Darren Rovell

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Thursday, December 12
Updated: July 22, 6:00 PM ET
LeBron might not be cash cow for network

By Darren Rovell

It started as an innocent request from St. Vincent-St. Mary High School to the local cable provider.

With its boys basketball games selling out because of LeBron James, the Akron, Ohio school asked the affiliate if it would help produce a closed-circuit broadcast to be shown in the school's theatre.

How Much Is School Profiting?
Estimates that St. Vincent-St. Mary High School is making $500,000 this season in ticket revenues from the LeBron James tour is not accurate, according to Grant Innocenzi, the school's athletics director.

Although adult tickets for home games at the James A. Rhodes Arena at the University of Akron cost $15.50 each, students tickets are only $3.

"People take 3,000 seats and multiply it by $15 a ticket (then multiply it by 10 games) and they come up with a half of a million dollars," said Innocenzi, who gets 40 to 50 calls from the media per day asking to speak to him, boys basketball coach Dru Joyce or LeBron James himself. "The fact is not only are students getting a discount, but so are the parents and relatives of the players."

The school also is making a reported $10,000 to $15,000 per away game in appearance fees. Overall profits made will be split between the school's general fund and the athletics department, Innocenzi said.

The result was a much-debated and controversial pay-per-view alliance with the school, the University of Akron and Time Warner in Northeast Ohio. Time Warner would produce 10 broadcasts of St. Vincent-St. Mary's games at its own expense and profits would be split among the cable provider, the high school and the University of Akron, where eight of the games were to be played.

Although some columnists across the country ripped the high school and Time Warner for cashing in on young, unpaid talent, it's not clear the broadcasts will turn into a cash cow. After all, how many basketball die-hards have to see James more than his one free appearance on ESPN2 on Thursday night?

"People hear pay-per-view and they all of a sudden think that we are going to have 25,000 people calling us up to buy this at $7.95 per game and everyone's going to get wealthy," said Bill Jasso, vice president of public affairs for Time Warner in Northeast Ohio. "We're hoping to at least break even and allow this to serve as an experiment for the future of local events on pay-per-view."

Jasso said each broadcast -- which features play-by-play and color commentators along with four moving and two stationary cameras -- costs about $5,000 to produce.

Revenues for the first game were negated when a power failure knocked out the lights and the game was cancelled with a minute to go before halftime. All who paid for the game received a credit to their account, Jasso said. That means that in order for Time Warner to break even on the James games, it would have to sell the broadcasts to 700 homes per game.

"We've never had an experience like this before, so who knows what will happen?" said Roy Ray, vice president of business and finance for the University of Akron. "We won't know until all the games are over and the final analysis is done. But it's possible that we'll be talking about sharing zero times zero, which is of course, zero."

The Business Of LeBron
Over the past couple of days, searches for LeBron James on online auction site eBay reached 300 for the first time, with some items selling for more than $200 apiece. Here is a sampling of some of the items being auctioned:

  • Rookie Review magazine card
  • Tickets to St. Vincent-St. Mary home and road games
  • Autographed Sports Illustrated covers
  • LeBron James bobblehead dolls
  • Three games on VHS
  • LeBron James T-shirts
  • Although Jasso declined to give specifics, he said orders for the first first couple of games were "in the hundreds." There are 600,000 homes in 14 Ohio counties that can pay to see the game.

    "Everyone I've spoken to has said that this not a clear money-maker for the people involved," said Jim Clark, one of the broadcasters for the pay-per-view production. "I'm certainly not making much."

    Broadcasts thus far have hardly been the "All-LeBron James Show." In the first two games on air, James has led the team in minutes, having missed only five seconds of play, but he hasn't been the team's most prolific scorer. That honor belongs to Corey Jones, who has averaged 22 points to James' 18 per game. Time Warner also has not yet scored a one-on-one interview with the prep star who is the odds-on favorite to be selected No. 1 overall in the 2003 NBA draft.

    The TV network has been careful not to sell broadcast advertising time to car dealerships or sports bars to avoid any perceived ethical violation. But Jasso said those who complain about the idea of high school games on pay-per-view are stuck in the old ages.

    "The people who say that this is corrupting the kids are very naive," Jasso said. "High school basketball has been on regular television for a decade. In this case, if you want to buy it, you can. If you don't want to buy it, you don't have to."

    Darren Rovell, who covers sports business for ESPN.com, can be reached at darren.rovell@espn3.com.

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