Trumpets didn’t blare and a proclamation didn’t scroll at the Boys & Girls Club of America in Greenwich, Conn.
But the long-awaited decree by LeBron James that he would be leaving the Cleveland Cavaliers, the team he toiled for during his first seven years in the NBA, and joining fellow free agents, Olympic teammates and buddies Chris Bosh and Dwayne Wade in South Beach and the Miami Heat was a spectacle nonetheless.
The July 8 circus was orchestrated by uber agent Ari Emanuel and Maverick Carter, the CEO of LRMR, James’s marketing company. Carter reached out to ESPN for a “time buy model,” securing the hour (it turned out to be 75 minutes). But the sports programmer didn’t charge for the event, which was underwritten by a number of companies, including some LeBron pitches for, with the proceeds going to benefit the Boys & Girls Club of America.
The arrangements brought into question the journalistic, news and advertising practices of ESPN. Further, Jim Gray, handpicked by James’s camp and LRMR, conducted the interview more like a court jester, prolonging the answer that was the only reason anybody was tuning in for in the first place. Gray’s script didn’t elicit James’s Miami call until close to 9:30 p.m., well after the first-quarter hour reveal that ESPN had promised during a conference call with reporters on July 7.
Nevertheless, the special played large, drawing a 7.3 rating in Nielsen overnights (more complete data wasn’t available at presstime), a 9.6 in the show’s second 15 minutes when James confirmed his South Beach intentions that had already been widely reported. The performance marked the highest overnight rating for any non-NFL ESPN program in 2010 and was the top-rated program in all of television, cable or broadcast on Thursday. (Scheduling for Brett Favre: The Return Again has not yet been finalized; check your ESPN listings in August.)
Moreover, James must have felt gratified that his July 8 Decision dwarfed the audience for a couple of other interviews with high-profile athletes Tiger Woods on March 21, 2010 and Alex Rodriguez on Feb. 9, 2009 which together could only summon a combined 1.3 metered market rating during their runs on SportsCenter.
It’s good to be the would-be king on TV, because in David Stern’s court, Kobe The Mamba remains the unquestioned ruler.
In Cleveland and thereabouts, many of James’s former witnesses no longer view him quite as royally. There were reports of ex-members of the kingdom burning No. 23 jerseys, and spouting profanities and other epithets at their once “Chosen One” from nearby Akron.
But rants by Cavaliers’ kingpin Dan Gilbert — one another sports owner from Cleveland, namely George S. Steinbrenner, never approached — did them all one better. Fulminating on the club’s Web site and in interview with the Associated Press, Gilbert questioned his former vassal’s loyalty, character and whether he had quit on the team. Gilbert decreed, in block caps, that his club would win an NBA title before the James gang will in Miami.
Time will tell about that and whether any other players would want to play for the Cavs given Gilbert’s explosion, an angry outburst that certainly reflected the opinions of long-suffering Cleveland fans, but also smacked of a rich guy not getting his way. If LeBron was all that, why did the Cavs continue to pursue him?
As for TV, expect ESPN, ABC and TNT to schedule the Heat as many times as their national contracts allow. And guess what team fans are going to select to watch on NBA TV. This could be like The Beatles or at least the rock tour that was the second of Michael Jordan’s threepeats in Chicago. The question is who Pat Riley can get to play Ringo in Miami?
The Nielsens also will chronicle a ratings’ rise for Sun Sports, which holds the cable TV rights to Heat games, and a fall for Fox Sports Ohio now that James is no longer holding court for the Cavs.
Elsewhere, James no doubt lost followers in Chicago, New York, New Jersey and Los Angeles as well. Those NBA franchises met with LeBron and his reps during his free-agency courtship.
With his all-about-me TV special, playoff failures and third wheel mentality, James and his visions of his billion brand, now subject to how Wade and Bosh perform as well, doesn’t appear nearly as regal as he once did.