As a student of Hollywood and a mogul in progress, LeBron James knows how to squeeze a story line. And his personally calculated script would have been as triumphant as any known to sports: Win two or three titles with the Lakers, produce a summer cinematic hit in “Space Jam 2,” chop it up on his barber-shop show with Jay-Z and other entertainment legends, then play one final season with son Bronny.
Eat that, Michael Jordan.
But as an athlete who has played basketball without pause since age nine, and a celebrity who has been in the global blast furnace since 18, James also knows the realities of life. Such as: Humans age, bodies break down, and the hunger to dominate fades to passivity. Those dark sides converged Thursday night in a postseason narrative that spun backwards, not according to plan, and one he’ll have to accept the rest of his waning career.
Without his partner in championship crime, Anthony Davis, who is so brittle that Charles Barkley calls him “Street Clothes,” James again turned to putty in the defining early moments of Game 6. He didn’t attack the basket until the mesmerizing Devin Booker and the Phoenix Suns had built a 29-point lead with a three-point barrage. When TNT analyst Grant Hill, hardly known for slicing critiques, zinged James on the broadcast — “He’s just not being aggressive,” he said — you knew this was a crossroads in sports history where a legend’s arrow pointed south. When a comeback failed, and James was eliminated for the first time in the opening round, it was time to perform the autopsy.
He no longer can depend on his health in a game, basketball, where he can’t be pocket-protected by 2,000 pounds of blockers like a certain 43-year-old quarterback. Nor can he win a series by himself, unable to summon fire and purpose among so many Dennis Schroders and Alex Carusos after Davis’ problematic groin gave out in the first quarter. Nor is he America’s darling, dividing the nation with proud but polarizing activism last year, then pissing off even his supporters by not revealing if he has been vaccinated while breaking NBA policy by appearing at a tequila-brand event.
The King’s twilight finally is upon him, summoning the truth. He never was going to one-up Jordan in history, his legacy vacillating to the end between Mount Hoopsmore and intermittent disappointment. And now, with the ouster of the Lakers coming just eight months after they won the Disney Bubble, he’ll limp toward his 37th birthday knowing that better NBA story lines have passed him by in the fast lane.
“I think about the moment we entered the Bubble to today. And it’s been a drain — mentally, spiritually and emotionally draining,” he said. “Every team had to deal with it. May the better man win. The Suns were the better man.”
He exchanged jerseys afterward with Booker, his protege, in what seemed like a passing of a generational torch. But James isn’t ready to give in to the new stars, dynamic as they are. He says he needs to rehab his ankle, which has bothered him for months, and needs for Davis to stay healthy. Both are ambitious goals, but in his mind, he’s still LeBron. Good luck, old man. “I don’t need motivation from anybody in this league. I motivate myself. I’m motivated by my family, my kids,” James said. “We have some young guns in this game — Luka (Doncic), Book, Donovan Mitchell, Ja Morant, Jayson Tatum — and those guys are great. But my motivation doesn’t come from them.”
And, no, he won’t play in the Tokyo Olympics. The budding mogul has a movie to sell and a red carpet to walk. “I’m trying to beat the Goon Squad,” he said of his “Space Jam 2” release next month. “I didn’t have success against the Suns, so I’ll focus all my attention on the Goon Squad.” He’d better start attacking the basket, or the Goon Squad will beat him, too.
This as a more compelling story, Booker and the Suns, reduced James to an afterthought. Said Booker, making Kendall Jenner and the desert people proud in a 47-point show: “That’s the way we wanted it. We knew we weren’t going to get where we want to go without going through them. I’ve been working my whole life for this moment. It wasn’t time to shy away from it.”
