reporters and analysts will be based out of the Bristol HQs. Michael Wilbon, who conducted the interview yesterday with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh when they indicated they were signing with the Heat, will hold court with James after his announcement in a lengthy one-on-one.
ESPN Plans To Cover News Of James'
Decision If It Breaks Prior To Announcement
ROLL WITH THE PUNCHES: Should an ESPN reporter, or any other from a rival outlet, break news of James' decision prior to the announcement, ESPN plans to cover it as a traditional news story, regardless of the exclusive broadcast. Williamson cited ESPN's decision to publicize Chris Broussard's report Tuesday night about the made-for-TV special -- well in advance of when the network planned to formally announce it -- as an example of how ESPN plans to cover any breaking NBA news throughout today. "There is a separation. The news gathering operation day-to-day works as they work," Williamson said. "They'll report and do what they do, independent of any corporate business arrangements we may make. ... Church and state go both ways. It can't be when it's convenient. It has to be all the time. And it has to go both ways." If another entity outside of the ESPN umbrella were to first report James' decision, Williamson said ESPN would cover and attribute that appropriately (Brian Helfrich, THE DAILY).
I AM YOUR MAN: Gray said that when he saw Carter and William Morris Endeavor Entertainment CEO Ari Emanuel at Staples Center during the NBA Finals, he told them that he wanted to "do the first interview with James after his decision." Gray: "I said, 'Why don't we buy time on the network, you own the show and he announces his decision?'" He added Emanuel called it a "great idea" and Carter said, "I like it, and we can give a lot of money to charity" (N.Y. TIMES, 7/8).
RIPE FOR SATIRE: MSNBC's Keith Olbermann addressed the ESPN special last night and said, "Our No. 1 story: LeBron James, Cleveland, Chicago, New York, Miami and ESPN overwhelmed by massive howls of laughter at the premise." James is expected to reveal his choice within the first 10 minutes of the broadcast, "which begs the question, 'What's he going to do for the next 50 minutes? A strip tease?'" Olbermann added, "I have a strong sense of something jumping some kind of really big shark here, but I can't put my finger on what's wrong with this picture" ("Countdown with Keith Olbermann," MSNBC, 7/7).
ESPN's coverage tonight of LeBron James' free-agent announcement is "already raising eyebrows for its infomercial-like feel and its apparent creation of a new standard for a star breaking his or her own news," according to Collins & Flint of the L.A. TIMES. ESPN will air "The Decision" live at 9:00pm ET, and the fact ESPN would "turn over a premium program spot to one of its most aggressively covered stars should be seen as a turning point in the relationship between mega-celebrities and perpetually ratings-hungry media." Furthermore, ESPN's decision to "let James dictate the terms and personnel behind the interview raised a red flag in journalism circles." Temple Univ. journalism professor Chris Harper: "It crosses a line whether it is a donation or a direct payment to LeBron James" (L.A. TIMES, 7/8). New York Univ. professor Robert Boland said, "I'm a little appalled by this. I think this is a little too much. God knows what the hour is going to contain." Boland conceded the show, which has "all the drama of a contract signing, probably will be the most-watched non-sporting event since Tiger Woods apologized to his wife." However, he said that the James-ESPN synergy "presents the network both with a control of the news and a journalistically awkward relationship with the player." Boland: "Will ESPN be critical of LeBron James, no matter the outcome? Like: 'What a dummy!' if he goes to Miami for less money?" (NEWSDAY, 7/8). FANHOUSE.com's Milton Kent wrote ESPN needs to "make clear whether this will become operating procedure going forward, that a star athlete or coach will be able to circumvent the normal announcement process with ESPN's complicity." Kent: "By accepting James' entreaties, ESPN executives have clearly made the determination that relationships and ratings are more important than journalistic integrity" (FANHOUSE.com, 7/7).
