There are some clear-cut winners and clear-cut losers coming out of LeBron James's “The Decision” Thursday night, but one chief beneficiary is being overlooked in all the buzz by sports commentators, bloggers, and NBA fans.
It's a charitable gesture that went largely unnoticed – and that may serve to deflect criticism of the James-ESPN "ploy" to reveal the NBA star's team choice during a live, hour-long special on ESPN TV and radio during prime time. Critics berated both the player and the network for brazenly cashing in on the sports world's curiosity – and, indeed, ESPN squeezed in every commercial it could before the announcement.
Finally, at 9:27 p.m., nearly 15 minutes further into "The Decision" than the network had promised, came the moment many fans had been anticipating since the NBA season ended. “This fall, I’m going to take my talents to South Beach and join the Miami Heat,” said the NBA superstar, who at 25-years-young already has a substantial legacy, including becoming the most coveted free agent in sports history.
And with that sentence uttered, millions of TVs and radios across the US turned off or tuned elsewhere.
But arguably the best news of the night came nearly a half-hour later – almost 10 minutes after the one-hour special was slated to have ended.
In a plan initiated and unveiled by James, all proceeds from ads sold for the broadcast – expected to be between $2 million and $2.5 million – will be donated to the Boys and Girls Clubs of America (BGCA). Several minutes later, one of the show’s sponsors, the University of Phoenix, announced it would make a separate donation – five full-tuition scholarships – to the organization.
About an hour before the broadcast began, the University of Phoenix also donated four of its scheduled ad spots to the Boys and Girls Clubs, so BGCA could air its own advertisements, says Frank Sanchez, vice president of sports, entertainment, and alumni relations for the nonprofit youth organization. BGCA would not have been able to air a commercial during the show otherwise, he says. The group does not pay for its own advertising; all ad spots are donated.
“We cannot be thankful enough for LeBron and the sponsors,” he said in a phone interview Friday. “As a fundraising opportunity, it was one of our most significant contributions, and it all happened within one hour.”
In addition to money generated from the event, the BGCA receives intangible gains. The organization’s logo was strategically centered on a wall in between James and ESPN sportscaster Jim Gray, who conducted the interview.
"You can’t monetize having our logo splashed all over the place” on prime-time TV, online, and on the front pages of morning newspapers, says Sanchez. “What LeBron did for our brand was huge.”
Neilsen Co. ratings of the nation's 56 biggest cities show more than 7 percent of households with TVs were watching the broadcast – expected to be the largest audience for a news program aired on ESPN, according to the Associated Press. In James's hometown of Cleveland, where he's played for all seven years of his career, more than 25 percent of homes with TVs watched the program.
James, who was a member of other youth organizations growing up and has been a longtime BGCA supporter, approached the nonprofit over the July 4 weekend, Sanchez says. The charitable arrangements were made final on Wednesday.
“It was a fast-moving opportunity. The goal was to help the Boys and Girls Clubs of America,” says Sanchez. “His intention was to use what was a significant event and to leverage it to raise dollars and awareness for a club he believes in.… LeBron didn’t make a penny” from the event.
“He sees the value in mentorship and giving back,” adds BGCA spokeswoman Angela Richmond. “It’s something he’s very fond of.”
Nearly 100 youths from the BGCA club in Greenwich, Conn. – near ESPN's headquarters in Bristol – were on hand to watch the man of the hour, in the gymnasium where they play nearly everyday. After the cameras turned off, before heading to other media commitments, the all-star athlete ushered the group of 6- to 18-year-olds to the stage, one youngster riding on his shoulders, as the children and teens snapped photos and asked questions, Sanchez recounts.
“It wasn’t like he just ran out of the building afterward,” he says. “He was really like a big kid.”
He calls James's philanthropy and time with the kids “an incredible gesture and a great example for the kids of how you’re never too big to give back.”
The final tally on how much the youth organization will net is expected to come over the weekend. The money will fund programs, renovate existing facilities, and build new clubs in James’s hometown of Akron, Ohio, and four cities where he had considered playing next – Cleveland, New York, Chicago and, his ultimate choice, Miami.
BGCA, based in Atlanta, provides educational, community service, and recreational programs to at least 4.2 million youths at more than 4,000 clubs. In a Harris Survey of BGCA alumni, 57 percent said the organization saved their lives, according to the group’s website.
BGCA relies on donation and fundraising efforts. In 2008, the BGCAs raised $671 million, with $179.5 million coming from the organization's national branch and the rest being raised through local clubs.
“This is the type of partnership that allows us to continue to do our work,” Sanchez says. “It helped every Boys and Girls Club in the United States.”