LeBron is LeGone, exiting stage right while Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and James Harden blur past him, realizing he’s no longer in their way. The Nets of Brooklyn borough are the conversation piece of a sports nation now, for better or worse, and don’t laugh when I suggest their second-round duel with Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks IS the NBA Finals. With appropriate slack-jawed reverence for Doncic — who channels the shotmaking of Larry Bird, the court command of Magic Johnson, the showmanship of Steph Curry, the muscle of James and the late-game inevitability of Jordan — the Mavericks aren’t ready to win a championship. Nor are the Suns, who have won 44 of their last 58 but still must worry about the injury factor of Chris Paul, whose insurance commercials couldn’t be more fitting. Utah looks best in the West, with their three-point flurries and big man Rudy Gobert anchoring the league’s best remaining defense, but are the Jazz experienced enough to win a title? Philadelphia, in the East, would have posed a legitimate threat to the Nets and Bucks … until Joel Embiid, playing the best ball of his life, succumbed to his latest injury, a lateral meniscus tear in his right knee.
So like it or not — and many do not — the Nets emerge as the epicenter of the playoffs. They are unpopular, almost reviled, because they came together like a corporate merger. Durant, a mobile corporation, left Golden State to prove he can plan his own parade after being treated like a rent-an-outlier. He was joined by Irving, bitter in Boston and moody about life, in a tag team. The third to follow this empowerment pattern, Harden, demanded out of Houston and hopped on the speed train. All three left behind hard feelings and frayed franchises, not healthy for the league, and in this sense, LeBron’s influence remains as he departs. He was the one who created the superteam concept 11 summers ago by uttering the words, “I’m going to take my talents to South Beach.” Among those taking notes during “The Decision” were three young players with militant streaks who eventually sought to control their individual narratives. They don’t care how they’re perceived, which is fortunate for them because few fans can muster a liking for such a premeditated contrivance.
“I don’t even know what that means, villains,” said coach Steve Nash, dutifully defending his guys. “A lot of it is just narratives. People love to talk hoops and barbershop — whatever. It’s not like we did anything illegal. I don’t know what we’re supposed to do, not try to add to our roster, and just sit pat? That’s the idea of this league is to try to put together the best team you can.”
The owner of this once-dismal franchise, Joe Tsai, saw a poll that called the Nets the most hated team in sports. Durant, Irving and Harden seem to embrace the animus, if not ignoring it all together. Said Blake Griffin, a former superstar used to hearing catcalls: “Everybody always wants to have a team to build up but also hate at the same time. There’s always that thing. I don’t know that we pay that much attention to the villain aspect. We don’t take what everybody else is saying to heart. So what’s being said doesn’t bother us.”
Finally on the court together, after a regular season when their injuries looked suspiciously like rest-for-the-playoffs schemes, the Big 3 have a chance to be remembered as the most potent group ever. First the Nets must win a championship, and to hear them, it’s all but a foregone conclusion.
“We just don’t want to take any of this time for granted,” Irving said. “This doesn’t happen too often kind of in our culture, in our history, where three of the best scorers to ever play the game are on one team.”
“I think if us three are on the same page and play well and communicate with the rest of the guys, where to be on both ends of the ball, I take our chances against anybody,” Harden said.
Here’s where the matchup turns delicious, even as a morality play of sorts. Antetokounmpo, too, could have chosen the superteam route, coveted as he was by the Lakers, Heat and Warriors. Instead, he assumed the more difficult challenge of signing his max deal with a small-market team and trying to win an NBA title without a sidekick superstar or two. In that sense, he becomes the widespread rooting interest as the Greek in the heartland angling to take down the New York power players. Durant is smart enough to remind the world of Antetokounmpo’s status in the league, knowing he carries his own burden to win a championship after recent playoff letdowns.
“We’ve got our work cut out for us,” Durant said. “I mean, he’s a two-time MVP and Defensive Player of the Year for a reason, so we’re looking forward to the challenge. He’s long, athletic. He plays hard. He cares about teammates. He cares about winning.”
The rap on Giannis is that he can’t elevate his game, or lift his supporting cast, to a consistent championship level beyond the regular season. Does he want it badly enough? He is issuing no proclamations before this series, which begins Saturday night at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center, but he did take a playful nibble on a question about his routine as a family man. He was asked about his daily routine at home.
“OK, so I wake up. The first thing I do in the morning? I pee,” he said. “After I pee I take a shower. After that? I drink two bottles of water. After that? I go to practice. Prepare mentally to go to practice. Come to practice. Do whatever I got to do. Lift some weights. Shoot some shots. Ask coach, even, what I can do to get better. How can I help the team be better. After that, I just go back to my house. Special time with my son. Put him down for a nap and after that? I watch Netflix for like eight hours. My home has no basketball talk.”
