As you might recall seeing or hearing, the much-hyped, professional basketball star, LeBron James, formerly of the Cleveland Cavaliers, decided to take “his game to South Beach” to join the Miami Heat. Not only did James land a lucrative six-year, $110 million contract, but he managed to pull-off something never witnessed before in sports… his own primetime, hour-long special to announce which team he would join next season – on the cable sports giant, ESPN.
The televised special, “The Decision,” was filled with big name sponsors such as Microsoft, VitaminWater, McDonalds and others. To James’s credit (kind-of), he donated $2.5 million of the $6 million his program generated to the Boys & Girls Club of America. But, as Tony Massarotti of the Boston Globe pointed out, “If LeBron truly wanted to do something for the Boys & Girls Clubs of America, he didn’t have to funnel them the money of advertisers and sponsors. He could have signed a blank check.” Unfortunately for James, this selfless approach would not have provided the visibility and celebrity status that he constantly seeks.
James’s narcissistic, self-promotional program – that was thinly veiled under the premise of philanthropy – opened him up to an immense wave of criticism and raised several ethics issues for ESPN. To that end, the cable sports channel prolonged the announcement for nearly 25 minutes and viewers had to endure Jim Gray – James’s hand-picked interviewer – asking nearly six minutes of fluff questions before asking James where he would play next season. One of Gray’s spine tingling questions was, “Do you still bite your nails, LeBron?” (Yeah, it was that bad.)
One of the ethical issues raised is what Gray got out of the deal. ESPN says the network didn’t pay Gray. However, it appears that James’s camp and his representing agency William Morris did. Gray responded to the allegations that he only received a “small stipend” for his expenses and that he did not make any money off of the LeBron-a-thon.
Moreover, what about his hand-picked interviewer? Obviously, this was all about control. This PR tactic made the announcement seem like a lame infomercial, instead of an actual news event being covered by objective reporting.
The bottom line is James looked to strengthen his brand and image, but he likely suffered long-term, significant damage with this media stunt. Moreover, ESPN, the self proclaimed “worldwide leader in sports” took even more damage for blurring the lines of journalism and advertising. Both made poor PR/branding decisions by agreeing to this program and it will haunt them for quite some time.
What They’re Saying (excerpts from a recent AdWeek story)
“You can’t spell James without ‘me,’ and it’s more difficult to defend James for this arrogant exercise than it is to defend him in the pick and roll.”
–Ethan Skolnick, South Florida Sun-Sentinel
“James isn’t an athlete. That’s too confining. He is a ‘brand.’ So while some of us shake our heads at the nonsense of turning a career decision into a prime-time TV production, others of us marvel at the way LeBron is playing the game. And we’re not talking basketball.”
–Paul Daugherty, Cincinnati Enquirer
“You want to give to charity, quietly write a check. Don’t get a network to do it for you so it gets to pump its shows and you get to shower yourself in international coverage — while calling it philanthropy. The NBA has embarrassed itself here. The media have embarrassed themselves. And a guy who calls himself ‘King’ may be beyond embarrassment, which is truly embarrassing.”
–Mitch Albom, Detroit Free Press