Alarm. Confusion. Disbelief. Despair.
Those were the feelings of TV sports executives Thursday as they scrambled to fill the gaping holes in their programming schedules wrought by the coronavirus on Thursday.
During one unprecedented day, the NBA, NHL, and MLS suspended their regular seasons while Major League Baseball canceled spring training games and pushed Opening Day back by two weeks. Not to mention March Madness and college sports essentially shutting down for the spring.
Those decisions didn’t just impact leagues, teams, players, and fans. They upended the best-laid plans of TV networks such as ESPN, TNT, TBS, CBS, Fox and NBC that collectively pay sports leagues billions to air thousands of hours of live sports coverage.
The situation also raises the question of what exactly do sports TV networks show their viewers when there are little or no live games, matches or tournaments.
The sudden loss of NBA games – just as the league headed toward the post-season – was a blow to Disney’s ESPN and Turner Sports’ TNT.
Disney will have to potentially fill 16 NBA regular-season game windows across its ESPN and ABC networks, as well as up to 44 NBA Playoff game windows, including the NBA Finals on ABC.
TNT, meanwhile, will have to potentially replace 14 regular-season game windows and up to 40 playoff telecasts, including the hotly anticipated Western Conference Finals.
Publicly, both of the NBA’s national TV partners supported commissioner Adam Silver’s decision to postpone its season. But the two cable networks will be hard-pressed to come up with replacement programming comparable to NBA superstars LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo potentially competing for the Larry O’Brien trophy.
Looking ahead, ESPN’s flagship network plans to air live “SportsCenter” editions, all day and night, while ESPN2 will simulcast a combination of ESPN and ESPNEWS programming. ESPNEWS, meanwhile, will continue to air its usual video simulcasts of radio shows such as “First Take, Your Take With Jason Fritz” and “The Will Cain Show.”
John Kosner, the ex-ESPN executive turned President of Kosner Media, expects Turner and ESPN to take different approaches to the crisis.
Turner is really an entertainment network with some marquee sports properties, he said, while ESPN is more news-oriented.
Kosner predicted Turner will mostly plug the holes with entertainment programming, while ESPN relies on news and studio shows.
He also expects ESPN to take a “back to the future” approach, replaying the greatest NBA games and other “classic” programming. Or filling holes through marathon showings of its “30 for 30” sports documentary series. With little or no live sports, look for ESPN Classic to also become a go-to destination for sports diehards.
“I think Turner will go to its high-profile entertainment programming – and just fill the slots with that,” Kosner said. “In the case of ESPN, you have a very sophisticated, well-resourced newsroom. So they’re certainly going to cover what’s going on. I expect they’ll spend ample time talking to players from different sports about how they’re spending their time.”
There’s no downplaying the potential disaster facing sports TV networks with little or no live sports to offer viewers. But such a black swan event could spark some interesting programming experiments on new topics such as sports gaming, said Kosner.
With NBA players having time on their hands, he can also see ESPN integrating current and former NBA stars into coverage of classic NBA Finals and games. Plus, more coverage of high school athletic stars similar to what you see on youth-oriented networks like Overtime.
“They will have a captive audience of sports fans (like me) who will be tuning in,” Kosner said. “It’s an opportunity to experiment and develop a hit show or talent.”
The potential loss of the NBA Playoffs is just one of the multiple problems facing sports TV networks.
CBS and Turner pay over $1 billion annually for the rights to air the NCAA men’s and women’s basketball tournaments. But there will be no madness this March.
CBS, TBS, TNT, and truTV were slated to televise all 67 games from the Division I Men’s basketball championship. TBS was poised to televised the Final Four on Saturday, April 4 and National Championship on April 6.
The first casualty of the NCAA decision could be CBS’ presentation of “The Selection Show” that was scheduled to air Sunday, March 15 from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m. ET.
From March 3 to March 15, ESPN was set to televise no less than 29 men’s, and 24 women’s, college basketball conference championships.
Over the coming weeks, ESPN will also have to replace canceled matches, tournaments and games from its TV partners at MLS and the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP).
ESPN was supposed to televise 31 regular-season MLS matches this year as well as MLS All-Star Game on July 29. But the network only got to show three matches before the season was suspended.
Likewise, the network was also supposed to provide “first ball to last ball” coverage of the BNP Paribas Open starting Wednesday, March 11 before the tennis tournament announced it was a no-go.
NBC Sports, meanwhile, will grapple with how to program canceled NHL game windows as well as MotoGP races. NBC still had more than a dozen regular-season game telecasts planned for its broadcast network and NBCSN before the puck is supposed to drop for the Stanley Cup Playoffs in April.
“We want everyone, everywhere to be safe from the spread of this virus,” said NBC spokesman Greg Hughes.
The best-case scenario is that some of these sporting events will only be postponed for a few weeks or months, not canceled.
Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, for example, told Mike Greenberg on ESPN’s “Get Up” morning show Thursday that he could see the NBA postponing the season for 60 days, then returning to play the last 7-10 games of the regular season and finally an NBA Playoffs that reaches into July if not August.