NOT SETTING A PRECEDENT? Sports media consultant Neal Pilson, the former President of CBS Sports, said that he "doesn't see an issue with James unveiling his decision on ESPN, saying it's not unusual for a celebrity or political figure to make an announcement" on CNN's "Larry King Live" or NBC's "The Tonight Show." Pilson: "If James had gone to CNN, I am sure they would have hosted the announcement." Univ. of British Columbia journalism professor Joe Cutbirth believes that as "long as there's transparency without any preconditions, there are no ethical issues." He said, "It looks to me like ESPN is trying to do everything right" (HOLLYWOOD REPORTER, 7/8). MARKETWATCH's Jon Friedman wrote James had his "choice of how to tell the world" of his decision. Friedman: "He could have gone on 'Larry King Live' or 'Today' or '60 Minutes.' Heck, 'Meet The Press' probably would have greeted him with open arms. He could have hosted a network special in primetime" (MARKETWATCH.com, 7/7). FanHouse.com's Jay Mariotti: "Should ESPN have even taken this opportunity? My answer: Yes. If not ESPN, then TNT, somebody else does" ("Around The Horn," ESPN, 7/7).
SMART DECISION BY ESPN: In St. Petersburg, Tom Jones wrote ESPN "would be fools not to air a LeBron show." His signing is "among the biggest sports stories of the year and if James calls and offers to announce it exclusively on your station, how do you say no?" Jones: "I've taken my share of shots at ESPN for stepping over the journalistic integrity line. ... But if ESPN allows its reporters to keep working the story, why shouldn't it host a show where the official announcement will be made?" (TAMPABAY.com, 7/7). In Miami, Dan Le Batard writes tonight's "made-for-TV drama is cheesy, but ESPN couldn't turn it down." The ratings "will be huge," and if they did not "televise it, someone else will." Le Batard: "ESPN partners with leagues to cover and celebrate sports, paying for the right to have a conflict with its journalistic responsibilities, so it makes sense in trickle-down economics that at some point a player would grab the power for himself" (MIAMI HERALD, 7/8). ESPN N.Y.'s Ian O'Connor: "ESPN isn't to blame here. The network is in the business of providing programming that sports fans want to watch, and nobody doubts that sports fans sure as hell want to watch this programming" (ESPNNEWYORK.com, 7/8). In Pittsburgh, Bob Smizik: "Televising the announcement of where James will play next season is good business. People who don't even care about the NBA or basketball will watch" (POST-GAZETTE.com, 7/8). In Houston, Jerome Solomon: "Is ESPN LeBrain dead for airing a show that will get higher ratings than the World Cup recap program it was planning to air at that time? Sounds like smart business" (HOUSTON CHRONICLE, 7/8).
FROM THE INSIDE LOOKING OUT: ESPN's Michael Wilbon, who will interview James after he makes his decision as part of the net's hour-long special, said, "Any network executive that says he or she wouldn't try to get this for his or her network is a liar, plain and simple." He added, "My problem with what the network has done is sort of putting it out there 48 hours early. ... I understand you want to build viewership and there are different things in the new media age, but I would say I don’t want to undermine the reporters trying to get a scoop ... though apparently, those reporters have not been stopped or in any way hindered from doing their work in reporting stories. But this thing is now more controversial, which will attract viewers, will it not?" ("PTI," ESPN, 7/7).
THEIR EYES WERE WATCHING LEBRON: Pilson predicts that the audience for "The Decision" "could exceed the 6.8 million viewers who watched Woods' apology last February that aired on a collection of networks." Pilson: "Somebody predicted then that Tiger would get Obama-like ratings. He didn't, but LeBron might" (HOUSTON CHRONICLE, 7/8). Horizon Media researcher Brad Adgate contends that the broadcast "could attract more than the 18.1 million viewers" that watched Lakers-Celtics NBA Finals Game 7 (N.Y. POST, 7/8). The Wall Street Journal's Lee Hawkins: "It's going to be equivalent to the OJ Simpson trial verdict" ("America's Nightly Scoreboard," Fox Business, 7/7). In Raleigh, Caulton Tudor writes "more people probably will watch the signing show than will watch most of James' games with his new team" (Raleigh NEWS & OBSERVER, 7/8). In Illinois, Mike McGraw: "How many households will watch his decision Thursday? Thanks to some targeted news leaks, James and his associates have managed to make it seem as though every team he met with has a chance" (Illinois DAILY HERALD, 7/8).
