Even though LeBron James and Zion Williamson are done playing this season, the two stars have still captured attention and headlines.
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Judging the media’s coverage, there seem to be five entrants in this year’s Final Four: Auburn, Michigan State, Texas Tech, Virginia, and Zion Williamson. Williamson’s team might have been knocked out Sunday, but the Duke dunker keeps dominating.
Discussion of his shoe deal options took top billing in ESPN’s app Wednesday. Meanwhile ESPN’s NCAAM webpage placed Zion’s “big NBA draft questions” atop the company’s Final Four preview. A blurry clip of Williamson destroying competition in front of a handful of I-got-nexts in a Duke gym racked up over five million views on Twitter and Instagram. It would be replayed five times during Get Up!’s first half-hour. It’s possible that no single play this weekend gets that much love.
“[Our] job is not to create interest, it’s to reflect it,” Get Up! host Mike Greenberg said Tuesday. “[We] need to be talking about the stuff that the fans are interested in.” The stuff, clearly, is a 6’7” 18-year-old with the leaping prowess of an over-caffeinated cricket—never mind that he doesn’t currently have a team to play for.
To find any precedent for an inactive basketball player outshining actual action, you’d have to go back to … Saturday. Twenty-four hours before Williamson’s Blue Devils were eliminated, LeBron James was scratched for the rest of the season with his Lakers out of the playoff race. That news, of course, only made James an even bigger content machine.
On Tuesday, Stephen A. Smith said that James’ rare opportunity to rest makes him the MVP favorite for next year. Bleacher Report drew 2.2 million Instagram views for a video of teammate Kyle Kuzma putting a chain on LeBron’s neck, more than it earned for clips from Russell Westbrook’s 20-20-20 game that same night.
Erik García Gundersen helps run a LeBron-dedicated vertical for USA Today Sports Media Group and said March was the site’s best traffic month since he came aboard in 2017, despite the Lakers going 5-12. And he’s not worried about finding content during a game-less postseason. “LeBron never stops,” Gundersen said.
At this point it’s common knowledge that off-court drama drives basketball interest. This time, however, the combined star power could pull attention away from the actual games rather than provide a reason to watch.
Zion became a legend thanks to unbelievable moments on the court but now, unbound by a schedule though, he can be even more unexpected. He can fulfill his promise as a myth, capable of showing up anywhere, doing anything—a symbol of hope for hopeless franchises. He no longer needs a jersey to make a splash, and that should worry the suits.
Gundersen runs through James’ active storylines. There’s lingering talk about how hurt he was this year. There are his various SpringHill Entertainment and Uninterrupted projects. “Who knows, maybe he has an impromptu episode of The Shop during the Finals, and he gets Lonzo talking about the Big Baller Brand fiasco,” Gundersen said. “Then there’s Space Jam 2, that’s another thing. There are going to be videos from the set of LeBron crossing dudes up and shooting threes in their face. There’s so much stuff—it’s non-stop.” Plus there’s James’ son Bronny, his AAU team and upcoming high school career and all of the moments LeBron will be there for.
In a way, LeBron is even more interesting this June. We already know what he’d be doing if he was in the playoffs, but now anything seems possible. After going dark on social media during past postseason runs, James seems ready to be vocal this time around. He could pop up on ESPN too, either for a sit-down interview or as a guest panelist. An NBA exec at the network said no decisions have been made yet, but that “it would make a lot of sense” to have James on-air if they could. After having him for eight straight Finals, why wouldn’t ESPN at least try to get LeBron on its set? Who knows, maybe Zion will come on too. Either way, analysts will find a way to talk about them.
Over time, James has learned how to capitalize on all of the attention. Zion should too. Next time he decides to roll through a local rec center and spark another news cycle, he should line up a sponsor first. That’s how you win even when you’re not playing.
THE RINGER’S MEDIA DAY
Bill Simmons and Ryen Russillo both released podcast interviews Wednesday with big names from ESPN’s recent past. Simmons talked with former ESPN president John Skipper, who made the decision to not renew Simmons’ contract at the company. Skipper is now the executive chairman of DAZN, which is currently sponsoring The Bill Simmons Podcast.
During their 100-minute conversation, Skipper expressed regret about not locking up more international soccer rights during his tenure but was even more expressive about how Simmons ended up leaving the network. “Look, in retrospect, we both in some ways looked a little petulant, foolish,” Skipper said. “And we would have been more dignified had we said, ‘Let’s get in a room and figure what we’re going to do here.'”
As for his current gig, Skipper said DAZN discussed making a bid for AAC rights before ESPN locked them up for $1 billion. He also said the service will likely have a tiered pricing structure at some point.
Russillo, meanwhile, asked Jason Witten about the Cowboys tight end’s one-year run as Monday Night Football broadcaster. Watching the thrilling Rams-Chiefs game got him thinking seriously about a return to the field, Witten said, and ESPN was supportive of his decision when he told them. “I didn’t make this decision [to return to the Cowboys] off of the noise and the criticism,” Witten said. “It was really just, ‘I want to play.’ The scoreboard matters, and I want to be a part of that.”
All that said, sports media obsessives should check out Russillo’s most recent podcast with Will Cain first. They got into Cain’s role in a widely misinterpreted April Fools’ joke, how his politics affect his place at the network, and plenty more.
• Andrew Marchand reported that Stephen A. Smith could make $10 million per year on his next contract.
• Red Sox fan or not, it’s hard not to root for Jerry Remy as he returns from his latest bout with cancer.
• Iowa guard Jordan Bohannon cracked a joke about NCAA rugs, then walked it back. Ben Strauss found out why.
• Bryan Curtis: Rick Reilly Is Woke Now.
• CBS Sports locked up Professional Bull Riders rights through 2028.
• Some unexpected Monday Night Football news: NFL ref John Parry will join the show, as well as several of ESPN’s studio programs starting this season.
• Brian Anderson on messing up Virginia’s game-tying bucket in the Elite Eight: “You sweat. Your stomach hurts. You feel terrible, but there is overtime and this is a great game. It is really not about me. It is onto the next play.”
• Bill Barnwell is staying at ESPN.
• Check out this year’s Sports Emmy nominees. Dick Vitale is set to receive the organization’s lifetime achievement award.
THANK YOU, INTERNET…
...For 1,000 words on my favorite internet joke