By Joseph Beyda
Only a king could stir up as much publicity as LeBron James has in the past few weeks.
The possibility of “King James” leaving his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers to join another basketball team created a swarm of criticisms, analyses and predictions. For the first time, the term “Salary Cap Analyst” became a household one, as sports shows pulled in experts to play the daily guessing game as to where LeBron would end up. The entire country seemed to be engrossed in a mess that really only involved five or six teams. And according to The Nielson Company, LeBron’s own hour-long “decision special” on ESPN drew the attention of 9.95 million people.
That’s over a third of the people that watched Game 7 of the NBA finals. That’s one in 30 Americans. That’s enough to fill Miami’s American Airlines Arena, where Lebron will be playing next year, 500 times over.
It’s disturbing that the sporting world has bought into this free agency hype so heavily. The morning of Lebron’s decision, ESPN’s SportsCenter spent the bulk of the show discussing basketball that was three months away, skipping coverage of tight MLB pennant races and barely mentioning the approaching World Cup final. There were no highlights to be found of the San Francisco Giants’ notable 15-2 rout of the Milwaukee Brewers the day before; instead, more predictions, more guesses–all about LeBron.
Since when have contract negotiations been made into hot-button issues, with actual sports moved to the back burner?
It could be due to the role that social media, such as Twitter and texting, have begun to play. Simple updates by players can blow up into something much more; a casual remark about why one team would be a good fit can be misinterpreted by the sporting world to be a decisive statement. And when there are new tweets and texts every day, there’s always something for SportsCenter to talk about.
Regardless of why there’s so much focus on free agency, one thing’s for sure: the whole debacle has serious consequences. For one, when a number of teams are interested in a high-profile free agent, there will be more people left disappointed than satisfied. That’s unavoidable, but bring fans and irresponsible hype into the mix and you’re left with LeBron’s jerseys being burned, his murals being torn down and his life-sized Fathead posters being put on sale for $17.41 (the year of Benedict Arnold’s birth). A prompt, apologetic announcement by LeBron would’ve served to prevent these things, but the drawn-out, seemingly self-consumed version that he used was a recipe for disaster.
Yet another problem is the strife that free agency battles cause within the league. After LeBron left for Miami, Cleveland owner Dan Gilbert wrote a fiery letter to Cavaliers fans.
“You simply don’t deserve this kind of cowardly betrayal,” Gilbert wrote. “You have given so much and deserve so much more.”
In response, NBA commissioner David Stern fined Gilbert $100,000 for the “ill-advised and imprudent” remarks. Stern also commented that the manner in which LeBron delivered his decision was “ill-conceived.” All this drama, coupled with LeBron’s weeks-long buildup, may be thrilling, but I don’t understand how it has popularized free agency to the extent that it transcends live sporting events.
Many will attribute their excitement about free agency to their team’s potential shot at glory, the years of happy times ahead, the series of league titles that would be foregone conclusions–that is, if only that one superstar were to come aboard.
Anyone that’s been around sports long enough should know that there’s no such thing as a foregone conclusion. It doesn’t matter how many superstars you bring in; in the end it’s about winning actual games, not putting together the best team on paper (or on SportsCenter).
Even more importantly, something will eventually happen to the salary cap room that’s been freed up for the prospective superstar. It may be too late for this offseason, but next summer is another story. There will always be another LeBron James. Another shot at glory.
And, unfortunately, another bout of free agent hype.