Writers Feel ESPN Has Crossed Journalistic
Line By Agreeing To James' Demands
GOING TOO FAR THIS TIME: THE SPORTS NETWORK's John McMullen wrote, "In our current media culture that features the 24-7 news cycle, bloggers and Tweets, there is a fine line between a news gathering organization and an entertainment vehicle. ESPN is painfully close to fully selling out and going strictly entertainment after agreeing to televise LeBron James' dog and pony show on Thursday" (THE SPORTS NETWORK, 7/7). In Detroit, Jamie Samuelsen writes tonight's announcement is "totally open to criticism." ESPN has "long blurred the line between covering the news and making the news," but there is "no blurring here." Samuelsen: "They've leapt over the proverbial 'line'" (DETROIT FREE PRESS, 7/8). In Boston, Tony Massarotti wrote, "Like Brett Favre, James effectively owns ESPN anyway. At least now we know there is a formal business agreement between the world's most self-indulgent network and its most self-absorbed star" (BOSTON.com, 7/7). In N.Y., Phil Mushnick writes under the header, "A Truly Bad 'Decision.'" Mushnick: "It's perfect, really, LeBron James and ESPN, two latter-day kings of excess, arm-in-arm, escorting us into the second decade of the 21st century. A feast fit for fools." ESPN "drowns nearly everything it touches in excess" (N.Y. POST, 7/8). In L.A., Mark Heisler: "ESPN is ESPN, the enabler of narcissists, which is, I believe, what the E and N stand for. It's just what they do" (L.A. TIMES, 7/8).
A MATCH MADE IN HEAVEN: Magic coach Stan Van Gundy said, "It's gotten ridiculous, I think. I mean it's almost a parody of itself, this whole situation now. Come on, an hour long? OK, it takes 15 seconds to say, 'I've decided to stay in Cleveland.' But we've got another 59 minutes and 45 seconds to, what, promote LeBron James? As if we don't do that enough" (ORLANDO SENTINEL, 7/8). In Jacksonville, Gene Frenette wrote since ESPN has "given every LeBron non-news development the full-court press, it's logical that James gives the network that profits most off his image the exclusive telecast" (JACKSONVILLE.com, 7/7). In Milwaukee, Bob Wolfley notes ESPN has "contributed mightily to the 'unprecedented attention' LeBron's decision has received from the company so tirelessly in the weeks leading" up to tonight's show (MILWAUKEE JOURNAL SENTINEL, 7/8). In N.Y., Lynn Zinser: "Welcome to the new depths of absurdity courtesy of the NBA's current three-ring circus of free agency, led by LeBron James" (NYTIMES.com, 7/7). In Dallas, Kevin Sherrington: "We're used to athletes changing teams or signing big contracts or both. But for the most part, it's pretty much been limited to heavily sourced stories culminating in news conferences. No one ever thought about turning it into a variety show" (DALLAS MORNING NEWS, 7/8). In Boston, Steve Buckley writes "The Decision" is ESPN's "own version of WrestleMania." Buckley: "The difference between WWE and ESPN is that Vince McMahon has long since admitted that what he does is contrived, scripted and fake. ESPN, on the other hand, wants you to believe that they're just there to cover breaking news" (BOSTON HERALD, 7/8).
ESPN and the ACC today formally announced a 12-year rights agreement that includes exclusivity to every conference-controlled football and men's basketball game, as well as the rights to women's basketball, Olympic sports matchups and conference championships. The agreement begins in '11-12 and runs through '22-23. ESPN as part of the deal will televise the most men's basketball games ever across its various networks, including the rights to both North Carolina-Duke regular-season matchups each year. All ACC men's basketball telecasts on ESPN will be fully national, and a new Sunday franchise on ESPNU will be launched as part of the deal. A record number of ACC women's basketball regular-season games plus the entire conference tournament will be televised. The deal sees an expanded commitment to the conference's 22 sponsored Olympic sports. Raycom Sports will continue as the syndication home of the ACC for over-the-air and regional cable network distribution through a new sublicense arrangement with ESPN. Raycom will also continue to manage the ACC's official corporate partner program and the exploitation of its digital assets, including the conference's official website. Terms of the deal were not disclosed, but SportsBusiness Journal in May reported the deal was worth $155M annually (THE DAILY).
