Ombudsman Calls ESPN’s “The Decision” The Wrong One

Sports media followers have been waiting for ESPN Ombudsman Don Ohlmeyer to chime in on the WWL’s handling of “The Decision”, the made for TV special of the announcement of where LeBron James will play basketball this fall.

The wait is over.  Read his column here.  Ohlmeyer is highly critical of those in charge in Bristol.  Here are some of the highlights…

On ESPN’s claim that it did not “pay” for the LeBron story:

But if you let the subject sell an hour’s worth of inventory, then the program needs to be an hour — and that’s an editorial acquiescence, not an editorial decision.

No matter how convoluted the intellectual gymnastics, ESPN “paid” for the exclusive access to a news story. For the network, there is quantifiable revenue associated with the Thursday 9-10 p.m. programming hour. That revenue was forgone, yielded in exchange for the exclusive.

On ESPN’s transparency problem during the telecast:

As to transparency, ESPN failed miserably where it mattered most. Although there was no attempt to hide the Gray involvement or the inventory arrangement leading up to the broadcast, the viewers were not explicitly told at the most appropriate moments that conflicts existed. Before turning from the Bristol set to Gray, ESPN should have advised viewers that Gray had been selected by James’ team to do the interview.

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. ESPN’s disclosure requirement is to the viewers of that very show, not simply to other media (through promotional interviews or news releases) or to viewers of other programs. 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.

On the ESPN hype machine leading up and following “The Decision”:

As the hours wore on, it was impossible not to ponder: Did the news value of James’ decision really merit such prolonged speculation, dissection, explanation, argumentation and analysis? Competent television producers can create infinite hours out of whole cloth, and that was certainly the case here. But those “SportsCenter” fans looking for other sports coverage? Too bad. An average hour of the network’s showcase contains 45 minutes of programming to cover the entire day in the world of sports. These prized minutes normally are doled out meticulously, attempting to satisfy the interests of a broad-based sports audience at the same time as servicing the fanatic. As “The Decision” approached, “SportsCenter” made an abrupt adjustment.

On Wednesday night’s 6 and 11 p.m. editions of “SportsCenter,” James’ quest corralled almost a quarter of the show. On Thursday at 11 a.m., it monopolized almost half. And as the 6 p.m. show rolled around, it was “All LeBron, All The Time.” In the two-hour “SportsCenter” that followed “The Decision,” the non-NBA sports fan was virtually ignored, as were the 12 baseball games scheduled for that night, the World Cup semifinals and everything else in sports — including golfer Paul Goydos’ phenomenal 59.

On the perception of ESPN going forward:

What’s the long-term impact of “The Decision”? Clearly, the hype and excess surrounding James’ choice was not ESPN’s crime alone. Many of the same media participants that helped turn it into a quasi-national obsession were among some of the program’s sternest critics. Many in Bristol tend to slough off media criticism, minimizing it because they feel ESPN wears an enormous bull’s-eye — the network is Goliath to an army of Davids who love to play Whac-A-Mole at ESPN’s expense. Maybe that’s the case and maybe not, but there are certainly times when criticism is justified — and this was one of them.

Spot on Don.


  1. You missed the one paragraph that defines the public hatred of ESPN perfectly.

    “Hype played an integral role in much of the negative reaction to “The Decision.” It’s a constant complaint in the mailbag. Viewers resent having ESPN promotions shoved down their throats. On July 8, the network basically dedicated six straight hours to the James announcement — nearly as much hoopla as surrounds football on Super Bowl Sunday. There were three hours of pre-event “SportsCenter” coverage followed by “The Decision” and topped off with another two hours of “SportsCenter” coverage to wrap — all wound tightly around a simple declarative sentence.”

    One sentence and probably 1,000+ hours of unneeded coverage over the last three months on ESPN and their family of networks. My life has been so much better since banning them from every aspect of my life.

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