LeBron James, ESPN and Sports Entertainment: The Changing of the Game

Daniel McGowinCorrespondent IJuly 12, 2010

It seemed only fitting that I had wrestler Triple H's theme song running through my head as I thought about the circus that was LeBron James's "decision."

“It’s all about the Game, and how you play it;

All about control and if you can take it"

Now, I am not sure which is more embarrassing — that I know the words to a wrestler’s theme song off the top of my head or that the LeBron James drama resembles a storyline from the WWE.

The only thing that was missing is after James decided to “take his talents” to Miami, Zydrunas Ilgauskas jumps from behind a curtain to floor LeBron with a chair shot while someone from the Cleveland Browns’ Dog Pound stands over the fallen James and tells the King to “suck it!”

Is this what sports have come to?  Is this the world we now live in, where gossip and backstories are what drive the sports news cycle?

I will freely admit that I was all into wrestling back in the day. At no point did I ever believe the outcomes were truly determined by the “fighting” taking place in the ring.  But I did enjoy some wrestling back when there was the WWF and WCW and the real ECW.

I gave up on wrestling for one main reason.  No, not because I “grew up.”  And it was not because ECW and WCW ceased to exist thereby giving the WWE (by that point) no reason to put forth any effort.  It was because of the storylines!

Yes, I know that wrestlers coming out to work the mic to build heat goes way back to the old school regional brands of wrestling.  I have no problem with that popping up occasionally.  But having a full segment showing some wrestler sitting around in the dressing room talking on a cell phone was awful.  I guess I was the only one who watched wrestling for the actual wrestling.

To me, when wrestling, which prides itself on being “sports entertainment,” became more about the backstage drama and nonsense (“entertainment”) and less about the action in the ring (“sport,” if you want to call it that), then it lost its meaning.  It lost its appeal as “wrestling” and became nothing more than Guiding Light or General Hospital with testosterone, steroids, and tight outfits.

Now, what does all of this have to do with LeBron James and ESPN’s decision to allow this farce to air?  Well, let us take a trip back to 2005.

In the summer of 2005, I began conducting research on the geography of baseball teams featured on ESPN’s SportsCenter, some of which I highlighted in this article on All-Star Game voting . 

What I quickly realized is that not every team received a highlight segment.

For example, over a sixteen game stretch, the Seattle Mariners received highlights only 41.2 percent of the time; second only to the Toronto Blue Jays.  While the Mariners record at the time could explain the low number of highlights, the same cannot be said of the Cleveland Indians, who were at the time 46-39 yet highlighted only 70 percent of the time.

What was causing this phenomenon of teams not receiving highlights at all?  It is not because ESPN is showing 30 minutes of Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees highlights, although both teams along with the Texas Rangers and Atlanta Braves were the only teams to have every game highlighted.

One name should sum up the reason. Michelle Wie! Why? During the John Deere Classic in 2006, golfer Michelle Wie entered the men’s tournament and received a lead story feature on both Thursday and Friday of the tournament.  Once Wie missed the cut, coverage of the golf tournament disappeared.

Point is that SportsCenter’s coverage, and by extension ESPN’s coverage, of sports had moved beyond the action of the field and more towards storylines.  It became more about building characters and their background rather than telling us that the Royals lost again.  Hell, you could not even find that the Royals lost…unless they played the Yankees.

SportsCenter became the equivalent of Entertainment Tonight or Access Hollywood.  And this began to trickle down through the veins of ESPN.  Now we have reporters harassing coaches and players not just going into the locker room for halftime but even between quarters and periods, or even DURING the game!!

