The NBA has a surprisingly tough new critic: TV partner ESPN.
Stung by superstars like LeBron James and Stephen Curry sitting out back-to-back Saturday night games, ESPN on-air talent is criticizing the network’s “one-way” business relationship with the league.
ESPN was not happy Saturday when the Cavaliers casually announced that their Big Three of James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love would sit out that night’s nationally televised game on sister Disney network ABC. (Aside: Neither was the NBA.)
It was the second week in a row resting stars ruined ABC’s prime-time NBA showcase. The Warriors sat three of their five starters — Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green — against the Spurs the previous Saturday night.
ESPN and Turner pay the NBA $2.6 billion annually to air league games. It’s highly unusual for on-air talent to criticize TV deals with a league partner. But that’s what ESPNers like Mark Jackson, Jeff Van Gundy and Ryen Russillo have been doing. You know what? They’re 100% right in my book.
During Saturday’s telecast, ABC showed signs from Clippers fans at Staples Center complaining they’d paid hundreds of dollars for tickets, only to watch the Cavs’ Big Three kick it on the bench in their warmup clothes. ESPN’s Jackson and Van Gundy went off.
The trend of NBA coaches resting healthy stars is an “absolute joke,” Jackson declared. “Who is protecting the fan? Who is protecting the game of basketball? Something’s got to be done.”
Van Gundy accused the league, coaches and players of pulling a “bait and switch” on fans. “If this was any other business, this would be a prosecutable offense,” Van Gundy said.
That was Saturday night. You figured ESPN might be over its snit by Monday morning.
On Monday, Mike Greenberg of ESPN2’s “Mike & Mike in the Morning” decried the “epidemic” of resting stars.
Van Gundy popped up again to warn that resting players devalues the NBA regular season.
He cited the NBA’s living god — Michael Jordan — as a model for today’s stars.
“(Jordan) had this feeling that people paid to see him play, which I think was absolutely true, so he didn’t want to disappoint. He played in exhibition games, too. He didn’t sit out. I mean, the guy played,” Van Gundy said.
If today’s superstars really want to “Be like Mike,” they should follow Air Jordan’s example and and play all 82 regular-season games if they’re healthy, he added.
“There’s like 20 guys I actually think that people (buy) tickets to see,” Van Gundy said. “To me, those guys have an added responsibility — and bear a greater burden to play when healthy.”
On “First Take,” Will Cain said the NBA is taking its fans “for granted.”
Russillo went the furthest, telling a “SportsCenter:AM” panel NBA players were taking advantage of ESPN, too.
“Right now, it feels like the NBA players are a bad partner with the television side of this,” Russillo said.
The NBA players sure enjoy the TV billions paid by ESPN and Turner, but they’re not holding up their end of the bargain, he added.
It’s even becoming “cool” for players to sit out games as a mark of their status.
“It’s really a one-way street with the players,” Russillo said.
Look, I know there are strong arguments on both side of this issue. ESPN and Turner can’t complain about LeBron, who’s given everything he has in making six straight trips to the NBA Finals. And in LeBron’s defense, he was “mad” about being rested against the Clippers, according to coach Tyronn Lue and general manager David Griffin.
James later defended the decision by Cavs brass while also taking a long-range view.
“A coach’s job is to figure out a way for their team to compete for a championship, not compete for a game,” James told reporters, per Cleveland.com. “And obviously it sucks at times because certain games you only play in certain cities once or you play certain teams once on their home floor, but for me personally, I want to play in every game.”
Griffin, meanwhile, told ESPN’s Lisa Salters during the broadcast (per Cleveland.com) that Irving and Love were held out because they were nursing injuries. He also directly addressed the fan aspect.
“We’re very sensitive to the fact that from a fan’s standpoint it hurts. But it’s the right thing for us,” Griffin told Salters.
“It cuts both ways,” Griffin added. “We’re protecting the Cavaliers fans that are watching us and have expectations that we’re going to compete at the highest level.”
But there’s no reason for some of these others stars to be sitting on their butts during nationally televised, prime-time games, especially when NBA TV ratings are down this season.
I’m sure ESPN had to do a lot of fast talking with national advertisers who bought commercial time during both telecasts.
At a time when sports TV ratings are falling nearly across the board, ESPN and TNT want to attract TV viewers to their Saturday and Thursday night NBA showcases, not make them so angry they throw things at the TV screen.
Here’s an idea: If NBA stars won’t play when they’re healthy, maybe should give paying fans and the TV partners a refund. I’m sure that will be on the table in the next collective bargaining agreement.
TNT analyst Charles Barkley is of that mind, too.
“I think it’s a joke, especially when you’re screwing your TV partners. Just for the record, we’re the reason they make $10 (million), $20 (million), $30 million. TV. No disrespect to the fans. But the reason players make $10 (million), $20 (million), $30 million (annually) is because of the TV partners: ESPN and us at Turner,” Barkley said Monday on “The Rich Eisen Show.”
Barkley said fans should sit out games and TV telecasts for a week to get the attention of today’s cash-conscious players.
“The fans need to boycott games and boycott television to send these guys a message, because people always understand money,” he said.
There’s another element to this whole story.
Ex-ESPNer Colin Cowherd rightly noted on FS1 a few weeks ago there’s no way ESPN would let on-air talent critique the network’s NBA business deal if management didn’t want it to happen.
Over the coming months, ESPN will lay off multiple anchors, reporters and analysts to save tens of millions of dollars in costs. Many of them will be household names you’ve watched for years.
One big reason for the pending bloodbath is that the Worldwide Leader in Sports overpaid for NBA TV rights, according to ex-ESPNer Howie Schwab. ESPN, then, is basically sending its business partner a message that it’s not happy.
ESPN confirmed to Sporting News that it is discussing the “disappointing” situation with the NBA.
“As always, our aim is to serve NBA fans with the best matchups involving the league’s top stars and we share the fans’ disappointment. We understand this is a complex issue and we’re working closely with the NBA to best address it going forward from a media partnership standpoint,” the network said in a statement.