In devoting one hour of prime-time coverage to LeBron James Thursday night in its “The Decision” special, ESPN further blurred the lines between entertainment and sports journalism. The network effectively ran a 60-minute ad for the LeBron James brand that was less journalism and more production – despite that at its core, this was about a huge story in the sports media world.
ESPN reporter Jim Gray appeared to read off a script of questions, failing to follow up on key points, which protected James from addressing difficult issues. At one point James said “I never wanted to leave Cleveland,” but Gray never pressed James to reconcile that statement with his decision to leave. Later, during Michael Wilbon’s Q&A with the basketball star, James said his decision was not about money, something Wilbon accepted at face value. Yet arguably, moving to a bigger media market where he will have better opportunity to bring visibility to his personal brand will earn him much more money in the long run, issues that were not discussed either. Further, the “special” was sponsored by Vitamin Water, one of James’ major personal sponsors. Each commercial break featured ads starring James resulting in one straight hour of devotion to the player.
Still, by leaving his hometown and disappointing several other major cities (notably Chicago and New York), LeBron James finished the “special” not necessarily in the best graces outside of Miami. ESPN helped out once again, dishing out another assist by allowing James to promote a large donation to the Boys & Girls Club. Certainly this donation is a wonderful gift, but in the context of the announcement, and at a time where James will feel some immediate “heat” from Cleveland fans, the additional airtime arguably helped him do some initial “damage control” in this emotional moment, capping off one of the longest sports advertorials we’ve ever seen.