ESPN Defends Editorial Integrity of Its Deal With Lebron James

ESPN’s Norby Williamson, who brokered the deal for Thursday night’s show on which James will announce where he’ll play next season, discusses the concessions the network made

Last Updated: July 7, 2010 @ 8:56 PM

ESPN executive VP of production Norby Williamson, who negotiated with LeBron James' people to put together Thursday night's special show during which James will announce where he will play next season, says he is comfortable with the parameters of the deal and its editorial integrity.

"There was no rights fee, no payment, and we will have complete editorial control over the hour," Williamson said in a conference call with reporters Wednesday.

Williamson said agreeing to the James camp's suggestion that veteran TV sports journalist Jim Gray conduct the first interview on the telecast with James "was easy for us to say yes to."

He said the network has a long relationship with Gray, who has worked at ESPN in addition to CBS and NBC and is currently doing work with Westwood One radio, Showtime and the Golf Channel.

"I'm very familiar with Jim and his work, and it was very easy to accept," Williamson said.

He added that it also was an easy decision to agree to the James camp's request that it be allowed to sell advertising within the hourlong show, with the proceeds going to the Boys & Girls Clubs of America.

"We feel good about the fact that the money will go to the Boys & Girls Clubs of America," Williamson said. "We're comfortable going there. We're comfortable the way that played out."

He acknowledged that it was "a gray area," but, in response to a reporter's question, said he did not believe donating the ad time could be likened to paying for the interview with James, since the money was going to a charity.

Williamson said the local affiliates would keep their ad time in the telecast and that James' camp had sold the national ad space to advertisers including McDonald's, Bing, Vitaminwater and the University of Phoenix. Also, Nike and Sprite will be making donations to the charity.

He said advertisers that were scheduled to appear in the hour that was being displaced, a World Cup special, would be relocated to other ESPN programming. Advertisers are moved on a regular basis at the network, he explained, when "Sports Center" runs over because of breaking news events.

Williamson said the first 15 minutes of the hourlong show will feature James' announcement and his being questioned for a few minutes by Gray; the remainder will be in a format controlled by ESPN.

ESPN's Stuart Scott will host the show from the main studio in Bristol, Conn., with ESPN analysts Michael Wilbon and Jon Barry. James will appear via satellite from a location that has been reported to be Greenwich, Conn. Williamson would not confirm the location from where James would appear, but said once the production trucks show up, it will be readily evident.

"We will have the opportunity to offer opinion, we will have the opportunity to do extensive interviews with him," Williamson said. "Any other media company would love to have this. This event had to end up somewhere. We were fortunate to be in a position, based on our body of work, to get this."

Williamson said he was approached by Maverick Carter, CEO of James' marketing company ERMR Marketing, late last week, and the plan fell into place on Tuesday.

Williamson said he has not spoken to James personally and has no knowledge of who he has decided to play for.

He also said that if a news organization, including his own, finds out where James will play before tomorrow night, ESPN will report it.

"If somebody nails it, if another entity reports it, we will report it as well and attribute it," he said.

He said ESPN has three reporters covering the NBA free agent market, and if any one of them learns James' destination, "We would absolutely let our reporters report it" before the telecast.