Beyond his talents on the basketball court, LeBron James has a future in publicity. How else to explain the Miami Heat star’s knack for keeping the NBA in the headlines during the dormant summer months, this time by announcing his free agency Tuesday – which, along with the availability of the New York Knicks’ Carmelo Anthony, creates the possibility of a huge media-gasm, a rollicking, frolicking, free-agent-a-palooza.
Frankly, James and Anthony really don’t have that much in common, other than playing the same position and being first-name-only stars. One prides himself on being a team player, while the other is a prolific scorer who often appears to be allergic to passing.
What they share, however, is a certain mercenary quality, and the kind of outsized personality that will inspire the sports media – ESPN, talkradio, columnists – to spend weeks poring over the minutia of contract talks and deal-making, of details like the salary cap and luxury tax, even the tax situations in the states where these players might ultimately land and the endorsement deals that might be impacted.
Sports fans might care about scores, but most of this sounds like about as much fun as sifting through the corporate tax code.
One has to wonder how many sports fans, especially those who largely confine their interest to whether their local teams win or lose, will respond to this scenario. Certainly, James generated scads of ill will during his last free-agent experiment, which he ultimately resolved on ESPN, naturally, in a self-aggrandizing special titled “The Decision” that sullied the network’s reputation.
League officials, meanwhile — as well as the networks that carry it, ESPN/ABC and TNT — have to be rubbing their hands together, inasmuch as wherever these players land it’s going to trigger additional coverage and great “story lines” for the coming season. A lot of guys might not want to admit it, but James’ “Big Three” gamble in Miami became an ongoing soap opera, one that helped goose ratings even when they were playing the boring old San Antonio Spurs, whose stars have stayed put for years.
As I wrote a few years ago, “the networks and league owe James a huge debt of gratitude. Seldom has a bad ‘Decision’ yielded such beneficial results.” (Speculation has already started to run amok about teams trying to sign both James and Anthony.)
Suddenly, there are all kinds of tantalizing prospects and combinations, including the uncertain future of the league’s franchises in the two biggest media markets: New York, with former Lakers coach Phil Jackson in to run the team and Carmelo potentially out; and Los Angeles, where the Lakers are desperate to improve their roster after a dismal losing season. (Never mind the Clippers, where the squabbling Sterlings have become their own circus sideshow, extending the team’s unsettled ownership and drama to a different kind of court.)
Given the fleeting nature of professional careers, it’s hard to blame any athlete for exploring options and seeking to maximize returns. That said, these free-agent negotiations – and the inevitable tide of coverage related to them – reflect the overkill that has come to surround sports by virtue of an explosion of media looking to profit from them, unleashing untold hours of blather even when the arenas sit dark.
As for the aforementioned Spurs – the reigning NBA champions, who just trounced James’ Heat – longtime star Tim Duncan will appear on “Late Show With David Letterman” on Tuesday night.
Of course, Duncan is returning next season to the only franchise that has employed him over his storied 17-year career, so it’s hard to imagine he’ll have much to talk about, other than LeBron and ‘Melo.