LeBron James never thanked Heat fans when he announced he was leaving for the Cleveland Cavaliers.
And ESPN has briefly benched Dan Le Batard, the network’s prominent South Florida-based television and radio host, for making an issue of that in a very visible way.
ESPN has removed Le Batard from the air, both from his television and radio show, on Thursday and Friday because it is upset that his radio show purchased several billboards that will be displayed for a month in the Cleveland/Akron area coinciding with James’ Friday homecoming celebrating his return to the Cavaliers.
“Dan will be off the air for two days, returning Monday,” ESPN said in a statement. “His recent stunt does not reflect ESPN’s standards and brand. Additionally, we were not made aware of his plans in advance.”
The billboards show the two NBA championship rings that James won with the Heat and say, “You’re Welcome, LeBron. Love, Miami.”
That was a jab at the fact James did not thank Heat fans in his essay in Sports Illustrated or at any time subsequently.
Le Batard’s reaction? “I guess ESPN didn’t find it all quite as funny as I did,” he said in a text to Miami Herald columnist Greg Cote, a contributor on his radio show.
The afternoon show, which airs locally on 790 The Ticket and nationally on many ESPN Radio affiliates, initially considered buying full-page ads with the same message, but newspapers in Cleveland and Akron rejected the ads before they officially were submitted.
Mike Ryan, the program’s producer, was scheduled to be in Akron on Friday to report from the homecoming and whimsically poke fun at it.
But Friday’s show has been canceled, and ESPN will not give Le Batard, co-host Jon Weiner or Ryan an opportunity to playfully mock the homecoming.
Le Batard said Wednesday that taking out the billboards is “all meant in fun — which, of course, will turn into Cleveland people getting filled with rage, poison and irrational hostility and want to use those billboards as a guillotine. Sports are so great, the more irrational the better. This is a publicity stunt disguised as a movement … It’s just fun anarchy.”
Le Batard’s ESPN TV program, Highly Questionable, and his radio show will both return Monday.
Le Batard has said previously that ESPN Radio has never tried to dictate content on his show since it began airing his 790 The Ticket program last October.
Maureen Lesourd, general manager of The Ticket, had no role in the suspension but declined to say if it was unwarranted, adding that because The Ticket is an ESPN affiliate, “I don’t feel I should comment one way or the other. Am I happy I don’t have Dan’s show on today? Of course I’m not happy. I love Dan. He’s a great contributor to the station.”
But later Thursday, Lesourd said: “The fans were offended, so for The Ticket it was a brilliant local promotion and meant for fun. But I have to respect stunts like this don’t work for a national outlet like ESPN.”
Did Lesourd give any thought to having Le Batard, Weiner and Ryan do Friday’s LeBron-ribbing/Akron show merely for the local audience?
Lesourd said no, for two reasons: Le Batard is an ESPN employee, not a Ticket employee. And though Weiner and Ryan are Ticket employees, “I’m a network partner,” Lesourd said. “So in some cases, I have to support the network’s request.” And ESPN did not want Friday’s Akron show to be aired anywhere.
What’s more, Lesourd has a “deal to renew” the Ticket’s ESPN Radio affiliation, which was set to expire in September, and the station wants to do nothing to jeopardize that.
Lesourd has decided, however, to carry local programming instead of ESPN-provided programming during Le Batard’s 3-7 p.m. slot on Friday.
The Miami Herald has a marketing partnership with 790 The Ticket, and Le Batard is a contributor to the Herald but not a full-time employee.