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Barry Jackson

Here’s what the sports networks are doing without live games and what viewers can expect


How do sports networks fill air time without live programming, a scenario none of them ever anticipated confronting?

With the sports world (aside from NFL free agency) shut down by the coronavirus, that’s the challenge facing ESPN, Fox’s cable networks and the Sinclair-owned regional sports networks, which are all suddenly left with endless hours to fill but no live competition.

The solution, so far, has been a mix of studio shows, classic games, quirky sports and in the case of the regional networks, replays of their home team’s games.

On a local level, Fox Sports Sun and Fox Sports Florida have been replaying Heat, Marlins and Panthers wins. (The losses will need to wait.)

For ESPN, the strategy now is two-fold:

“One is the immediate future in terms of how we can be as relevant as possible through news and live studio programming,” ESPN vice president Burke Magnus said, noting an emphasis on NFL news during free agency. “The second goal is aimed at looking ahead to entertain fans through fun, compelling archival content and/or themed and stunt event programming that will provide a diversion at a time that there are virtually no other live sports to watch.

“The challenge is that now we need to replicate that dynamic 24 hours a day, seven days a week across multiple networks. That’s what is in front of us in terms of long-range planning.”

The creative approach was on display on Sunday, when ESPN2 aired taped world championships for ax throwing, cornhole, spikeball, putt-putt golf, stone-skipping, sport-stacking, sign-spinning, hamburger-eating, brat-eating, cherry-pit spitting, arm wresting, dodgeball and stupid robot fighting. That was part of The Ocho, the round-the-clock programming lineup of quirky sports that ESPN has strung together on three occasions in recent years.

But quirky sports are best served as an occasional change of pace, instead of a regular diet. So ESPN will need to rely primarily on expanded editions of “SportsCenter,” “NFL Live,” “The Jump” its two morning shows (“Get Up” and “First Take”) and past 30 for 30 documentaries, plus UCF programming and boxing encore presentations.

Beyond the loss of live games, two issues are limiting ESPN:

Because of coronavirus, the network has suspended Washington D.C.-based “Pardon The Interruption,” as well as Dan Le Batard’s Miami-based “Highly Questionable” and Around the Horn, because those two shows are handled by the D.C.-based Rydholm Projects production team. Early morning editions of “SportsCenter” also are on hiatus.

The network isn’t permitted to simply re-air NBA, MLB, NFL or NCAA Tournament games. The pro leagues own rights to their archives, and game replays typically air on the league-owned networks. ESPN received NFL permission to re-air some of Tom Brady’s greatest games this past weekend.

CBS has permission to air old NCAA Tournament games and plans to do it next weekend, a second weekend in a row.

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

“We are working with the leagues themselves to free up the possibility to show encore presentations and discussing how we can present them. In some instances, we aren’t even the original rightsholder, which is the case for the Men’s NCAA Basketball Tournament, for example.”

What about moving up the airing of documentaries in development, such as “The Last Dance ,” a 10-part series on Michael Jordan and the Bulls during the 1997-98 season? It’s scheduled to be released in June.

“I know some have asked about “The Last Dance” and the reality is that the production of that film has not yet been completed, so we are limited there at the moment,” Magnus said. “Obviously, you can’t air it until it’s done. Overall, any original content project that we can conceivably move up, we are obviously considering that, including films.”

In prime time on Tuesday through Thursday this week, ESPN is airing an encore presentation of the Academy-Award winning 30 for 30 documentary “O.J.: Made in America.” Meanwhile, ESPN2 on Tuesday will celebrate Peyton Manning’s 44th birthday with five hours of special prime-time programming, including his college, NFL and Super Bowl highlights.

ESPN also will air encore presentations of Wrestlemania shows on March 29 and April 5.

Some other programming notes:

After airing six classic NCAA Tournament games this past weekend, CBS will air three classic championship games next Sunday: the 1985 Villanova-Georgetown game at 1 p.m., the 1997 Arizona-Kentucky game at 2:30 p.m. and the 2010 Duke-Butler game at 4 p.m.

NFL Network, whose studios are based in Los Angeles, suspended studio programming, at least temporarily, on Monday because of the particularly devastating impact of coronavirus in California.

The NFL is making every game since 2009 available for free streaming on NFL Game Pass, which can be accessed free of charge, anywhere in the United States, until May 31.

The NBA and Turner are offering the League Pass subscription service for free until April 22, offering all games played this season, plus classic games dating to the 1970s and every NBA Finals since 2002.

NBC-SN is airing live horse racing on weekends that ordinarily would not have aired.

The NHL will soon release curated content on the league’s website and YouTube channel, giving viewers access to more than 100 classic games dating back to the ‘50s and behind-the-scenes programs such as “Road to the NHL Winter Classic.”

This story was originally published March 23, 2020 3:46 PM.

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