Classic Game Replays on Tap As Networks Dig Deep Into Sport Archives

    • Most rights to archived games are controlled by leagues themselves, setting up opportunities for MLB and NHL Network
    • Theme nights and famous games from more than 40 years ago are among new TV offerings from MLB and NHL Networks

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Sports-starved TV viewers have been screaming for networks to replay classic games to fill the void left by the cancellation of virtually all live sports. 

Giving those fans their wish, MLB Network and NHL Network are rolling out revamped programming schedules that will heavily feature “All-Time” baseball games and classic Stanley Cup Finals, sources said.

In a sports world decimated by the coronavirus pandemic, these classic telecasts will feature famous players of the past, including MLB’s Ken Griffey Jr. and George Brett and the NHL’s Wayne Gretzky, while also reminding viewers of players they may have forgotten, such as eccentric Tigers pitcher Mark “The Bird” Fidrych.

For the most part, sports leagues control the replay rights to classic games and archived content, not national TV partners like ESPN or regional sports networks.

That’s providing a strategic opening for league-owned channels like MLB Network and NHL Network to replay classic games, some more than 40 years old.

Going back to the future with classic games from the archives is a smart strategy, said William Mao, vice president of Octagon’s global media rights consulting division. Moving forward amid the lack of live sports, archive sports footage will become an increasingly valuable currency, he said.

“If there’s no water, what else do you drink to stay hydrated?” asked Mao. “When there are live games, you’re not going to watch the archival content. But in the absence of it (you will).”

Still, at some point, sports viewers will tire of watching classic games, he added. Then it will be up to networks to be more creative and imaginative on how they present archived content.

For example, Mao points to the way ESPN+’s “Detail” series showed stars like Peyton Manning and the late Kobe Bryant breaking down key plays.

“NBA players are already watching their own highlights on YouTube,” said Mao. “Why don’t we spin that up as a potential area of content – where the rights holders that have the archival rights to key games in their careers can have these guys come in and commentate? That’s a potential area of content development.”

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In more than 80 million homes, ESPN has a bigger footprint than MLB or NHL Networks. But the sports giant has been forced to fill the massive holes in its schedule, mostly with news shows such as “SportsCenter,” studio programs like “Get Up” and replays of its own original “30 for 30” documentaries.  

ESPN has some re-air rights. It’s been showing “encore” presentations of men’s and women’s college basketball games from recent seasons. It has also been anchoring its coverage around Tom Brady’s departure from the Patriots and the rest of NFL free agency news.

Still, replaying classic games is easier said than done for ESPN, according to Burke Magnus, executive vice president of programming acquisitions and scheduling.

“Re-airing full-game presentations is not a right that we or other media companies typically have at our disposal at all times. Each one of these circumstances requires individual conversations with the specific league or property to determine what’s possible,” said Magnus in an interview posted to the “ESPN Front Row” PR site.

“Since we’ve heard from fans that would love to relive full-game presentations, particularly at this moment in time, we are exploring that possibility for events and content that we don’t have re-air rights already,” he said.

John Kosner, the former ESPN executive turned founder of Kosner Media, expects his former company to get creative in the coming days.

“I am keenly interested to see where they go next – classic games integrating current and former NBA stars, who will have time on their hands, the new (high school) stars profiled on Overtime, ’30 for 30’ marathons, new formats like video podcasts with some of their great emerging talent, experimentation with gaming content… It’s an opportunity to experiment and develop a hit show or talent,” Kosner said.

Some RSN’s like Fox Sports Florida, have announced plans to replay NHL and NBA games. But these channels don’t have nearly the archives or freedom of league-owned operations like MLB Network, NHL Network, NFL Network or NBA TV.

MLB Network, for example, plans to roll out a series of “themed” nights around classic baseball games this week, sources said.

On March 17,  it will show a replay of the famous “Pine Tar” game between the Yankees and Royals on July 24, 1983.

On March 18, the 24/7 baseball network will show a day’s worth of classic baseball games, such as the Pine Tar Game and the memorable Phillies at Cubs game from May 17, 1979, where the teams combined to score 45 runs.

On March 20, MLB Network will replay Fidrych’s complete game over the Yankees from 1976, followed by the replay of Ken Griffey Jr. and the Mariners’ Game 5 win over the Yankees in the 1995 American League Division Series from October 8, 1995.

For its part, NHL Network will dive deep into the archives for “Franchise Classics” and the great Stanley Cup Finals game under the banner, “Raising The Cup.”

Starting March 18, NHL Network will go deep with classic Stanley Cup Finals games. It will replay Game 6 of the 1978 Stanley Cup Final between the Canadiens at Bruins followed by Game 5 of the 1979 Stanley Cup Final between the Rangers and Canadiens.

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It will follow that up with Game Six of the 1980 Stanley Cup Final between the Islanders and Flyers, followed by the replay of Game 6 of the ’78 Canadiens-Bruins Final.

In the coming days, it also has plans to show games from the 1983 Stanley Cup Final between Gretzky’s Oilers and Islanders, the 1981 Final between North Stars and Islanders, and the 1985 Stanley Cup Final between the Flyers and Oilers. It will also feature prior Winter Classic games as well.