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Thursday, April 18, 2024

Sports Networks, without the sports

Media giants try to navigate world of pandemic cancellations

It has been over a month since the sports world shut down in the face of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, and the effects have been felt not only by the leagues and teams themselves, but by the media networks built to cover them. 

The suspension of the NBA, MLB and all other events have led these major outlets to search for content. With lower advertisement revenues due to a decrease in talk show and game viewership, sports networks have suffered a substantial loss in overall revenue.

The pandemic came at a time when networks like ESPN, Turner Sports, Fox Sports and NBC were gearing up for major events. The NBA Playoffs were scheduled to begin on April 18, with games that generally bring home huge revenues for ABC and ESPN (both majority owned by the Walt Disney Company) and Turner Sports Network. 

Even though the 2019 NBA playoff viewership declined in comparison to the previous year, it still averaged 3.95 million viewers per telecast. With the return of superstar Lebron James and media market giant Los Angeles Lakers to the postseason, this year’s ratings had the potential to improve. 

The loss of advertising revenue due to the suspension of the NBA season could be “in the range of $75 million to $100 million” across all networks, media consultant and former Fox Sports executive Patrick Crakes told CNN. Even though the eventual return of the playoffs could help the losses, it will be difficult to fully regain what was lost.

But ESPN’s losses pale in comparison to the hit Turner has taken. Turner isn’t a full-time sports network, but the losses from the postponement of the NBA Playoffs as well as the cancellation of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament (which it broadcasts alongside CBS) are huge, and it is uncertain how long it will take before the network can recover. That puts the NBA in a difficult position, as they must satisfy the needs of both ESPN and Turner, taking into account the losses by both and making changes if need be. 

ESPN has seen a near 50% drop in ratings in comparison to last year during this time, according to Sports Pro Media. NBC, which owns The Golf Channel, has also seen a hit, as ratings have fallen 39%. It is believed that all other networks that had major events canceled or suspended have taken a similar ratings hit as well. But this is nothing more than an estimation, as networks have been reluctant to share much information or make a statement. 

So what do these sports networks show if there are no sports? There are no games to talk about or analyze, no plays to highlight and almost everything that comes with sports is gone. The networks have been put in an interesting position where they must continue to put out content but are given almost nothing to work with. After the initial suspension, NFL free agency was about to begin, which gave shows something to focus on and talk about — at least for the time being. 

“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,” said Executive Vice President of Programming at ESPN Burke Magnus in an interview released on the site.

This is the route most networks are taking, as there were many major moves that required a lot of conversation, such as Tom Brady joining the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the blockbuster trade that sent Deandre Hopkins to the Arizona Cardinals. But, like any story, it can’t stay in the news cycle forever. 

Daily talk shows like ESPN’s “First Take” and “Get Up” continued to air at their normal times and, after initially shutting down programming for a week, Fox Sports 1 resumed its daily programming of shows like “Skip and Shannon: Undisputed” and “The Herd.” All shows that have this similar format have been forced to broadcast from home, as these networks have tried to limit interaction due to the pandemic.

With no live sports action, and with content running low, ESPN has tried to keep its airwaves busy by airing a multitude of past events, classic games and its award-winning documentaries. 

It announced a partnership with WWE to air three of the most recent Wrestlemania shows on its network. This was one of many attempts to bring viewers back, as ESPN has also announced that every Monday leading up to the NFL Draft it will be airing a historic Monday Night Football game. In addition, it has aired a multitude of episodes from its “30 for 30” documentary series, including the critically acclaimed documentary, “OJ: Made in America.”

NBC has also taken a similar route. It missed out on many NHL games and was gearing up for the coverage of the NHL playoffs. From March 30 to April 5, NBC aired two classic “Sunday Night Football” games each night. It has also aired multiple Premier League games from this past year in order to fill time. 

Due to the cancellation of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament, CBS has been left with a lot of empty broadcasting space. It has been airing Big Ten conference tournament games from the last couple of years, as well as other games it holds the rights to.

Several professional leagues have also tried to produce content they can air while everyone is remote. The NBA and 2K sports announced the first ever NBA 2K Players Tournament, which began on April 3. It featured 16 current NBA players going head-to-head in the basketball video game aired on ESPN. 

The NBA is also airing a HORSE tournament on the network that will include current players from both the NBA and WNBA, as well as alumni of the game. The MLB will also begin a video game tournament of its own, with one player from each team competing in a single-game elimination tournament that will air on Twitch and Youtube. 

If you look at Bleacher Report, Sportscenter or any of the other big sports social media pages, it is certain that the majority of what you will find is old highlights, historic sports moments and other player-centered content. They have been forced to get creative in the hopes of maintaining revenue and keeping subscribers engaged, but everyday that passes continues to get harder as they must continue to post and gain interaction. 

In a streaming world where many people have “cut the cord” and moved away from cable television, this sports hiatus has added another layer of financial stress for TV networks. When the product that helps them run is suddenly gone, there’s only so much content they can show before they run out. The safety of everyone continues to be the number one priority, but at the same time, all parties are looking for ways to move forward and try to recover as much as they can from this unpredictable circumstance. 

Written by: Omar Navarro — sports@theaggie.org


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