The real deal

Shaquille O'Neal's legendary NBA career is flawed by one statistic: free throws. He has a .528 average, meaning he misses a lot of them.

"There are two classes of male," O'Neal said the other day. "The great athlete and the guy who sits on the couch and thinks it's easy and saying, for example, when I miss a free throw, 'I know I could do that.' "

From that thought was born ABC's "Shaq Vs.," the latest in a string of sports-star reality shows. Tonight's premiere has the Cleveland Cavaliers center turning to football.

"You know," O'Neal said, "you sit there thinking, 'I could throw a football as far as Ben Roethlisberger.' "

You'll have to watch to see if he can. And that, of course, is the whole point: ratings.

Dan Durbin, a professor at USC's Annenberg School of Communications who specializes in pop culture and sports media, isn't surprised at the proliferation of such sports-star shows scattered across network and cable television.

"Reality shows are relatively inexpensive to produce," he said. "And athletes provide television pop."

The sports-star craze began in earnest with the summer 2005 launch of "Dancing With the Stars," a ratings -- and revenue -- powerhouse for ABC from the get-go.

The show began with one athlete, boxer Evander Holyfield, who lost. But athletes have won five of the last six.

On Monday, "Dancing With the Stars" said its ninth season will include three more sports names -- former Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Michael Irvin, Olympic swimming gold medalist Natalie Coughlin and mixed martial arts star Chuck Liddell.

The show also will have one who dissed a sports star -- model Joanna Kruppa, who gained fame this summer by calling out NFL bad boy Terrell Owens for being a bad partner on ABC's "The Superstars."

Oh, and Owens? He has "The T.O. Show." Cameras follow the NFL star as he drops $137,000 on earrings and drives around in Bentleys.

HBO, meanwhile, is ready for Week 2 of "Hard Knocks," which chronicles the sad-sack Cincinnati Bengals through training camp. The Bengals already lost a tight end to a torn Achilles'. Watch him cry!

Will Staeger, an executive producer of O'Neal's show, isn't surprised that sports stars are able to bring in viewers.

"You see your heroes up close and personal instead of through a football helmet or on a basketball court," he said. "There isn't a million dollars at stake, maybe not even a continued career at stake, but we enjoy seeing the passion of an athlete in a different venue."

Durbin has two more reasons such shows work so well.

"Athletes have a built-in audience," he said. "Second, athletes have overblown personalities. Reality shows love extreme characters. For example with Terrell Owens, you're seeing extreme outrageous behavior. And that's the point. You want the situation, whatever that situation is, to explode."

Bob Horowitz, a former executive with IMG who now heads Juma Entertainment and who produced the summer series "The Superstars," said "Dancing With the Stars" helped make athletes sellable and also comfortable with stepping into the reality show forum.

"You had guys like Emmitt Smith and Warren Sapp going on and not being embarrassed and doing well and gaining an audience outside the traditional football fan," Horowitz said. "I think that has made it easier for these other shows."

Former USC football star Keyshawn Johnson has embraced reality shows as a creator and star of the A&E; show "Keyshawn Johnson: Tackling Design." Yes, the big football player makes over rooms and tells homeowners they need a "drape wall," or a room that looks, as Johnson said, "like a hotel lounge." The drama here involves the poor homeowner who can't say no.

Johnson is developing two more reality shows: "Game Over" will explore the lives of professional athletes when retirement arrives and "Big Man on Campus" will follow prominent high school football stars through their senior season.

"I think it's just natural for athletes, being in front of the camera, so the transition to the reality shows is pretty easy," Johnson said.

He watches "Real Housewives of Atlanta," where two of the wives are either married to or recently divorced from former NFL players.

"That show is funny," he said. "It's just so outrageous and that's what they want, the producers and the cast. They want it to be out there."

These and other reality shows might not hit the "Dancing With the Stars" numbers, but that doesn't mean they aren't successful. "Real Housewives" on Bravo has been seen in an average of 2.25 million homes this year.

High ratings may be easier for O'Neal, who will swim against Michael Phelps, box against Oscar De La Hoya, play beach volleyball against gold medalists Kerri Walsh and Misty May-Treanor and compete in baseball against Albert Pujols.

He tried to use Twitter to recruit David Beckham and Lance Armstrong.

Neither signed up for Season 1, though O'Neal said, "Don't say anything bad about Lance. He's a great man," while dissing Beckham's lack of courage. So one might suspect Armstrong could make an appearance if there is a Season 2.

Mark Andrejevic, an associate professor at the University of Iowa and author of the book "Reality TV: The Work of Being Watched," says sports stars and reality shows are a perfect blend.

"Sports figures are perceived as fascinating because of their super-human achievement," he said. "Reality TV brings that superhumanness down to earth. If you see Shaq stumble while throwing a football, that appeals to people. The athlete then seems more like us."

Even stumbling, O'Neal may not seem more like us, but he is sure his five-week summer run will lead to a Season 2.

"I've always said I'm not a superstar," he said,

"I'm just a regular guy who won the athletic lottery. Many times. So my approach is different. I'm having a great time and doing something interesting. Not like some of those other shows."

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diane.pucin@latimes.com

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