ESPN’s ‘The Decision’ scores but leaves questions in its aftermath

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He made Cleveland cry and may have dented ESPN’s credibility, but LeBron James delivered big numbers for the cable network Thursday night.

According to preliminary numbers from Nielsen, in the nation’s 56 biggest television markets, about 8 million homes tuned to ‘The Decision’ to watch the NBA superstar tell the country he was leaving the Cleveland Cavaliers to join the Miami Heat. Final numbers, which are not yet available, are expected to show that ‘The Decision’ had between 12 million and 14 million viewers.

Those numbers will be a record for a non-sporting event on ESPN. The network’s biggest numbers ever came last fall when almost 22 million people watched an epic football game between the Minnesota Vikings and the Green Bay Packers.

While the numbers are huge, Walt Disney Co.'s ESPN and James have been taking a lot of heat for the hourlong telecast, appropriately titled ‘The Decision.’ In return for revealing where he was playing next season, ESPN allowed James to dictate some of the terms of the interview. ESPN also let James’ marketing firm sell the advertising inventory for the hour, the proceeds of which were donated to the Boys & Girls Club of America.


Besides the unusual agreement, the format of the show was also blasted by some critics. James’ handpicked interviewer, veteran sports reporter Jim Gray, asked more than a dozen questions of the basketball star before finally getting around to inquiring what jersey he’d be sporting next season. Although ESPN promised that James would reveal his plans to viewers within the first ten to fifteen minutes of the show, the word Miami did not leave his mouth until about 6:27 p.m., almost 30 minutes after the special started.

Dan Patrick, a former ESPN on-air personality who now hosts his own morning radio show, was particularly harsh on his old bosses Friday morning.

‘Don’t play it like it’s ‘American Idol,’ ' he chided, adding later in his show that ‘this isn’t how we cover sports ... it was an infomercial.’

Los Angeles Times media critic James Rainey said in his Friday On the Media column that ‘The Decision’ was ‘loathsomely self-serving.’

On Friday, more debate broke out over Gray’s involvement in the special. ESPN had said when it first announced its deal with James that it was not compensating Gray for the interview.

However, ESPN has since acknowledged covering Gray’s expenses. CNBC reported that Gray was compensated for his appearance by the James camp. A spokesman for James told Company Town via e-mail that James did not receive any sort of stipend for the interview. ESPN said it was not aware if Gray was compensated by James. Efforts to contact Gray through his representatives at IMG were unsuccessful.

-- Joe Flint