NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- By now you've heard the offense against basketball star LeBron James' one-hour TV special to announce his team choice -- that it was narcissistic, sullied his brand and blurred the journalistic line for ESPN. But what you haven't heard is the defense of the man who helped put the show together: uber-agent Ari Emanuel, who says "The Decision" forwarded the paradigm for advertiser-funded programming.
In an exclusive interview with Advertising Age, Mr. Emanuel, co-CEO of the William Morris Endeavor agency, helped fill in some of the gaps on the backstory of how the program came together, and addressed the naysayers. "Everybody can say what they want -- it was the wrong decision, there was too much hoopla, whatever -- but for me it was about doing the event, getting the advertisers to participate and doing it for charity," Mr. Emanuel said. "This was a major success for advertisers, and we're getting closer to pushing the needle on advertiser-content programming."
The 60-minute special featured two presenting sponsors in Microsoft's Bing and the University of Phoenix, as well as advertisers such as State Farm, VitaminWater and McDonald's. All of them, except for the University of Phoenix, already have endorsement deals with Mr. James, who announced that he would be leaving his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers after seven seasons for the Miami Heat.
Nike and VitaminWater sibling Sprite (VitaminWater is produced by Glaceau, which is part-owned by Coke) are within Mr. James' endorsement stable but elected not to advertise and agreed to make matching contributions. That led to speculation online that some sponsors did not want to be part of the 10 minutes of national ad time on a program the Washington Post called an "orgy of excess."
|Source: Joyce Julius & Associates|
Mr. Emanuel said all sponsors who were approached had the choice to advertise on the program or contribute and did not comment further. Sprite could not be reached at press time, and Nike did not return a call for comment.
ESPN donated the block of time and agreed the ad revenue would be donated to charity. All told, the program generated $6 million in ad revenue with the biggest chunk -- some $2.5 million -- donated to the Boys & Girls Clubs of America. Ann Arbor, Mich.-based sponsorship-evaluation firm Joyce Julius & Associates said the eight brands featured in the show received $2.9 million in equivalent ad time.
Nielsen said overnight ratings for the Thursday-evening special averaged a phenomenal 7.3 in the nation's top 56 markets. The telecast peaked with a 9.6 rating from 9:15-9:30 p.m. when the program shifted to Mr. James' interview with freelance sportscaster Jim Gray and Mr. James officially made the announcement. That marks the highest non-NFL rating on ESPN this year and blew away the network's exclusive interview with shamed golfer Tiger Woods on March 21 (0.4 rating) and its interview with baseball star Alex Rodriguez in February of 2009 (0.9 rating) after he admitted using performance-enhancing drugs (for other comparisons, see chart, P. 2-3). Visitors also spent a 130 million collective minutes on espn.com on Thursday.
Ironically, the hour-long special almost never made it to ESPN. From multiple interviews with executives comes an interesting tale of how it came together.
How it began
It began when Mr. Emanuel was sitting with media mogul David Geffen at an NBA Finals game in Los Angeles last month and was approached by Mr. James' business manager, Maverick Carter, and Mr. Gray. The group talked about how best to announce Mr. James' team choice and settled on the concept of a TV show. Mr. Emanuel looped in William Morris Endeavor partner Mark Dowley, the former McCann Erickson vice chairman.
Mr. Dowley and Mr. Carter began contacting advertisers and looking for a home for a show, with the idea that the proceeds from ad revenue would go to charity. Originally, discussions were with ESPN's Walt Disney Co. sibling ABC, but a date could not be found.
The plan was then to have Mr. James make his announcement in a special on ESPN on July 14, prior to the network's annual ESPY awards show. After the announcement of where he would play next season and the conclusion of the one-hour show, Mr. James would then walk onstage during the live telecast of the 18th annual event from Los Angeles and present the night's first award.
But Mr. Emanuel and other executives indicated that the way the NBA's free agency was structured made it not suitable to wait until July 14. Players could begin negotiating at midnight July 1, but could not actually sign a contract until July 8, and NBA salary-cap considerations for each team would also play a part in where free agents would end up and what teams could afford to sign what players.
Not to mention the 24-7 media cycle would make it difficult to keep a lid on the news. On the morning of Mr. James' announcement, two media outlets reported that he booked six suites at the W Hotel South Beach this weekend to celebrate.
Once July 8 was chosen as the date, all ESPN Exec VP-Content John Skipper, ESPN/ABC Sports President-Customer Marketing and Sales Ed Erhardt and Exec VP-Production Norby Williamson needed to do was clear the space.
But even that wasn't quite so easy once the network began receiving backlash about blurring the journalistic line. AOL Fanhouse columnist Milton Kent said ESPN "traded integrity for ratings ."
"John Skipper and I had a long, long conversation about this," Mr. Emanuel said. "We went through everything. He presented all of his issues surrounding this. John Skipper went through the checklist and said they weren't doing this unless they were completely satisfied."
Mr. Williamson said it was a unique situation. "It contains newsworthy content that I think any other television or media company would love to have the opportunity to offer," he said. "We spent a lot of time vetting it out."
Mr. Emanuel did not discuss the possible Hollywood brouhaha over the fact that he and William Morris helped broker this deal when Mr. James is a client of rival Creative Artists Agency.
As to the issue of whether this will hurt Mr. James' brand, only time will tell. But the superstar and his entourage sure are taking a beating.
But not everyone agrees. "I don't think it damaged his brand," said sports-marketing expert Bob Dorfman, partner in the San Francisco agency Baker Street Partner. "Yes, there is that cynical side of it that says he didn't need to do it this way. But there was so much attention being paid to this, and so many people wanted to hear the news that TV was the most efficient."
What They're Saying About LeBron James
"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
"It's an hour-long mental masturbation about the wonder of LeBron."
--Gregg Doyel, CBSsports.com
"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
"LeBron's team wanted to keep people talking and promote his website, and really, that's what happened. The man nearly exploded Twitter and melted ESPN. He transcended free agency, the World Cup, everything."
--Bill Simmons, ESPN.com