King James and Journalism: 2010
By Evan Weiner
July 8, 2010
(New York, N. Y.) -- The National Basketball Association is a “players” league. The players are the boss and coaches and general managers don't have that much leverage. After all it is easier to replace a coach or a GM than a player but that could be said of any sport. But now certain NBA players have usurped the media. This isn't going to be a harangue because Lebron James' twitter site or his website. That's business. But working journalists should be appalled that Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh decided to tell the world they signed with the Miami Heat on what amounted to nothing more than an infomercial on ESPN and that ESPN agreed to Lebron James' request to get a prime time slot on a Thursday night in July to announce where he plans to play in 2010 and beyond.
The ESPN-Lebron James co-production of "The Decision" should send a message to journalists and media companies. You are not welcomed at our party anymore or at least Lebron James' party.
Disney's ESPN does reap some benefits being Lebron James' own personal network. They will get more eyeballs than normal for a Thursday night in July and James, Wade and Bosh have to give the network favorite nation status whenever they want their message out on ESPN. The Boys and Girls Club will get exposure and some funding because Lebron's rules apply. It's the Lebron Show except he didn't buy the time. The Walt Disney Company is giving him the time on ESPN.
It is easy to dismiss this as just sports and ESPN does stand for Entertainment and Sports Programming Network. But journalists have lost control of their business although it should as no surprise. Ross Perot had a very comfortable spot on Larry King's CNN show when he ran for President in 1992. Politicians have gone on the Tonight Show to announce that they are seeking some form of office. Hillary Clinton sidestepped the media when she announced her candidacy for President in 2007 on her website. Oprah is a major stop for people running for office or for others looking to repair their public image.
Lebron James is bigger than sports, the media "experts" have concluded. Lebron James, Chris Bosh and Dwayne Wade are entertainers, nothing more and nothing less. They are relevant now but no more so than other jocks in other eras during their primes except they now control the message and the messenger delivery system and that's not good for entire journalism community.
Nothing against Michael Wilbon, he has a job to do which is playing the role of emcee in the greatest show on earth. Wilbon has ceased being a journalist and is a straight man in a comedy act. Journalists won't complain about the "new normal" for fear of being shut out of the "inner circle" whether it’s Lebron James-Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh or the NBA itself.
There should be more than a bit of anger directed towards Lebron, Wade and Bosh at the headquarters of Time Warner and Turner Sports, one of the NBA's cable TV partners. They were passed over by Wade, Bosh and James and they are NBA rights holders and pay hundreds of millions of dollars for that right and some of that cash goes to Lebron, Wade and Bosh. Time Warner should show backbone and ignore the story on CNN, the company's signature news station, and all other Time Warner platforms. Sean McManus at CBS should tell his boss Sumner Redstone that CBS News and Sports isn't interested in Wade, Bosh and James. Dick Ebersol should inform his boss at NBC, General Electric CEO Jeffrey Immelt that NBC would rather cover Piers Morgan deciding who should move on to the next round on America's Got Talent and tell Lorne Michaels that Lebron James is no longer welcomed on Saturday Night Live. Ruppert Murdoch should not bother putting the story on FOX News Channel, FOX Sports or in the Wall Street Journal or the New York Post. Bill Keller should find some backbone and leave it out of the New York Times and the same should be true at other newspapers and news radio outlets.
The radio sports talk shows, the network news shows have been played for fools by Wade/Bosh and James.
Lebron James not only is getting prime time on ESPN but he or someone in his circle handpicked a reporter, Jim Gray, to be part of what really looks like a circus side show on ESPN. All the rules of journalism have been broken on this.
Welcome to the 21st century where the narrative is controlled tightly by the person under scrutiny.
This is sports and a good many reporters are basically extensions of leagues and teams public relations departments anyway. Whitey Herzog, who is entering the Baseball Hall of Fame later this summer, once said that the sportswriters (around baseball) are real baseball men. Former baseball manager John McNamara felt the same way. Sports reporters have in the past have taken a tape recorder to the head (Kansas City Royals Manager Hal McRae threw a tape recorder in frustration and the writer incredibly took one for the team), a Toronto reporter after being pushed by Toronto Maple Leafs coach Pat Quinn refused to press charges against Quinn because he didn't want to do anything to get in the way of the Maple Leafs playoffs run.
(In 1983, Boston manager Ralph Houk, stripped down to his underwear, chased me and yelled at me in the Boston clubhouse at Yankee Stadium after being questioned about the Red Sox thin pitching--years later Houk told me, it was just part of the job, no hard feelings. Reporters are supposed to be yelled at and in some cases physically abused. It is the jock world. I was also banned from the Edmonton Oilers locker room in 1983 by Glen Sather and Bill Tuele during the finals because I asked too many tough questions of Sather as his team was losing in the playoffs. As a peace offering Tuele mailed me an Edmonton Oilers hockey puck.)
So it should be no surprise that no one has suggested to let Wade, Bosh and James do their announcements on their websites or on twitter. Their message will go directly to whoever wants them.
