ESPN Rumors

ESPN President John Skipper said the net is intent on remaining a broadcast partner with the NBA and he expects “to be aggressive in doing that.” Skipper said during ESPN’s Media Day yesterday, “There are plenty of live sports rights, but the ones that make a difference are scarce.” He called the NBA a “critical product” for ESPN and added there are “not many things that move the needle like that.” The net’s current rights deal expires after the ’15-16 season, and there have been rumors Fox will make a heavy play for the NBA to add content to the new FS1.
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For the second summer in a row, ESPN has plucked one of the top news breakers in college sports from CBS Sports. Jeff Goodman has left CBS Sports and signed with ESPN, a source tells me. Goodman joined CBS Sports two years ago and along with Gary Parrish, helped CBS dominate breaking news in college basketball. According to a source, Goodman has been hired by the TV arm of ESPN, but will also write for ESPN.com. It’s unclear if Goodman will contribute to ESPN’s NBA Draft coverage next month. Goodman didn’t return an email seeking comment.
Hey, remember “The Decision”? Sure you do. That was a barrel full of laughing monkeys, wasn’t it? Great times were had by all, except Clevelanders, and no one thought it was a bad idea at all. Certainly not ESPN, which had amazing ratings for the one-hour special and is planning something far more extravagant for the Miami Heat’s training camp that begins next week. From USA Today’s Michael Hiestand: ESPN will formally announce Wednesday that it’s going to training camp with James’ Miami Heat, with its coverage likely to outdo anything it did on Brett Favre’s annual summer soul-searching. Starting at the team’s media day Monday and continuing when its training camp starts Tuesday at Eglin Air Force Base in Fort Walton Beach, Fla., ESPN will erect a set and parachute in analysts Jalen Rose, Josh Elliott and Jon Barry and reporters including Rachel Nichols for continuous surveillance across ESPN platforms. While senior coordinating producer Mark Summer isn’t sure ESPN will get practice video, the mission is clear with a team he says has unbelievable story lines. “Obviously, with all the buzz, it’s a bigger deal (than) past NBA training camps,” he says. “Fans want to hear about the Heat, so we’ll want to rampup the coverage.”
SI.com independently confirmed that ESPN’s NBA staffers are free to report whatever they find in advance of the program and, after it was first tweeted out by Newsday’s Alan Hahn that LeBron was leaning toward signing with the Heat, ESPN’s Chris Broussard reported that he confirmed the news with multiple sources. The problem for ESPN executives is that plenty of viewers now believe ESPN’s reporters are part of the show. Those in Bristol need only to head to Twitter for viewer cynicism on display.
Still, there are journalism watchdogs who believe this is simply business in 2010. “We’re now in a new media world — and an economy — in which we’re often in unchartered waters and old conventions are being tested,” said Tim Franklin, the director of the National Sports Journalism Center at Indiana University. “As far as I know, ESPN is not paying LeBron for the interview, which would raise journalistic issues for sure. While this is unconventional, I don’t see it as unethical, either. The money is being donated to charity, and newspaper sports sections sell ads around special sections pegged to news events. The difference here is that the news event is not a game, but an announcement.”
As for the perception that the network is giving up advertising inventory in exchange for an interview, not to mention the journalistically troubling arranged marriage between James and a network that employs dozens of news-gatherers, ESPN’s executives defended the decision Wednesday. “We have complete editorial control and direction with the exception of what will come out of his mouth,” said ESPN executive vice president of production Norby Williamson. “We’re going to have the opportunity to offer our opinion here. It’s a unique program that contains newsworthy content that any other television or media company would love the opportunity to offer. We control how we cover the announcement, not unlike ESPNU or SportsCenter when we do National Letter of Intent signing day.”
And the network is allowing Mr. James to choose the journalist to whom he reveals his selection. He picked freelance sports reporter Jim Gray, a former ESPN staffer. ESPN NBA analyst Michael Wilbon will also interview Mr. James. Giving away valuable ad dollars in exchange for the chance to broadcast a popular sports, news or celebrity event seems unlikely to spread quickly. It’s remarkable to see a TV network give up so much ground. Yes, it’s nice to give to charity, and ESPN will have hours of LeBron coverage on expanded editions of “SportsCenter” that will likely secure higher-than-usual ratings for which it can charge marketers a pretty penny. And not just any celebrity could secure this deal. “This is unique, but it’s unique because there’s an insatiable appetite for LeBron,” said Mr. Williamson. But the degree to which the network is letting the subject of its coverage outline the business of the event is, quite frankly, stunning.
“Times change and needs change and people’s desires change and other parameters are put on things,” said Mr. Williamson, but ESPN seems to think the “unique” arrangement works both from a business and editorial standpoint. “We ultimately had a decision to make. 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. Are we comfortable with the parameters that have been laid out?” ESPN could be giving up a lot from an ad-revenue perspective. In a recent post via Twitter, media-researcher Brad Adgate suggested the ESPN special featuring Mr. James “could attract more viewers than the 7 game NBA Finals last month on ABC (18.1 million).” Mr. Adgate is senior VP-research at independent Horizon Media.