Early reports had ESPN covering the big announcement on where the superstar plans to play ball next season. But it's waaaay more involved than that. James has selected who will interview him tomorrow night (former ESPN reporter Jim Gray), and what commercials will be running during the hour-long special (University of Phoenix, Microsoft, McDonald's, Nike, Vitamin Water and Sprite). All the sponsors are making donations on behalf of James to the Boys and Girls Club of America; ESPN is handling production costs. In essence, it's an infomercial for Lebron James. ESPN goes along because it guarantees a lot of eyeballs. From Ad Age:
ESPN said the deal was not equivalent to paying the athlete for the scoop. "Times change and needs change and people's desires change and other parameters are put on things," said [Norby Williamson, ESPN's exec VP-production], 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?"
You have to wonder what would make ESPN uncomfortable - Lebron being interviewed by his mother? Tiger Woods got a lot of heat for his televised mea culpa last winter in which no questions were allowed, but in this new era of athlete orchestration, Lebron would seem to be breaking new ground. As you might guess, there's a bit of tut-tutting by journalism profs about the arrangement, which I'm sure has James in a panic.