July 21, 2010: Don Ohlmeyer, who currently is in the midst of an 18-month tenure as an ombudsman at ESPN, has taken the worldwide leader in sports to task for its presentation of "The Decision," during which NBA star LeBron James revealed his decision to leave the Cleveland Cavaliers and sign with the Miami Heat.
Ohlmeyer, whose role is described by ESPN as being "the public's representative to ESPN, offering independent examination and analysis of ESPN's media outlets," said that ESPN made a series of "major mistakes handling the entire affair" and that its decisions to broadcast the special "and its justification for making them are a metaphor for what ails the media today."
The program aired on ESPN on July 8 and attracted more than 13 million viewers. It was co-presented by the University of Phoenix and Microsoft's Bing, and included ads from Coca-Cola's Vitaminwater and Sprite, McDonald's and Nike, all of whom are endorsed by James. According to ESPN, James and his marketing company, LRMR Marketing, "were responsible for securing the sponsors for this unique event." In addition, "Proceeds from 'The Decision' will be donated to Boys & Girls Club of America in support of James’ vision to construct basketball courts for youth across the country," according to ESPN.
None the less, Ohlmeyer, who won 16 Emmys and two Peabody Awards during his time as a sports and entertainment producer, programmer and network president at NBC and ABC, said that "ESPN failed miserably where it mattered most." In a column posted on ESPN.com on July 21, Ohlmeyer went into detail about the backstory of the event, the airing of "The Decision," the motives and motivations that drove the event from concept to reality and the impact that it has had on James, ESPN, viewers and other associated parties.
"At the top of the show, or leading into the first commercial break, the network had an obligation to make viewers clearly aware that the spots they would be watching had been sold by James, with the money targeted for charity" and that "ESPN should have advised viewers that Gray had been selected by James' team to do the interview," Ohlmeyer wrote. Even with that, "ESPN should never have traded inventory for access or allowed a subject to select his inquisitor, and if that meant losing the exclusive, so be it."
Ohlmeyer continued, "Despite ESPN's intention, the network did not have 'total editorial control' in the James announcement . . . If the interviewee also brings along his own interviewer, you cannot protect the integrity of the broadcast." He also stressed that "both Team LeBron and ESPN wanted a spectacle, not just news. James' announcement could have been accomplished adequately in less than five minutes, and a 20-minute follow-up interview could have exhausted the news value and informed the audience of the subtleties and consequences of the decision."
"Both Team LeBron and ESPN wanted a spectacle, not just news. James' announcement could have been accomplished adequately in less than five minutes."
In addition to ESPN's reputation taking a severe hit, Ohlmeyer also pointed out that "James' reputation was tarnished, as well. "He was seen as an integral part of the hype, a co-conspirator with ESPN. And although some of that criticism was understandable, it was stunning just how quickly perceptions of the two-time NBA MVP changed" from being seen as a hard-working athlete to a self-centered prima donna.
"When the best player in the league changes teams, that's big news," wrote Ohlmeyer. "[But] James and his advisers should have realized the importance of letting fans from the rejected markets down gently, especially those in Cleveland. He should have done so with style, grace, humility and appreciation — he could have largely avoided the PR land mines and moved on to Miami."
Concluded Ohlmeyer, "ESPN can brush off concerns raised about 'The Decision,' but it does so at its own peril." (Full text here.)