Must-see TV risks hurting LeBron's reputation

LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers reacts LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers reacts during action against the Boston Celtics in Game Three of the Eastern Conference Semifinals. (May 7, 2010) Photo Credit: Getty Images

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John Jeansonne Newsday columnist John Jeansonne.

Jeansonne has been a reporter in Newsday’s sports department since 1970 and has covered 11 Olympic Games and ...

This may be the point where sports observers, with no connection to the sappy New York City wooing campaign and with only passing interest in NBA free agency, are moved to shout, "C'mon, LeBron!"

An hour television special for LeBron James to announce where he intends to play ball next season? "Pure ego," a majority of voters in a Cleveland online poll declared yesterday. (By contrast, only a tiny percentage - 4.5 - called it a "wise business move.")

"My instinct," said NYU sports management professor Robert Boland, "is that I'm a little appalled by this. I think this is a little too much. God knows what the hour is going to contain."

Then again, Boland said, "I'm probably going to have to watch" when James TV replaces regular ESPN programming Thursday night from 9 to 10. (Originally scheduled in that time slot was a second hour of "World Cup prime time.") What potentially could stir a sense of civic betrayal in Cleveland, should the two-time NBA Most Valuable Player choose to leave his professional home of seven years, nevertheless is evidence of James' enormous leverage.

"Every athlete has a limited period of time to cash in and maximize his income," said Boland, a former sports agent. "I'm not sure LeBron has been the best player of his era, but he's the first one to get a prime-time special. He's been, at all times, about marketing and the manipulation of his public image, and this clearly is an extension of that."

However stage-managed the event, even Cleveland fans like attorney Peter Pattakos, who runs the "Cleveland Frowns" website, admit to being drawn to it. "Why wouldn't this announcement be televised (who wouldn't watch?)," Pattakos wrote in an e-mail to Newsday. "And why shouldn't LeBron want and have every say in controlling his message and the resulting proceeds?" - which are going to the Boys and Girls Clubs of America.

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"I'm glad I know what time the announcement is coming. I'm glad I can watch it on TV," Pattakos said. "And in the extremely unlikely event that LeBron does use the TV special to put a knife in the heart of Cleveland? Hell, we've waited this long and hard already. It will be hard for me to be any more upset about it because he took another hour to complete it on TV."

To reputation management expert Mike Paul, there is the danger that James hasn't thought long-term about reaction to his decision - if James re-signs with Cleveland, for instance, Paul expects a response along the lines of, "All this hubbub for what? You're staying?"

But Paul, the self-styled "Reputation Doctor," is convinced "everybody will watch" and argued that a TV format for such a long-anticipated decision is inevitable in an age when high-profile athletes put a priority on "branding, marketing and television.

"If he were my client," Paul said, "I would say, 'The entire world is now your oyster and they're looking at you.'"

Boland agreed the show, while it "has all the drama of a contract signing, probably will be the most watched non-sporting event since Tiger Woods apologized to his wife." But he noted that the James-ESPN synergy presents the network both with a control of the news and a journalistically awkward relationship with the player. "ESPN should be covering this athlete sort of at a distance," Boland said, "but the fact they're conjoined as a TV project, they'll get a highly watched prime-time broadcast.

"Will ESPN be critical of LeBron James, no matter the outcome? Like: 'What a dummy!' if he goes to Miami for less money?"

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