Meanwhile, Durant is either meditating, sparring with strangers on social media or planning his next film project, while Irving is declaring war on the world in general and the media specifically. In that sense, it’s possible only the Nets can beat the Nets, which is where Nash enters the equation. So far, he has managed to steer this monster joyride to the title favorite’s role, not thought possible when Irving said before the season, “I don’t really see us having a head coach. You know what I mean? KD could be a head coach. I could be a head coach.” Nash wasn’t bothered by the comment, knowing he was hired to manage superegos, and Irving eventually acknowledged, “I think I’ve got to take back my comments in terms of a head coach back a few months ago.”
Yet knowing how Durant, Irving and Harden have had turbulent moments in defining career settings — Durant vs. Draymond Green, Irving vs. his Celtics teammates and fans, Harden vs. himself in the playoffs — at what point does Nash have to lay down the law? And will they even listen? Late in a Game 4 rout of Boston in the first round, the Big 3 still hadn’t been pulled. Why risk injuries? “Those guys didn’t want to come out,” Nash said. “So just let them go a few more minutes.”
So far, anyway, there has been no dissension, no arguing about box-score totals, no beefing from Harden about having to play point guard and distribute the ball. Durant makes sure he regularly props up the turbulent Irving, saying this week, “His mind is so different that stuff he brings out is just unexpected — one-legger off the right leg, shooting off the glass, left-handed finishes, ball-handling. He’s a joy to watch and play with.”
Said Irving, finally finding bliss: “Just grateful that we have a chance to be together in the trenches, me and my teammates.”
At some point, though, someone will have to awarded a final shot in a huddle during a tight game. Egos will be tested, especially when Harden is the only one of the three without a title and, startling as it seems, is the third option in clutch situations. Durant makes sure he buffs up Harden, too. “He comes into the gym every day, and it’s just excitement to play basketball,” he said. “The energy is just infectious, and you can tell everybody was drawn to James since the day he got here. His presence was just key for us.”
Chances are, the championship will be won by a team with limited injury drama. Because of the short, 71-day layoff between the Bubble season and a new regular season, and a compressed 72-game schedule, attrition has been the dominant theme. Embiid, James, Davis, Paul and Doncic all have dealt with playoff setbacks. Durant, Irving and Harden are fresh. Too bad Curry didn’t have a healthy team around him, as a Warriors-Nets Finals would be an all-time combat collision. Too bad we can’t pit the Nets against the sport’s greatest showmen — Doncic and Curry and Booker and Embiid and Damian Lillard and Trea Young, enthralling story lines all.
We just want to see the Nets challenged. Hell, I’ll go so far to say I hope they lose. If they’re going down, the Bucks have the best chance to slay the superteam. Otherwise, I fear more headlines such as this whopper in the New York Times Magazine: “Kevin Durant and (Possibly) the Greatest Basketball Team of All Time.”
Jesus. The Jordan vs. LeBron argument has ended, once and for all, and now we’re going to argue Nets vs. the Jordan Bulls? Nets vs. the Showtime Lakers? Nets vs. the Kobe/Shaq Lakers? Nets vs. the Bird Celtics. Nets vs. the Russell Celtics? Or, in the superteam division, Nets vs. the LeBron Heat? And — ready — Durant’s Nets vs. Durant’s Warriors?
Please, someone just beat them.
Jay Mariotti, called “the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes a weekly media column for Barrett Sports Media and regular sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts in production today. He’s an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and radio talk host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects. Compensation for this column is donated to the Chicago Sun-Times Charity Trust.
The Future Is Now, Embrace Amazon Prime Video, AppleTV+
As annoying as streaming sports is and as much as I haven’t fully adapted to the habit yet, Amazon and Apple have done a magnificent job of trying to make the process as easy and simplified as possible.
This week has been a reckoning for sports and its streaming future on Amazon Prime Video, AppleTV+, ESPN+, and more.
