Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Best, worst of weekend sports TV: LeBron breaks his story

Tampa Bay Times columnist Tom Jones looks back at the best and worst from a weekend of televised sports.

Best story

Perhaps the most delicious part of the breaking news that LeBron James was going back to Cleveland to continue his NBA career was who actually broke the story: LeBron James. Well, that's mostly right. While it seemed as if ESPN had 100 reporters working the story, not to mention all the other news outlets that were scrambling for the big scoop, James controlled the message by working with Sports Illustrated writer Lee Jenkins. Here's what happened: Jenkins is a longtime NBA writer for SI and has known James for years. He penned the cover story when James was named the magazine's "Sportsman of the Year'' in 2012 and wrote a piece late last year nominating James for the 2014 "Sportsman of the Year.'' Last spring, Jenkins approached his editors with the idea of writing a first-person story about James' upcoming free agency. Last week, Jenkins informed his bosses that the James story might come to fruition. It appears that James and his camp reached out to Jenkins. According to several reports, Jenkins met James in Las Vegas on Thursday.

Jenkins interviewed James and began crafting an essay that would ultimately have James' byline. Jenkins informed his bosses at Sports Illustrated that the story was coming together, but he did not inform them that James was heading back to Cleveland.

Using James' words, Jenkins wrote the essay and James was allowed to look at it and give his approval before it ran.

Only a handful of people at SI had seen the story when it was posted just after noon on Friday.

Clearly, the magazine was in a partnership with James for days and that raises some ethical questions about whether or not SI overstepped its journalistic bounds by working hand-in-hand with the subject of a story.

Personally, I think Sports Illustrated did nothing wrong. It didn't pay James. And Jenkins got the story because he developed a relationship with James over the years. That's how many stories in journalism are broken — a source trusts a reporter to tell the story the right way.

The magazine sat on the news for a while, but again, no problem with that. It had the information first, it was correct and it deserved credit for being ahead of everyone else.

Why did James break the story in the manner he did?

The guess is James learned his lesson from four years ago when he had a long, drawn-out television special on ESPN that was widely criticized for being egotistical. Perhaps he trusted Sports Illustrated and Jenkins to handle the story in such a way that it would not turn into a circus. Thus, the news came quickly and without arrogance. Just a simple essay that announced his plans.

Since the story was posted, James has been almost unanimously praised for the classy nature of his essay and the way it was announced. James deserves credit for that, but so do Jenkins and SI.

Well done.

Best coverage

ESPN had an outstanding month as the home of the World Cup and has set the bar very high for Fox, which will have the rights for the 2018 soccer tournament.

The studio show led by Bob Ley (above right) and Mike Tirico (bottom right) was terrific. Ley and Tirico are big-time pros. At first, I had some issues with the color analysts of the studio show who clearly had a rooting interest in some of the games. But once you accepted that bit of homerism, you could sift through the bias to get to some quality analysis. Plus, occasionally, it was rather amusing to see analysts upset when their home country didn't play well.

Meantime, announcer Ian Darke was brilliant throughout, and he and Steve McManaman did an outstanding job calling Sunday's final between Germany and Argentina. Darke, in particular, never hesitated to offer a bit of criticism, such as suggesting that the "reviews'' of Argentina star Lionel Messi were "not going to be very kind" after this World Cup.

ESPN also benefitted from two other important aspects.

One, the games were on this side of the globe in Brazil. The similarity in time zones made it possible for Americans to watch the games at reasonable hours. That won't be the case in four years when the World Cup is in Russia.

Secondly, the Americans were a compelling story until getting knocked out by Belgium.

If Fox hopes to do well in 2018, it needs a strong showing by the United States.

Most interesting comments

On an All-Star Game conference call last week, Fox lead baseball announcer Joe Buck had some curious remarks when asked about working with new partners Harold Reynolds and Tom Verducci.

"This has been the most enjoyable first half of a season that I can remember,'' Buck said. "I can't wait to get to the ballpark. I leave with a smile on my face. This is the best broadcast I've been part of for a lot of different reasons, but I think it certainly has to do with the two (new) analysts."

The three have meshed well together. However, some read it as a bit of a slam at his old partner, Tim McCarver, who retired after last year. Anyone who knows Buck will tell you that Buck has immense respect for McCarver. His comments likely were meant to build up Reynolds and Verducci.

The crew will work together Tuesday night in Minnesota for the All-Star Game. Expect a solid broadcast. It's a good crew, although because of a shifting schedule, games being split between Fox and Fox Sports 1 and so many other games on TV during the week, doesn't it feel like the Saturday baseball Game of the Week has lost some of its luster?

Second-half question

Attendance has long been a problem for the Rays, but fans have always pointed to strong television ratings to prove that the team has support in the area. A recent hot streak has renewed interest among the Rays faithful, but it will be interesting to see what happens to the TV ratings if the Rays fall out of the race clearly and for good shortly after the All-Star break.

Speaking of Rays on TV, announcer Dewayne Staats had a scheduled vacation day Sunday, so Todd Kalas filled in and called the game with analyst Brian Anderson.

Biggest jumps

Holly Sanders (right) has left the Golf Channel. Viewers were used to seeing her each weekday morning on Morning Drive, but she left the network last week, and while it's not confirmed, it's believed she will join Fox as an NFL reporter. Plus, Fox has golf's U.S. Open starting next year, so we can assume she will be a part of that coverage. Her replacement on Morning Drive has yet to be announced.

Meantime, NBC announced last week that it has hired NHL Network host Kathryn Tappen, who will be seen on NHL Live, Football Night in America and Notre Dame football broadcasts. She will continue to work as host of NHL Tonight on the NHL Network.

Three things that popped into my head

1. Kudos to Lightning GM Steve Yzerman for signing veteran Brenden Morrow as a free agent. Morrow is a big-time leader and character guy to have on the ice and in the locker room.

2. Whether you love or hate the Yankees, seeing pitcher Masahiro Tanaka go down with an elbow injury is awful news. Anytime a star goes down, no matter who he plays for, it's bad for any sport.

3. Have you ever seen a more exciting offseason than the one we're experiencing with the NBA?

tom jones' two cents

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