Sports Networks Scramble In A Sports-Scarce World: Bowling Or Poker, Anyone?

Coronavirus Stadium
Azteca Stadium in Mexico City earlier this month Eduardo Verdugo/AP/Shutterstock

Sports networks grappling with widespread cancellations and postponements of not just games but entire seasons used this past week to frenetically prep schedules leaning heavily on new or expanded studio talk shows, rebroadcasts of earlier matchups and library content, if they’re lucky enough to have to have it. Networks and leagues said they’re deep in discussions about rights to air older games and about developing new programming for this coronavirus moment, but just how they’ll be filing airtime is extremely fluid.

Take the Tennis Channel, which Thursday announced a live studio show daily from 12-3 PM (with 8 PM and 11 PM repeats) starting Monday, and rebroadcasts of 2019 matches and tournaments in the slots where the 2020 ones should be. Tennis was a harbinger when the 2020 BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, CA, was among the first sporting events to shutter this month. That was March 8, and those in the know knew it was fifth most important tennis event in the world.

Indian Wells Tennis
The Indian Wells Tennis Garden Charles Baus/Csm/Shutterstock

“Indian Wells was the first big-time sports event in the U.S. to be canceled, and people everywhere took notice,” Tennis Channel spokesman Eric Abner said.

The channel at first developed a new live show to run for five days from 1-2 PM anchoring replays of the 2019 Paribas Open, and was banking on 60 hours of live matches from the ATP Challenger event in Phoenix, a kind of minor league that it wouldn’t normally air. Then that was canceled too.

Its new plan – built around that extended three-hour edition of Tennis Channel Live, “will serve as a central tennis news and conversation platform with updates from the sport’s leaders, social media interaction with players and fans, and other topical information during this unprecedented shutdown,” the network said. The show will have two hosts at its Los Angeles studio and two at home and will explore five themes over five weeks: Greatest of All Time, History, Roland Garros, Wimbledon and U.S. tennis.

Abner said the channel’s multiyear agreements with the men’s and women’s tours give it the rights to rebroadcast most tournaments the following year.

Likewise, the Golf Channel is relying on re-air/encore telecasts of previous year’s tournaments, its archive of original programming and golf instruction plus more episodes of in-studio interview show Feherty. Host David Feherty talked last week to basketball Hall of Famers Bobby Knight, Charles Barkley, Stephen Curry, Bill Russell and Doc Rivers. PGA Tour – The Cut, features golfers Hale Irwin and Tyler McCumber and PGA Tour schedule updates. And the channel has been airing the PGA Tour’s 2018 Valspar Championship, and the LPGA Founders Cup and Volvik Championship in lieu of the 2020 events.

This will be the model for the short term through early April, said a Golf Channel spokesman. Happily, the 2020 edition of the annual Ace Shootout Celebrity Skills Challenge, which will air Sunday, had finished filming in Hawaii on February 1.

The channel belongs to NBCUniversal, and NBC Sports/Golf Channel has the rights to re-airs of all PGA Tour and LPGA Tour events as the exclusive cable home to both. The network and the tours decide together which events make the most sense to air and when.

At Fox, it’s a fluid situation with multiple updates each day. Fox just brought back two live shows on Fox Sports 1 this week: The Herd and Undisputed. It aired the 2015 and 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup finals this week plus a live Q&A with superstar Carli Lloyd. It will still have some live sports without fans and spectators, from WWE’s SmackDown (in an empty arena) to professional bowling, NASCAR iRacing announced Thursday and horse racing announced Friday. Fox Sports can also draw on a library of evergreen programming from MLB, NASCAR, Premier Boxing Championship, college basketball, college football and (Vince McMahon’s) XFL, along with documentaries and docuseries like Magnify.

ESPN’s Burke Magnus, EVP Programming Acquisitions and Scheduling, was one of the few executives to discuss the mad scramble, and he did it on a blog post this week. The sports-media giant is tapping into a mix of SportsCenter, talk shows, documentaries and, potentially, previously scheduled original programming.