Amazon announced that Thursday Night Football, which averaged 13 million viewers, generated the highest number of U.S. sign ups over a three hour period in the app’s history. More people in the United States subscribed to Prime during the September 15th broadcast than they did during Black Friday, Prime Day, and Cyber Monday. It was also “the most watched night of primetime in Prime Video’s history,” according to Amazon executive Jay Marine. The NFL and sports in general have the power to move mountains even for some of the nation’s biggest and most successful brands.
This leads us to the conversation happening surrounding Aaron Judge’s chase for history. Judge has been in pursuit of former major leaguer Roger Maris’ record for the most home runs hit during one season in American League history.
The sports world has turned its attention to the Yankees causing national rights holders such as ESPN, Fox, and TBS to pick up extra games in hopes that they capture the moment history is made. Apple TV+ also happened to have a Yankees game scheduled for Friday night against the Red Sox right in the middle of this chase for glory.
Baseball fans have been wildin’ out at the prospects of missing the grand moment when Judge passes Maris or even the moments afterwards as Judge chases home run number 70 and tries to truly create monumental history of his own. The New York Post’s Andrew Marchand has even reported there were talks between YES, MLB, and Apple to bring Michael Kay into Apple’s broadcast to call the game, allow YES Network to air its own production of the game, or allow YES Network to simulcast Apple TV+’s broadcast. In my opinion, all of this hysteria is extremely bogus.
As annoying as streaming sports is and as much as I haven’t fully adapted to the habit yet, Amazon and Apple have done a magnificent job of trying to make the process as easy and simplified as possible. Amazon brought in NBC to help with production of TNF and if you watch the flow of the broadcast, the graphics of the broadcast, NBC personalities like Michael Smith, Al Michaels, and Terry McAuliffe make appearances on the telecast – it is very clear that the network’s imprint is all over the show.
NBC’s experience in conducting the broadcast has made the viewing experience much more seamless. Apple has also used MLB Network and its personalities for assistance in ensuring there’s no major difference between what you see on air vs. what you’re streaming.
Amazon and Apple have also decided to not hide their games behind a paywall. Since the beginning of the season, all of Apple’s games have been available free of charge. No subscription has ever been required. As long as you have an Apple device and can download Apple TV+, you can watch their MLB package this season.
Guess what? Friday’s game against the Red Sox is also available for free on your iPhone, your laptop, or your TV simply by downloading the AppleTV app. Amazon will also simulcast all Thursday Night Football games on Twitch for free. It may be a little harder or confusing to find the free options, but they are out there and they are legal and, once again, they are free.
Apple has invested $85 million into baseball, money that will go towards your team becoming better hypothetically. They’ve invested money towards creating a new kind of streaming experience. Why in the hell would they offer YES Network this game for free? There’s no better way for them to drive subscriptions to their product than by offering fans a chance at watching history on their platform.
A moment like this are the main reason Apple paid for rights in the first place. When Apple sees what the NFL has done for Amazon in just one week and coincidentally has the ability to broadcast one of the biggest moments in baseball history – it would be a terrible business decision to let viewers watch it outside of the Apple ecosystem and lose the ability to gain new fans.
It’s time for sports fans to grow up and face reality. Streaming is here to stay.
MLB Network is another option
If you don’t feel like going through the hassle of watching the Yankees take on the Red Sox for free on Apple TV+, MLB Network will also air all of Judge’s at bats live as they are happening. In case the moment doesn’t happen on Apple TV+ on Friday night, Judge’s next games will air in full on MLB Network (Saturday), ESPN (Sunday), MLB Network again (Monday), TBS (Tuesday) and MLB Network for a third time on Wednesday. All of MLB Network’s games will be simulcast of YES Network’s local New York broadcast. It wouldn’t shock me to see Fox pick up another game next Thursday if the pursuit still maintains national interest.
- One of the weirdest things about the experience of streaming sports is that you lose the desire to channel surf. Is that a good thing or bad thing? Brandon Ross of LightShed Ventures wonders if the difficulty that comes with going from app to app will help Amazon keep viewers on TNF the entire time no matter what the score of the game is. If it does, Amazon needs to work on developing programming to surround the games or start replaying the games, pre and post shows so that when you fall asleep and wake up you’re still on the same stream on Prime Video or so that coming to Prime Video for sports becomes just as much of a habit for fans as tuning in to ESPN is.
