When he reveals the next chapter in his celebrated pro basketball career on national television Thursday, LeBron James will finally end the frenzied pop culture speculation that set Twitter, the national media and sports news networks ablaze for the last several weeks.
But the superstar free agent's unusual announcement arrangement with ESPN — complete with a glitzy one-hour prime-time special that promises to devote the advertising proceeds to charity — is already raising eyebrows for its infomercial-like feel and its apparent creation of a new standard for a star breaking his or her own news.
ESPN will air "The Decision," a live 6 p.m. Pacific time show in which James is set to unfurl his future with maximum fanfare. One of the two commercial presenters, Microsoft's Bing search engine, which described itself in a news release as the "official decision engine of lebronjames.com," said its sponsorship would benefit Boys & Girls Clubs of America, but organizers would not reveal exactly how much money was earmarked for charity.
Producers will have the tricky task of filling a 60-minute program with what essentially amounts to 30 seconds of news that will quickly spread across the Internet and other media. But the fact ESPN, one of the most-watched cable networks in the U.S., would turn over a premium program spot to one of its most aggressively covered stars could be seen as a turning point in the relationship between mega-celebrities and perpetually ratings-hungry media.
The decision of ESPN — which delivers sports news as well as highly rated event telecasts — to let James dictate the terms and personnel behind the interview raised a red flag in journalism circles. "It crosses a line whether it is a donation or a direct payment to LeBron James," said Chris Harper, an associate professor of journalism at Temple University.
In a conference call with reporters Wednesday, ESPN executive Norby Williamson promised a telecast "that will transcend just the sports world."
TV has long been used for big sports announcements, such as prep star signings and Heisman Trophy winners. But Andrew Billings, a professor and sports media expert at Clemson University, said the LeBron-ESPN deal scales new heights.
"Nothing matches the magnitude of LeBron's one-hour special," Billings wrote in an e-mail. "Of all the team sports in America, basketball is the one in which a single player can influence a team's success the most."
Some experts see the ESPN special as the fitting culmination of a harried, Internet-driven news cycle in which every bit of LeBron gossip, no matter how speculative, trivial or ill-informed, has found its way on to Twitter and elsewhere. "Every single twist and turn in this soap opera has found its way past the traditional filter of news organizations," said Timothy Franklin, director of the National Sports Journalism Center at Indiana University.
Assuming ESPN and James' handlers can keep the secret intact until show time — a big if these days — the ratings payoff could be huge. James, 25, a two-time most valuable player, is the biggest star to become an NBA free agent since Shaquille O'Neal signed with the Lakers in 1996.
Last week, with the sports media hyperventilating about his next move in earnest, the former No. 1 draft pick — who signed a $90-million Nike endorsement deal even before his pro debut in 2003 — met with six teams that hoped to sign him as a free agent. That list included the Cleveland Cavaliers, James' current team, whose bosses are desperate to hang on to him (their pitch included a $300,000 video plea) after he helped lead the team to consecutive playoff appearances. The others were the Chicago Bulls, New Jersey Nets, Miami Heat, New York Knicks and Los Angeles' own long-suffering Clippers.
The deal for the unprecedented TV special took root last week, when Maverick Carter, James' longtime friend and business manager, pitched the idea to ESPN, a unit of the Walt Disney Co. Although the network's respected brand and broad viewership gives wide reach to Camp LeBron, it's clear that the stars and his handlers will retain most of the creative and financial control. ESPN, which is paying the production costs for the telecast, is giving up all of its commercial time for the hour — worth about $1 million, according to a source familiar with the matter — which will be sold by James' marketing company and given to the Boys & Girls Clubs. In addition to Bing, University of Phoenix and McDonalds will also buy ad time; Nike and Sprite are also making donations for the show but won't air ads during the telecast.
The cable channel also let James pick his interviewer, veteran sports journalist and former ESPN reporter Jim Gray, who will chat with James about his decision early in the show, with a fuller follow-up from ESPN's Michael Wilbon.
"The intention is to do it early on," Mike Soltys, a network spokesman, said of the signing announcement. "Get the interview with him and then analyze what it means to the NBA."
ESPN defended its decision to give James such free rein over the channel, although a senior network executive acknowledged the arrangement has some "gray areas."
In a perfect world, "maybe we don't draw it up exactly like this," said ESPN's Williamson, who is overseeing the telecast. However, Williamson said the network does not believe its arrangement with James is tantamount to paying for an interview.
"We're comfortable asking ourselves, 'Are we doing the right thing?' " Williamson said.
Nevertheless, James' decision to take his news to ESPN was something of a slap in the face to the basketball league's own cable network channel, NBA TV. League officials pointedly declined to comment when news of the ESPN deal surfaced.
"The big loser in this is NBA TV," said Timothy Franklin, director of the National Sports Journalism Center at Indiana University. Referring to James, he added, "I suppose he may get a phone call from [NBA Commissioner] David Stern."
But Billings said the NBA may want to hold its fire, as the ESPN show marks a high point in the league's ongoing quest to make basketball a year-round, culturally pervasive sport.
"While I'm sure they'd love to have it on their own network, it's also in their best interest to have the announcement reach as wide an audience as possible," he said. "ESPN reaches millions more homes than the NBA network, so of any cable outlets, ESPN offers the greatest market penetration. It's the biggest cable stage, and the NBA is occupying it on a July evening. That doesn't happen too often."
Times staff writers Mike Breshahan, Lisa Dillman, Broderick Turner, Barry Stavro and Dawn Chmielewski contributed to this report.