“Thursday, March 12, 2020 is a day none of us will soon forget,” he wrote. “Coming off the NBA’s decision to suspend play the night before, so many leagues and properties had to make really challenging decisions about their seasons or events. As those decisions were made, the downstream effects began to unravel the ESPN programming schedule across our networks and we had to adjust accordingly.”

“We have two simultaneous goals,” he added. “One is the immediate future in terms of how we can be as relevant as possible through news and live studio programming in order to frame for sports fans the impact that these unprecedented circumstances are having on the sports world. Since this week coincidentally is the beginning of the NFL league calendar and free agency, we’ve built our schedules with an eye toward that being a major topic of conversation.”

Goal two “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.”

“We need to replicate that dynamic 24 hours a day, seven days a week across multiple network,” he said (tinge of hysteria there?). “That’s what is in front of us in terms of long-range planning.”

Magnus noted that 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” and the network is exploring that for events and content where it doesn’t have re-air rights already.

“The lines of communication have been constantly open between ESPN and our league partners,” he said.

An NBA official said the league is discussing a variety of content plans for this hiatus period with its broadcast partners. While plans will likely include airing classic games, they are also looking at ways to be creative through the development of additional programming opportunities. There are a ton of moving parts right now, the official said.

An MLB official said the league owns the rights to the library of past games and is taking the approach to make our content available to our partners.

A spokesman for the Fox Sports RSNs, which are owned by Sinclair Broadcast Group and span the country, said the leagues have approved telecasting of archived games and waived the license fees. Each league is also making available classic games and events including World Series games, finals, and all-star games. The RSNs have the rights to 42 MLB, NBA and NHL teams – 45 including YES and Marquee. They are working with team and league partners to expand options for April and beyond.

Meanwhile, networks have started airing classic games from this season and preview seasons from professional, collegiate and high school libraries as well as programming professional bowling and World Poker Tour. They’re exploring shared programming initiatives with other Sinclair entities like Stadium and Tennis Channel.

Milwaukee Brewers
Matt York/AP/Shutterstock

Notable examples classic games and concepts include Opening Day on Opening Day: On what would have been MLB opening day on March 26, Fox Sports Wisconsin is replaying the Milwaukee Brewers’ 2019 opening-day win (which ended dramatically with center fielder Lorenzo Cain leaping to rob a home run). Fox Sports North (Minnesota Twins) and Fox Sports Arizona (Arizona Diamondbacks) will also show last year’s opening-day game.

Fox Sports Tennessee will show Memphis Grizzlies star rookie Ja Morant’s first career triple-double. Fox Sports Carolinas will air the Carolina Hurricanes’ February 22 win with emergency backup goalie David Ayers in net. SportsTime Ohio will show the Cleveland Cavaliers’ championship celebration and parade from 2016.

Fox Sports Prime Ticket over several nights will show Clippers wins from earlier this season versus the same opponent they were scheduled to play that night; for example, tonight the Clippers were scheduled to play Phoenix, and Prime Ticket showed the Clippers’ win vs. Phoenix from December. 17. Fox Sports Wisconsin aired Marquette Madness all day during what would have been first two games of NCAA men’s basketball tournament on March 19-20.

In New York, YES Network aired Knicks vs. Nets on October 25, 2019 (Kyrie Irving: 26 points) on Thursday, and Bulls vs. Nets from January 31, 2020 (Irving: 54 points) on Friday.

“Until games are resumed, we will be evaluating our programming options.  In the meantime, we will continue simulcasting The Michael Kay Show while also drawing upon our extensive library of award-winning original programming,” YES said in statement.

Amy Loesch, SVP Marketing at digital company FloSports, said the platform, which started with wrestling and track but now has a range of event verticals, is drawing on its original programming, studio shows and podcasting – taking its wrestling podcast daily.

FloSports has over 300,000 active subscriber. Loesch said it will be releasing three new full-length films starting with the just-finished documentary Bad Cut, about weight cutting in wrestling and grappling. It has two other documentaries in the final states of post-production.

It’s planning a tour of NASCAR driver Tony Stewart’s house. It may put on its own live events in wrestling, grappling and dirt track racing. And it’s packaging archives of past events.

“Every network has a different library and a different set of resources,” noted one sports media executive. They’re hoping the general public will stick it out “as long as the content  is good and relevant.”

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