LeBron James and the Rise of Sports Reality TV


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Tonight, the eyes of the sports world will be focused on one place. Cameras will flash, journalists will type furiously on their laptops, and millions will watch on television.

But it's not a baseball diamond, a tennis court, or even the World Cup pitch. All the attention will be on a podium, a bevy of microphones, and a man whose unparalleled athletic talent has been overshadowed by the reality-television-worthy spectacle he has created.

In fact, LeBron James' free agency signing announcement will actually be reality television. The NBA superstar has turned a simple decision and the five words that go with it ("I am signing with X") into an hourlong extravaganza, carried to you Live! on ESPN! It's must-see TV for any sports fan. And it's emblematic of a worldwide sports culture where off-field machinations, media grabs, and marketing campaigns are increasingly more important than, well, sports.

The LeBron Hour marks the end of a two-year news cycle that defined style over substance. The lead-up to James' decision has been the Paris Hilton of sports stories: It dominated the headlines day in and day out even though nothing actually happened.

The sports media ate it up, spending millions of words and thousands of broadcast hours dissecting whether LeBron's love of the New York Yankees would subconsciously affect his choice or if his affiliation with influential adviser William "Worldwide Wes" Wesley would influence him one way or another. Testimonials were given, predictions were made, and teams were eliminated from the running.

LeBron's suitors, meanwhile, were more than happy to participate in the publicity circus, fawning over King James at every turn. The Knicks arranged a lavish, five-star banquet, prepared by a celebrity chef, before LeBron announced he wanted to be wooed only in his hometown of Akron. The Nets countered with a celebrity of their own—minority owner and hip-hop mogul Jay-Z, who pitched LeBron along with owner Mikhail Prokhorov. The teams were more than complicit in the charade—they were enablers.

The nadir came when ESPN held a "Free Agent Summit," where four sports media figures discussed the possible free agent destinations for LeBron and other big stars in a manner usually reserved for NATO summits and Survivor tribal councils.

And that, in effect, is the problem. Like so many other forms of entertainment, sports has embraced the contrived over the natural. Bored with pop music? Tune into American Idol! General Hospital not doing it for you these days? How about I Wanna Be A Soap Star?

Can't get excited about a three-hit shutout or stoppage-time goal anymore? ESPN's got a constantly updating live chat on all things NBA free agency for you—and they've had it for a week.

Meanwhile in the past week, the Rockies rallied from six runs down in the ninth to win, the largest ninth-inning comeback in team history. Unseeded South Carolina won the final College World Series at Rosenblatt Stadium in Omaha, a victory made all the more sweet by back-to-back wins against hated in-state rival Clemson to reach the finals. And Ghana came three inches from being Africa's first representative in a World Cup semifinal, only to fall in a loss so heartbreaking it led ESPN columnist and diehard Boston sports fan Bill Simmons to tweet: "I finally have a reaction for that Ghana defeat: I don't feel as bad about Super Bowl 42 + Game 6 1986 WS any more."

That's sports, on the field, at its best. But those stories became footnotes to the LeBron circus. And whatever happens today—in any sport, on any field—the ink and airtime will be almost exclusively devoted to LeBron's choice.

Skeptics would argue LeBron-mania is an isolated incident, an overreaction by the media and public to a transcendent sports figure making a career-altering decision. But that doesn't explain why Dallas Braden is more famous for yelling "get off my fucking mound " at Alex Rodriguez than he is for pitching a perfect game. A casual sports fan who attended an A's game would see a slew of "Get Off My Mound" t-shirts, an Oakland marketing campaign to exploit the meaningless, childish controversy between a young pitcher and an established star. That Braden achieved perfection for a day and carved out a permanent place in baseball history is somehow less marketable than his outburst of bravado and his grandmother's now-immortal comment: "Stick it, A-Rod." The sensational has won out over the sublime. And sports franchises are nodding happily.

Just wait until Braden becomes a free agent.