HBO To Stop Airing Heavyweight Title Bouts
Due To Dearth Of American Contenders
HBO "delivered a body blow to boxing" by announcing that it "would be withdrawing any plans to screen heavyweight title fights," according to Gareth Davies of the London TELEGRAPH. HBO Sports President Ross Greenburg said that the decision was due to the "paucity of credible American heavyweights." Greenburg: "We're out of the heavyweight division. There isn't any interest in the U.S." Davies writes the U.S. public appears "to have lost interest in a division which once [spilled] over with larger than life athletic giants who became world stars." Top Rank Chair Bob Arum said that it is "about the characters." Arum: "If the heavyweight champion of the world was LeBron James or Michael Jordan, heavyweight boxing would be flying high" (London TELEGRAPH, 7/8). Greenburg last week said, "The heavyweights have clearly lost their edge in the United States. I think we have enough stars in the lower weight divisions to get us through a down period for heavyweights. I think if we had a strong American heavyweight champion it would do wonders for American boxing, but it's just a dream at this point." Greenburg added that he "doesn't see any heavyweights HBO is interested in" other than a fight involving Wladimir or Vitali Klitschko and David Haye, "or one of those three against Tomasz Adamek." Greenburg: "Other than that, we'll take a pass. It would be great if the Klitschkos came over here and reignited some interest in this division" (ESPN.com, 7/2).
Ombudsman Says ESPN Did Not Have Any
Good Options For Dampening Vuvuzelas
In his latest contribution as ESPN Ombudsman, Don Ohlmeyer writes ESPN's FIFA World Cup coverage has resulted in "increased interest and overwhelmingly positive critical reaction" with "one notable exception -- the now infamous and persistent buzz of the vuvuzelas." Thanks to the vuvuzela, "no topic has been more buzzworthy" from the net's World Cup coverage, and many wondered "why ESPN simply didn't make it stop." While ESPN has a "few options" to reduce the vuvuzela sound, "none of the choices were good ones." Producers "could have dialed back most of the natural sound from the stadium, but there still would have been the incessant buzz -- and any sense of the electricity and excitement in the stands would be lost." Producers also "could have offered an 'announcers only' feed with no natural sound," but then the announcers "would have sounded as though they were commenting in a hollow phone booth." The net also "could have killed the natural sound from the stadium and used sound effects." Ohlmeyer: "ESPN made the right choice for the right reason on the vuvuzelas." Meanwhile, Ohlmeyer notes the World Cup has been "exciting, ratings are up dramatically over the 2006 Cup coverage and reception to the network's efforts has basically been complimentary." Ohlmeyer: "The coverage is excellent. The pictures are crystal clear and the replays appear quicker than usual -- a tribute to production's decisiveness. The announcers are enthusiastic yet restrained." There has been "appreciation for the fact that the coverage wasn't 'dumbed down,'" though when the audience "swelled from its 2.8 million average to almost 15 million for the U.S.-Ghana match, the announcers could have been a bit more inclusive and explanatory of the sport's intricacies for the non-initiated."
LOSING TRACK: Ohlmeyer noted 837,000 viewers were watching ESPN's coverage of the USA Outdoor Track & Field Championships at 9:49pm ET on June 25 when the net cut away from live coverage of the men's 5,000m "with less than two laps to go" for the "live coverage of the final three outs" of D'Backs P Edwin Jackson's no-hitter. The move was an "insulting disservice to the track audience," as nothing is "more galling for a sports fan than being engrossed in a live event only to have it hijacked in mid-flight." The offense was "compounded when, after a seven-minute baseball cut-in, the network went directly to 'Baseball Tonight,' forcing the track audience to wait another 39 minutes to see a 60-second recap of the 5,000 and results of the 100-meter dash." ESPN Senior VP/Programming & Acquisitions Len DeLuca said the net has "created a habit and a brand equity with fans knowing that ESPN will carry the ultimate moment of a breaking news story." He also cited "competition from the MLB Network, which was updating the Jackson situation throughout the game." DeLuca also said the decision to air the final outs of Jackson's no-hitter "was the right idea, but badly executed." DeLuca: "We did a disservice to the track and field fan. We went too early. We should have finished the 5K race, thrown to the bottom of the ninth, promising an update of the track immediately following the cut-in" (ESPN.com, 7/8).