SBD/Issue 204/Sports Media

Decision Day: LRMR Created ESPN-LeBron Special, Picked Jim Gray

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). 

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