- CNN has announced the launch of a new morning show with Don Lemon, Poppy Harlow and Kaitlin Collins. Variety reports, “Two people familiar with plans for the show say it is likely to use big Warner Bros. properties — a visit from the cast of HBO’s Succession or sports analysis from TNT’s NBA crew — to lure eyeballs.” It’ll be interesting to see if Turner Sports becomes a cornerstone of this broadcast. Will the NBA start doing schedule releases during the show? Will a big Taylor Rooks interview debut on this show before it appears on B/R? Will the Stanley Cup or Final Four MVP do an interview on CNN’s show the morning after winning the title? Does the show do remote broadcasts from Turner’s biggest sports events throughout the year?
- The Clippers are back on over the air television. They announced a deal with Nexstar to broadcast games on KTLA and other Nexstar owned affiliates in California. The team hasn’t reached a deal to air games on Bally Sports SoCal or Bally Sports Plus for the upcoming season. Could the Clippers pursue a solo route and start their own OTT service in time for the season? Are they talking to Apple, Amazon, or ESPN about a local streaming deal? Is Spectrum a possible destination? I think these are all possibilities but its likely that the Clippers end up back on Bally Sports since its the status quo. I just find it interesting that it has taken so long to solidify an agreement and that it wasn’t announced in conjunction with the KTLA deal. The Clippers are finally healthy this season, moving into a new arena soon, have the technology via Second Spectrum to produce immersive game casts. Maybe something is brewing?
- ESPN’s Monday Night Football double box was a great concept. The execution sucked. Kudos to ESPN for adjusting on the fly once complaints began to lodge across social media. I think the double box works as a separate feed. ESPN2 should’ve been the home to the double box. SVP and Stanford Steve could’ve held a watch party from ESPN’s DC studio with special guests. The double box watch party on ESPN2 could’ve been interrupted whenever SVP was giving an update on games for ESPN and ABC. It would give ESPN2 a bit of a behind the scenes look at how the magic happens similarly to what MLB Tonight did last week. Credit to ESPN and the NFL for experimenting and continuing to try and give fans unique experiences.
Jessie Karangu is a columnist for BSM and graduate of the University of Maryland with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. He was born and raised in Baltimore, Maryland but comes from Kenyan roots. Jessie has had a passion for sports media and the world of television since he was a child. His career has included stints with USA Today, Tegna, Sinclair Broadcast Group and Sightline Media. He can be found on Twitter @JMKTVShow.
ESPN Shows Foresight With Monday Night Football Doubleheader Timing
ESPN is obviously testing something, and it’s worth poking around at why the network wouldn’t follow the schedule it has used for the last 16 years, scheduling kickoffs at 7 and then 10 on their primary channel.
The Monday Night Football doubleheader was a little bit different this time around for ESPN.
First, it came in Week 2 instead of Week 1. And then, the games were staggered 75 minutes apart on two different channels, the Titans and Bills beginning on ESPN at 7:15 PM ET and the Vikings at the Eagles starting at 8:30 PM on ABC and ESPN+. This was a departure from the usual schedule in which the games kicked off at 7:00 PM ET and then 10:00 PM ET with the latter game on the West Coast.
ESPN is obviously testing something, and it’s worth poking around at why the network wouldn’t follow the schedule it has used for the last 16 years, scheduling kickoffs at 7:00 PM and then 10:00 PM ET on their primary channel. That’s the typical approach, right? The NFL is the most valuable offering in all of sports and ESPN would have at least six consecutive hours of live programming without any other game to switch to.
Instead, they staggered the starts so the second game kicked off just before the first game reached halftime. They placed the games on two different channels, which risked cannibalizing their audience. Why? Well, it’s the same reason that ESPN was so excited about the last year’s Manningcast that it’s bringing it back for 10 weeks this season. ESPN is not just recognizing the reality of how their customers behave, but they’re embracing it.
Instead of hoping with everything they have that the customer stays in one place for the duration of the game, they’re recognizing the reality that they will leave and providing another product within their portfolio to be a destination when they do.
