ESPN is working on contingency plans in case Monday night’s College Football Playoff National Championship is postponed due to COVID-19 concerns.
After a year in which the COVID-19 pandemic has upended the live sports schedule, ESPN is being “flexible” with its production plans for Alabama vs. Ohio State, said sources.
Still, a schedule change would entail massive logistical changes in ESPN’s flood-the-zone production strategy around college football’s biggest event.
Every year, ESPN “MegaCasts” the CFP National Championship, with over a dozen separate productions, top-of-the-line TV talent, dozens of cameras and state-of-the-art technology. The network typically sends hundreds of staffers to the site of the game.
During last year’s MegaCast of LSU’s 42-25 victory over Clemson, for example, the Walt Disney Co.-owned ESPN offered 15 total presentations across its networks and ESPN App.
They included the main game telecast on ESPN with Chris Fowler, Kirk Herbstreit and Maria Taylor. ESPN also offered separate “Field Pass” presentations on ESPN2, “Coaches Film Room” on ESPNU and “Command Center” on ESPNews. During its CFP Semifinals coverage on New Year’s Day, ESPN offered nine different versions of the Alabama-Notre Dame Rose Bowl and Ohio State-Clemson Sugar Bowl.
Besides the National Championship Game production itself, ESPN would also have to reschedule the dozens of hours of studio “shoulder” programming scheduled to air before, during and after the game on Jan. 11. ESPN would likely replace it with NFL programming because it will be the Monday after the league’s Wild Card Weekend.
“There’s noise coming out of Ohio State they had COVID issues,” said one source. “The Alabama side seems good.”
AL.com first reported that the number of Ohio State players available has caused concerns about the team being able to suit up for the showdown. SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey stands vehemently against a postponement, according to The Athletic.
If positive tests and contact tracing protocols put enough Buckeyes in quarantine, the CFP might be forced into a postponement. While it’s unclear how many Ohio State players have been suffering through the team’s latest outbreak, multiple Power 5 teams shut down this season when their scholarship player availability dropped below 53 players.
The Big Ten’s guidelines mandate that teams shutter if their seven-day average positivity rate tops 5%.
ESPN has become expert at remotely producing live sporting events during the pandemic. Even if Alabama-Ohio State is postponed, ESPN would likely lose less money in travel and expense costs than it would have before COVID-19 upended the sports world, especially given that a postponed game would still take place in the same stadium.
After testing positive for coronavirus, Herbstreit called Ohio State-Clemson from his home studio on New Year’s Day while longtime play-by-play partner Fowler called the action from the site of the game.
CFP Executive Director Bill Hancock had previously told ESPN that postponing a playoff game due to COVID-19 would be possible, and that a contingency date for the game at its original location of Hard Rock Stadium would be Jan. 18.
ESPN signed a 12-year deal reportedly worth about $5.64 billion to televise the CFP in 2012. The network pays an estimated $470 million annually for the deal, which runs through the 2025 regular season and 2026 bowl games.
ESPN declined to comment. A spokesperson for the CFP did not respond to an emailed request for comment, but Hancock told Stadium: “There are no changes to report. The game is scheduled for Jan. 11 as planned.”