Don't expect to McManus, Ebersol, Murdoch (or FOX's Ed Goren) or the Time Warner gang to turn their collective backs on Wade, Bosh and James. Miami Heat fans could care less about the media's feelings nor should they. But there really needs to be a change in the culture of the media in America. Journalists need to take back their business just like NBA owners might during the next collective bargaining agreement.
The NBA free agent season is a story and will have some repercussions in the next collective bargaining agreement. NBA Commissioner David Stern contends the league's owners might have lost up to $400 million during the past season yet the league has increased the salary cap that teams must commit to salaries to $58 million annually. Stern has also claimed the league owners lost $200 million a year collectively in the first four years of the present bargaining agreement (2006, 2007, 2008 and 2009). The players get 57 percent of basketball related income.
The present collective bargaining agreement ends following the 2011 season.
Three years ago, Memphis Grizzlies' majority owner, Michael Heisley, was not a happy camper. Yet despite the economic downturn in 2008 and less than ideal economic conditions in the Memphis market, Hesiley just gave Rudy Gay is huge contract, a five year $80 million contract as part of the free agent class of 2010. Heisley had the cash to pay Gay but is Heisley a happy camper in 2010 or is he still an owner looking for change?
He is probably looking for change.
In 2006, Heisley was unsuccessful in his effort to sell his share of the basketball franchise to investors; his team finished with the NBA's worst record, and his business is not thriving financially — in 2007 the Grizzlies ranked last in attendance among National Basketball Association teams. Moreover, Heisley cannot count on the kind of television revenue that is available to bigger markets such as New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago.
Four years ago, Heisley became a proponent of adopting revenue sharing practices in the NBA that would mirror those of the National Football League and Major League Baseball. But there has been scant support for any proposals to reconsider the NBA's financial policies, Heisley has been waiting for change for a long time. More likely, he will need the backing of Stern, who could go a long way in helping to convince big market owners such as the Knicks' James Dolan, the Lakers' Jerry Buss, and the Bulls' Jerry Reinsdorf that it is in the league's best interests to devise an equitable revenue-sharing plan. One that would allow small-market teams like the Grizzlies to keep up with those in the larger markets.
Heisley's wait could be over by summer 2011.
During an interview in May 2007 with this columnist, Heisley went on record about the need for an effective revenue-sharing plan in the NBA.
On September 29, 2006, Heisley, and the owners of small market teams in New Orleans, Milwaukee, Salt Lake City, Portland, Charlotte, Minnesota, and Indianapolis, sent Stern a letter asking for assistance: "If appropriately managed teams can't break even, let alone make a profit, we have an economic system that requires correction. The needed correction is serious revenue sharing not just modest revenue assistance and we urge you to address this issue on an urgent basis this year," the letter read. The correspondence prompted little, if any, league action, according to Heisley.
"Last year, (2006) we had the perfect storm and things just went wrong," said Heisley, who failed to sell his 70% percent stake in the franchise last winter.
"We lost the support of the fans for whatever reason it was. All I am trying to say is that if I knew what it was, I would fix it, but I don't know completely why we lost so much of it. I think we can get it back. If we can get it back to the level we had before, then I think it's a reasonable fan base to be in the middle of the pack [and] in the smallest market in the NBA."
But fan base is not the real problem. With limited resources, Heisley cannot afford the cost of additional assistant coaches, public relations and sales representatives, and other personnel that might bolster the business aspect of the franchise. And the lack of a profitable television market that generates revenue to cover increased operating costs means the business will likely continue to suffer.
Heisley's Grizzlies actually fail on two of three prerequisites for a healthy franchise: Television revenues are slim, and Memphis doesn't offer much in the way of corporate support, since there are not many Fortune 500 companies operating in the city. Federal Express' purchase of naming rights to the city owned arena, and the presence of the founder of AutoZone, J.R. "Pitt" Hyde, who is a partner in the team's ownership, have been sources of revenue for the Grizzlies, but there is not much else.
Heisley remains unapologetic about dashing off that owners' letter to Stern. "I think the NBA is way behind the times in that area," Heisley said. "I think if you look at the NFL and how successful they have been, how they spread the championship around to smaller market teams, big market teams. I have franchise companies in my business and the judge of the franchise is how all the franchises are doing and the strength of a franchise is how the weakest is doing, not the strongest."
"We get 100% of the [national] television revenue [from Disney's ESPN and Turner's TNT, as well as other broadcast properties], I think, but then we don't get a lot of the sales that take place overseas. For example, we get nothing outside of our territories when [Stern] sells our jerseys. (Ex-Memphis now Lakers player) Pau Gasol is extremely popular in Spain, I don't know how much he sells, but I get nothing in Spain. The money goes to the league and they use it for whatever they choose to use it for to run the league."
In 2007, Heisley said, “I would say, a significant percentage of the teams in our league are struggling financially."
So it has come down to this. ESPN and Lebron James are teaming up to make a major announcement. The rules of journalism have gone out the window. The NBA Free Agent Carnie Show will probably lead some NBA owners to close down the factory next year but will it lead journalists and media companies to take back journalism? The answer is probably no. After all, Lebron makes good TV.
Evan Weiner is an author, radio-TV commentator and speaker on "The Politics of Sports Business" and can be reached at email@example.com