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ESPN looks bad in deferring to King James

Now that LeBron James has confirmed the move to Miami that experts predicted for days, we can contemplate the larger impact from the oddest free agency announcement in sports media history.

ESPN's bloated, uncomfortable coverage of James' announcement Thursday helped dismantle what little credibility the sports channel had left after agreeing to let the basketball star choose who would interview him and which sponsors would fill the hourlong special they dedicated to his five-minute revelation, dubbed The Decision.

Even worse, some of the channel's own reporters had been saying all day James was likely going to Miami, only to backpedal just enough to maintain the suspense for viewers (ESPN NBA Insider's Chris Broussard's claim that his heart wanted James in Cleveland, but his sources said he was going to Miami was the evening's classic head fake).

Unfortunately, this hot mess of programming also highlighted the biggest danger facing modern journalism when high-profile sources take control of a news event.

As a growing number of media outlets compete for their stories, newsmakers command more power than ever to dictate how coverage unfolds. And what James' moment Thursday revealed was just how bad it could get when an outlet supposedly devoted to journalism cedes control to the star of a news event, just for exclusive rights over the revelation.

"Right now, you're seeing it at the top of the sports world, but you're going to see it trickle down to all levels," said Kendall Almerico, a Tampa-based sports agent. "If ESPN is willing to devote an hour in prime time to an athlete on his terms, any athlete would take that. And the media will play along, as long as they can make money, too."

Almerico's math is simple: In a world where superstar athletes maintain their own relationships with fans and the world through Twitter pages, websites and other social media, a star like James can release a major announcement on his own terms, anyway. Indeed, in the early days of golf star Tiger Woods' infidelity scandal, his only statements came from carefully worded releases posted to his website.

So ESPN had a strong incentive to play ball with James, even though he decreed advertising revenue from The Decision will go to the Boys and Girls Clubs of America. The sports channel still gets a piece of the notoriety, TV viewership, online traffic and media stories to follow (along with ABC's Good Morning America, which gets James' first and only broadcast interview this morning).

ESPN is a logical flash point, given the channel's embodiment of sports broadcasting's uneasy balance between journalism and entertainment. That odd balancing act surfaced again Thursday as freelance journalist Jim Gray — the guy who convinced James' people to pitch this idea to ESPN in the first place — tiptoed around the question of which NBA team the star would pick, nearly 30 minutes into the show.

So in a world where the appearance of conflicted interests is as bad as an actual conflict, isn't the damage already done for ESPN?

"We feel, journalistically, we're in pretty good shape," Norby Williamson, ESPN's executive vice president of production, told reporters during a conference call Wednesday. "LeBron's (only) in control of his own destiny; where he's going to play and what he's going to do next."

Neil Pilson, a sports television consultant and former president of CBS Sports, shrugged off the setup, saying it was a just variation of deals TV outlets develop with sports leagues all the time. "You could argue that the media, frankly, are responsible for what's happening; it was their wall-to-wall pursuit of the story that got the public worked up about this," he said.

But there are plenty more superstar athletes who might want to control their stories, too. And now they have a pretty nifty blueprint.

In the end, James' biggest contribution to the sports world might not be a championship title in Miami, but a new definition of the relationship between a superstar athlete and the press.

And the lackluster coverage that resulted for ESPN shows the damage for journalists might have only just begun.

ESPN looks bad in deferring to King James 07/08/10 [Last modified: Friday, July 9, 2010 8:12am]
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