Sports Media

This spectacle was fit for a King

By Chad Finn
Globe Staff / July 9, 2010

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If the arrangement of four certain letters were ever coincidental, it is no longer. E comes before S in ESPN. Entertainment before sports. Never more so than last night.

Though there’s the distinct possibility S now stands for spectacle.

The network’s journalistic credibility took another self-inflicted wallop at precisely 9 p.m. last night, when the LeBron James Infomercial — a one-hour program formally and pretentiously titled “The Decision’’ — required 28 minutes to reveal the news that the 25-year-old superstar was leaving his home-state Cleveland Cavaliers for the Miami Heat.

True, there’s something to be said for building suspense. But ESPN milked the moment to the point of intense aggravation. Before the announcement, there were two commercial breaks, highlights to the point of redundancy, doctored images of James in the jerseys of the six teams he’d spoken to during free agency, and a series of inane questions from James’s handpicked interviewer, Jim Gray. (“Do you still bite your fingernails?’’ Now that’s a compelling segue.)

Just when you were starting to wonder if ESPN was intent on turning this into a cliffhanger, the announcement came at 9:28 p.m. James, seated across from Gray on a small stage at the Greenwich, Conn., Boys & Girls Club, wearing a checkerboard shirt and the look of a man whose emotions were far more complicated than he’d expected, revealed his decision with a stoic look and one simple sentence: “I’m going to take my talents to South Beach and join the Miami Heat.’’

At last, the news. Gray lofted a few more questions, then turned it over to the studio crew. Stuart Scott, always an appropriate fit when it comes to narcissistic look-at-me events, served as host, and predictably, he made it about him at the end, asking James if he would be his personal coach. Jon Barry and Michael Wilbon provided reasoned analysis, though Wilbon seemed to be going for a Barbara Walters moment when he asked James if he knew his jersey was being burned in Cleveland. Reporter Chris Broussard, who continuously hedged his bets against his own report that James would join the Heat, disappeared after the announcement, no doubt to exhale.

The whole episode had the feel of some bizarre hybrid of NBA draft coverage, NCAA signing day, and the most dramatic rose ceremony ever on “The Bachelor.’’ What it did not feel like was sports journalism, even with the confirmation of news basketball fans had anticipated since James signed a three-year extension with the Cavaliers in 2007; truthfully, it was a reality show, one that just happened to feature an athlete whose self-importance apparently exceeds his otherworldly basketball talent.

If anyone on the ESPN production team had the urge to mock the absurd, they might have used “You’re So Vain’’ as the bumper music coming in and out of commercial breaks. But self-effacing humor is not their thing. Excess and promotion are their games. And so before the main event even began, ESPN had already expanded its 6 p.m. “SportsCenter’’ to three hours to sufficiently cover the magnitude of the moment, while two more “SportsCenter’’ hours immediately followed James’s revelation.

Despite the network’s dubious journalism, it’s not difficult to deduce why ESPN would be a willing accomplice, even with the ad revenue from the hour going to James’s charity of choice, The Boys & Girls Clubs of America, which James detailed at the end of the show. Last Thursday, typically a slow sports night this time of year, ESPN aired “World Cup PrimeTime’’ from 8-10 p.m. It drew a 0.4 household rating and an average of 530,000. According to AdvertisingAge, last night’s program could draw more than the 18.1 million viewers that watched Game 7 of the NBA Finals last month on ABC.

In the end, in somewhat of an upset, the newsmaker did control the message. The modern media’s real-time news cycle, which too often confirms that having a story first and having it correct are rival concepts, kept the rumor mill churning, but facts and fiction mingled together. It came as no surprise that, according to Nielsen and NM Incite, a company that measures Internet references and online “buzz,’’ the Bulls, Knicks, and Cavaliers had all been perceived as front-runners for James for at least one day in the past week.

Alan Hahn of Newsday was the first to report that James would join the Heat, tweeting the apparent scoop at slightly past midnight Wednesday. Stephen A. Smith had sources telling him the same last week. And the conventional wisdom for much of yesterday was that James would go to Miami.

But there was no confirmation from James’s camp. No reporter firmly and definitively nailed it down. The suspense lingered, right up until he confirmed that conventional wisdom was correct.

For all of its annoyances, it was just the must-see spectacle James and ESPN desired. The drama was undeniable, despite the protracted aggravation. The ratings will be huge. The song was about him.

An athlete turning a career move into a made-for-television event? Given the buzz it generated, it won’t be the last time.

Your move, Favre.

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