SBD/Issue 204/Sports Media

Decision Day: Is ESPN Crossing The Line With LeBron James Special?


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).'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" (, 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" (, 7/7).'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?" (, 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" (, 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" (, 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" (, 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" (, 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" (, 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).

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