Need more proof that ESPN is turning sports into sports entertainment?  A colleague of mine provided this response to my theory:

I feel ESPN’s transition began with the launch of “The Mag” which packaged itself as a hip, cutting edge, sports “trend spotting” magazine built on sports personalities and not on coverage of sporting events (a la Sporting News or S.I.).
1) The much maligned “Who’s Now” segment they ran in 2007
2) The hiring of Scoop Jackson a hip-hop writer (yes he came from Slam, a great basketball mag, but he was still a hip-hop writer there) and his ensuing drama with Jason Whitlock
3) The launching of Cold Pizza (A sports fan’s Today Show)
4) The shift of SportsCenter to a point-counterpoint format, with highlights sprinkled in, where every highlight is followed by a 6 pack of cold hard questions, [Skip] Bayless vs. Stephen A. Smith, or [John] Clayton vs. [Sean] Salisbury.

To this, you could probably add a number of other things including the airing of poker, the broadcast of a radio program on television [Mike & Mike in the Morning], and various ventures into reality television.

Additionally, it now seems as though players dictating the storylines.  They now have a hand in how the story is told and the direction of plots.  I seem to remember Triple H becoming part of the creative team with the WWE and how he dictated the storylines.

Hmm.  Seems familiar indeed.  What ESPN has done is turn sports into “sports entertainment.”  The game on the field is not important anymore; the storylines, the characters, and the background are what matter.  The action of the field or court or ice is just a continuation of the storylines.

Heck, ESPN even showed LeBron James ARRIVING and WALKING , just like they do in wrestling programs.  And Linda Cohn was playing it up just like Jim Ross used to do for the main event of Monday Night Raw.

The importance of the off-the-field storyline is epitomized in LeBron James ego-stroking, hour-long “special” on ESPN Thursday evening.  It is nothing more than a “look how important I am” moment to show just how special “the King” is to the NBA; to sports; hell, to ESPN.

Linda Cohn actually asked rhetorically, “When did LeBron James become the center of the universe?”  She was not asking this in disgust, folks; it was asked in excitement!

I am surprised that it was only on ESPN and not being simulcast on all the national networks — ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox — as well as CNN, Fox News, and C-SPAN.  Was Thursday, July 8 declared a national holiday?  LeBron James Day?  Why did I go to work on a holiday!?

At the very least, this move for attention is no different than high school kids and national signing day.  I would not have been shocked if LeBron showed up at a table with seven hats set out in front of him.  You know, he tries a couple on, teasing a bit, before tossing each away in disgust. 

Finally, he  simply pushes all the hats off the table and pulls out a San Antonio Spurs hat from underneath the table.  Shock the world!!!

It is a disgrace.  I hate it when high school players do this, so I feel no different here.  You are accepting a contract for a job!  It is not that special.  Hold such an hour-long special when you find a cure for HIV!

Well, maybe LeBron James just regrets missing out on the fun of national signing day.  Although I am not sure national signing day for basketball receives the same attention as that for football.

One has to wonder if Brett Favre will also have an hour long special to announce that he is returning to the Vikings.  I am sure it will be nicely choreographed at a farm in Mississippi with a Viking helmet or a pair of overalls from which to choose.

What I fear is that what this “special” represents is the culmination of ESPN’s transformation from a company that reports sports to one that focuses on sports entertainment.  It is not the beginning of the transformation but simply the completion of that transformation.  Athletes are now in control of the storylines and LeBron James and ESPN have indeed changed the game.

Look, I have no problem with James choosing to play in Miami.  I think it is a more difficult decision than many believe it is and if playing in the NBA is all about winning titles, this move does improve his chances to win a ring.

It is the drama and the manner of James's "decision" that disgusts me.  If you look at it at the most minimal level, Thursday night was nothing more than a special showing LeBron James get a job.  But the larger picture is that it was the completion of the transformation by ESPN of sports into sports entertainment.

So after the “King” made his announcement, he completed his turn from a face to a heel.  I just wish that after he made the announcement, Big Z would have indeed popped up from underneath the table and decked James with a chair.  Or, had the King selected Cleveland, maybe it would have been John Elway and Michael Jordan taking out LBJ.

But of course, that did not happen because that was not the way James scripted it.

This article first appeared on Uncle Popov's Drunken Sports Rant on Thursday, July 8, 2010.


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