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“The Decision” Won’t Be the Last Such Spectacle

Last week LeBron James ended his bombastic auditioning of NBA teams in fitting fashion with “The Decision,” an hourlong ESPN circus cooked up by James’ camp in which he announced he will join the Miami Heat. James’ announcement — made to freelance sportscaster Jim Gray 28 minutes into a mostly interminable hour — sparked celebrations in Miami, heartbreak and fury in Cleveland, and no end of soul-searching about the future of sports and sports coverage.

I am not now nor have I ever been a nail-biter, so here it is: “The Decision” was boring when it wasn’t embarrassing, and awful in either case. The very idea of the show raised uncomfortable questions about the boundaries between news and entertainment at ESPN, and the show itself was stupefyingly inane, from Stuart Scott yammering about James playing HORSE with President Obama to the 16 painful softballs Gray lobbed at James before asking him the only question of import. Gray – who the Boston Globe’s Charles P. Pierce cracked “did everything to string us along except play the kazoo” – can now boast the dubious achievement of being reviled for asking hard-news questions during a softball event and again for asking softball questions during a hard-news event. (For more on “The Decision,” read this sharp critique from Sports Illustrated’s Richard Deitsch and this anguished take in New York magazine from my friend Will Leitch.)

Unfortunately, we better get used to stuff like this. The real question about “The Decision” isn’t how James managed to parlay his free agency into a live event, but why he was the first star to do so. Because he certainly won’t be the last.

Few athletes are James, so I wouldn’t expect the next free-agent signing or Favre-esque stay-or-go announcement to be an hour-long special in prime time. But before too long we’ll expect something – a live Webcast, a video released on YouTube, or something to which sponsors can attach themselves. Teams and the media are no longer the gatekeepers, digital technology allows players, agents and marketers to craft and communicate their own messages, and news publishers must struggle to figure out the rules of engagement.

Amid the handwringing, these manufactured events will be covered breathlessly – sometimes by the same entities that supply platforms for them. ESPN hardly covered itself in glory last week, but I had to nod when ESPN Executive Vice-President Norby Williamson noted that “this event could have ended up on the internet. It could have ended up on another network. This event was going to end up somewhere, so we had a decision to make as a corporation and a news entity."

I took a strange comfort from one of the reasons “The Decision” was so awkward and dull: Anybody who’d been paying attention already knew James was going to Miami to join Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. Stephen A. Smith had already reported that; so had Newsday’s Allan Hahn and ESPN’s Chris Broussard. The spectacle was particularly empty because those sportswriters had already done their jobs. Watching a pained-looking Broussard try to keep some drama alive in “The Decision” by needlessly hedging his bets, I thought to myself that I was watching an ugly wrestling match between Good ESPN (which employs solid reporters such as Broussard, sharp columnists and one of the last homes for long-form sportswriting) and Bad ESPN. Agents and players may be gatekeepers now, but reporters can still get people to talk – witness Us Weekly’s discovery of James’s Miami party plans. And they can tell edifying stories behind empty spectacles, as the Cleveland Plain-Dealer’s Brian Windhorst did here.

But players, agents and marketers will get better at this. I think “The Decision” hurt James’s brand, but the damage wasn’t done by the brazenness of the branding – rather, the harm came from how clumsily the strategy was executed. Once we’re used to branding spectacles that follow the template of “The Decision,” what will surprise us is just how poorly prepared James was for a no-contact interview with a hand-picked questioner. It was a disaster from the get-go: Telling Gray that “I’m going to take my talents to South Beach” made James look arrogant and unserious within the space of nine words. (Talents? South Beach?)

From there, it was on to the horrific handling of Cleveland’s heartbreak, with James talking as if he expected Clevelanders to be grateful for the years he did give them instead of aghast at having a native son humiliate them before a world-wide audience. (Which gave us the Plain-Dealer’s great front page and Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert’s unhingedopen letter, memorably described by Deadspin’s Tommy Craggs as “the sort of prose you normally find wrapped around a brick.”)

To grasp what a fiasco “The Decision” was for James, consider this: In signing with the Heat, James took less money to play for a title with teammates who are also his friends. That’s the kind of story we want to hear from athletes, but have been conditioned not to expect. It wasn’t easy for James, Maverick Carter and LRMR to take that story and present it in a way that made James look like an unlikable egomaniac, but they pulled it off. The athletes who follow James’s lead will do better – even if we still feel that such spectacles have made sports worse.

Jason Fry is a freelance writer and media consultant in Brooklyn, N.Y. He spent more than 12 years at The Wall Street Journal Online, serving as a writer, columnist, editor and projects guy. While at WSJ.com he edited and co-wrote The Daily Fix, a daily roundup of the best sportswriting online. He blogs about the Mets at Faith and Fear in Flushing, and about the newspaper industry at Reinventing the Newsroom. Write to him at jason.fry@gmail.com, visit him on Facebook, or follow him on Twitter.
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