It’s the kind of experiment everyone in broadcasting should be investigating because, for all the talk about meeting the customer where they are, we still tend to be a little bit stubborn about adapting to what they do.
Customers have more choices than ever when it comes to media consumption. First, cable networks softened the distribution advantages of broadcast networks, and now digital offerings have eroded the distribution advantages of cable networks. It’s not quite a free-for-all, but the battle for viewership is more intense, more wide open than ever because that viewer has so many options of not just when and where but how they will consume media.
Programmers have a choice in how to react to this. On the one hand, they can hold on tighter to the existing model and try to squeeze as much out of it as they can. If ESPN was thinking this way it would stack those two Monday night games one after the other just like it always has and hope like hell for a couple of close games to juice the ratings. Why would you make it impossible for your customer to watch both of these products you’ve paid so much to televise?
I’ve heard radio programmers and hosts recite take this same approach for more than 10 years now when it comes to making shows available on-demand. Why would you give your customers the option of consuming the product in a way that’s not as remunerative or in a way that is not measured?
That thinking is outdated and it is dangerous from an economic perspective because it means you’re trying to make the customer behave in your best interest by restricting their choices. And maybe that will work. Maybe they like that program enough that they’ll consume it in the way you’d prefer or maybe they decide that’s inconvenient or annoying or they decide to try something else and now this customer who would have listened to your product in an on-demand format is choosing to listen to someone else’s product entirely.
After all, you’re the only one that is restricting that customer’s choices because you’re the only one with a desire to keep your customer where he is. Everyone else is more than happy to give your customer something else.
There’s a danger in holding on too tightly to the existing model because the tighter you squeeze, the more customers will slip through your fingers, and if you need a physical demonstration to complete this metaphor go grab a handful of sand and squeeze it hard.
Your business model is only as good as its ability to predict the behavior of your customers, and as soon as it stops doing that, you need to adjust that business model. Don’t just recognize the reality that customers today will exercise the freedom that all these media choices provide, embrace it.
Offer more products. Experiment with more ways to deliver those products. The more you attempt to dictate the terms of your customer’s engagement with your product, the more customers you’ll lose, and by accepting this you’ll open yourself to the reality that if your customer is going to leave your main offering, it’s better to have them hopping to another one of your products as opposed to leaving your network entirely.
Think in terms of depth of engagement, and breadth of experience. That’s clearly what ESPN is doing because conventional thinking would see the Manningcast as a program that competes with the main Monday Night Football broadcast, that cannibalizes it. ESPN sees it as a complimentary experience. An addition to the main broadcast, but it also has the benefit that if the customer feels compelled to jump away from the main broadcast – for whatever reason – it has another ESPN offering that they may land on.
I’ll be watching to see what ESPN decides going forward. The network will have three Monday Night Football doubleheaders beginning next year, and the game times have not been set. Will they line them up back-to-back as they had up until this year? If they do it will be a vote of confidence that its traditional programming approach that evening is still viable. But if they overlap those games going forward, it’s another sign that less is not more when it comes to giving your customers a choice in products.
Danny O’Neil is a sports media columnist for BSM. He has previously hosted morning and afternoon drive for 710 ESPN Seattle, and served as a reporter for the Seattle Times. He can be reached on Twitter @DannyOneil or by email at Danny@DannyOneil.com.
Media Noise: Sunday Ticket Has Problems, Marcellus Wiley Does Not
On this episode of Media Noise, Demetri is joined by Brian Noe to talk about the wild year FS1’s Marcellus Wiley has had and by Garrett Searight to discuss the tumultuous present and bright future of NFL Sunday Ticket.
Demetri Ravanos is the Assistant Content Director for Barrett Sports Media. He hosts the Chewing Clock and Media Noise podcasts. He occasionally fills in on stations across the Carolinas. Previous stops include WAVH and WZEW in Mobile, AL, WBPT in Birmingham, AL and WBBB, WPTK and WDNC in Raleigh, NC. You can find him on Twitter @DemetriRavanos and reach him by email at DemetriTheGreek@gmail.com.