To Get LeBron, ESPN Cedes Control Over Ads, News

James Tells Sports Network Which Reporter Can Ask Him to Reveal 'The Decision'

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Did ESPN just get "mediajacked"?

Normally, an event as important and interesting as basketball wunderkind LeBron James announcing what team he has chosen to play for would be a national, even global, event -- with coverage supplied by hundreds of different media outlets.

Credit: Phil Ellsworth
Come Thursday, in prime time no less, ESPN gets the exclusive. But to do it, the Disney sports network appears to have sacrificed revenue -- and even some journalistic control by letting Mr. James choose one of his interviewers -- in exchange for the ratings and buzz the event is likely to provide.

Commercial revenue from the special program -- which is being called "The Decision" -- will be donated to Boys & Girls Club of America, a charity that ESPN and Disney also support. The ESPN show will be "co-presented" by the University of Phoenix and Microsoft's Bing search engine, with Coca-Cola's VitaminWater and McDonald's also lending a sponsorship hand. Nike and Coca-Cola's Sprite are also making contributions, a fact one might theorize could come to light during the airing of Mr. James' special.

The only commercial time in the hour-long special not featuring Mr. James's sponsors is the local time designated to cable and satellite operators, said Norby Williamson, ESPN's exec VP-production. Mr. James' representatives approached the network with the idea, he said.

ESPN said the deal was not equivalent to paying the athlete for the scoop.

'Times change'
"Times change and needs change and people's desires change and other parameters are put on things," said Mr. Williamson, but ESPN seems to think the "unique" arrangement works both from a business and editorial standpoint. "We ultimately had a decision to make. This event could have ended up on the internet. It could have ended up on another network. This event was going to end up somewhere, so we had a decision to make as a corporation and a news entity. Are we comfortable with the parameters that have been laid out?"

ESPN could be giving up a lot from an ad-revenue perspective. In a recent post via Twitter, media-researcher Brad Adgate suggested the ESPN special featuring Mr. James "could attract more viewers than the 7 game NBA Finals last month on ABC (18.1 million)." Mr. Adgate is senior VP-research at independent Horizon Media.

And the network is allowing Mr. James to choose the journalist to whom he reveals his selection. He picked freelance sports reporter Jim Gray, a former ESPN staffer. ESPN NBA analyst Michael Wilbon will also interview Mr. James.

Giving away valuable ad dollars in exchange for the chance to broadcast a popular sports, news or celebrity event seems unlikely to spread quickly. It's remarkable to see a TV network give up so much ground. Yes, it's nice to give to charity, and ESPN will have hours of LeBron coverage on expanded editions of "SportsCenter" that will likely secure higher-than-usual ratings for which it can charge marketers a pretty penny. And not just any celebrity could secure this deal. "This is unique, but it's unique because there's an insatiable appetite for LeBron," said Mr. Williamson.

But the degree to which the network is letting the subject of its coverage outline the business of the event is, quite frankly, stunning.

Setting a precedent?
Could ESPN actually be setting some sort of precedent? Come to think of it, shouldn't Brett Favre have done what Mr. James is doing? Should Tom Brady have held such a TV event to announce his return to play after suffering a devastating knee injury in 2008? Might Tiger Woods keep this idea in mind the next time he wants to address the public?

And if this works, who's to say the latest reality star, C-list actress, attention-starved politician or self-important bloviator won't try to get their own charity-minded moment in the sun? Might E! take the bait if Lindsay Lohan wanted to give the network an exclusive in which she broadcasts her first moments getting out of jail -- with commercial time to promote her latest business venture?

ESPN has long been given credit for creating new models for the viewing, televising, analyzing and hyping of American sport. But the outlet's new LeBron James plan might seed thorny issues for the news business down the road.

ESPN wants you to wait, and definitely watch, before you judge. "Let's let the body of work speak for itself, and maybe not the perception of the body of work going in,"said Mr. Williamson.

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