ESPN helping James shill for shoes? That's a hard sell

ON MEDIA

The Kickoff

November 03, 2006|By RAY FRAGER

When people complain about ESPN, they complain about things such as a segment that ran during SportsCenter this week.

Jeremy Schaap, who has done so much fine reporting for the network, conducted an interview with LeBron James, speaking to the Cleveland Cavaliers' All-Star as the characters James portrays in his latest sneaker commercials.

This is not to deny that the ads are extremely clever, nor to say that James doesn't turn in a credible performance - the early evidence is that James is ahead of Michael Jordan, at least when it comes to acting - but James and the Swooshketeers can move plenty of sneakers without ESPN's further help.

If ESPN is going to get in bed with the athletes it covers this way, that had better be one big bed to fit the jock, the network and his corporate sponsors.

Bouncing back

Having the NBA back means the opportunity to enjoy TNT's coverage, particularly its studio show. Sometimes, such as during Tuesday's opening night when the Miami Heat-Chicago Bulls game turned into a blowout, I wish TNT would just switch from the game to the studio and let those guys talk.

With Ernie Johnson back after undergoing treatment for non-Hodgkins lymphoma, the show remains the most consistently enjoyable sports studio program on the air. You still never quite know what is going to come out of Charles Barkley's mouth, and the rapport among him, Johnson and Kenny Smith remains strong.

I much prefer just the three-man crew, but frequent contributor Magic Johnson can be insightful, though I would argue TNT shouldn't have a team executive (Johnson is co-owner and vice president of the Los Angeles Lakers) as a regular commentator.

Live from Loovuhl

ESPN carries its first Breeders' Cup tomorrow, covering the eight races at Churchill Downs starting at noon, and the horse racing industry should be encouraged by how network senior vice president Len DeLuca characterized the sport this week.

"We are bullish on horse racing," DeLuca said in a conference call. "We think it has growth potential."

"We're going to bring a lot of new viewers," said Dave Miller, ESPN senior coordinating producer.

ESPN is giving the Breeders' Cup the whole multi-platform treatment, combining the television coverage with ESPN.com and its broadband service, ESPN360.

As for what you'll see on the telecast, Chris Fowler is stepping away from College GameDay for the day to serve as host, joined by co-host Kenny Mayne. Jerry Bailey and Randy Moss are the analysts. The technical wrinkle will be "virtual yard markers," which sound like those yellow first-down lines you see on football games. They will show increments of 100 yards from the finish, starting at 300 yards, on the three turf races.

Though he's not running, Barbaro appears in the telecast with an update on his recovery from the broken leg suffered in the Preakness. Bailey said he knows the public maintains a keen interest.

"People so fell in love with Barbaro," Bailey said. The former jockey said he has received outraged messages from fans who can't believe he would disregard Barbaro's story of triumph, tragedy and perseverance in favoring budding superstar Bernardini as Horse of the Year.

A new morning

After firing morning show co-host Terry Ford this week, WNST (1570 AM) owner Nestor Aparicio didn't cite any failings on Ford's part.

Speaking of the move, which also included terminating morning show producer and evening host Jeremy Conn, Aparicio said: "We're rewarding people who have excelled."

Those people, presumably, are Drew Forrester, who now takes over as sole host - with Ravens reporter Casey Willett in a sidekick role - and new producer Adam Dembeck.

Though Forrester will be sorting out changes to the show over the next couple of weeks, he said, one initial idea is to include more callers during the 6-to-10 program.

"I want it to be more listener interactive ... make it more conversational," Forrester said.

Ford, whose last show was Wednesday, expressed no hard feelings.

"They were great for giving me 4 1/2 years to shoot my mouth off," Ford said. "I'm lucky I lasted that long.

"It's just the business," said Ford, who indicated he wasn't sure whether he would pursue another radio job. "They wanted to do things in a different way."

ray.frager@baltsun.com

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