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
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
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
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
"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
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
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
--Paul Daugherty, Cincinnati Enquirer
"It's an hour-long mental masturbation about the wonder of
--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,
--Bill Simmons, ESPN.com