ESPN’s latest sport has no rules, a flexible season and no championship game. Its only stars are the ones working behind the scenes.
The Disney-owned sports-media juggernaut finds itself in an impossible situation. The outlet spends millions to secure the rights to air hours and hours of live basketball, football, baseball, racing, boxing and mixed martial arts. In normal times, that’s a very successful business model. In a moment when the entire nation has been essentially sidelined, so too have the sports that ESPN depends upon so heavily. ESPN’s new game is to get people to keep watching even when the main thing they want to watch is not available.
“There are so many creative things we can do, similar to some of the initiatives we’ve done in the past for special event anniversaries, ‘The Ocho’ day and more,” says Burke Magnus, ESPN’s executive vice president, programming, acquisitions and scheduling, in an interview provided by the network to press. He was referring to an annual effort in which ESPN devotes one of its networks to a day of oddball games and sports contests. “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.”
ESPN has other challenges as well, as do its sports-media competitors. Live sports are one of the few remaining big draws among traditional media outlets. The large audiences they lure are valuable to advertisers and cable distributors. Without them, however, the network risks losing millions of dollars in ad revenue. ESPN and ABC, the sister Disney property that airs NBA Finals, stand to lose as much as $441 million in ads committed to that league’s remaining season and post-season if it is not played later in the year, estimates Michael Nathanson, a media analyst with the MoffettNathanson research firm.
Rivals are facing similar circumstances. Fox Sports 1, which has placed new emphasis on so-called “hot talk” studio shows, has put a few of them on hiatus. The NFL Network, the league’s own cable outlet, cut production for the time being of “Good Morning Football,” an A.M. talk show that launched in 2016. The program is shot in lower Manhattan and is a joint production of NFL Network, NFL FIlms and the Embassy Row production company. With three different parties involved in the program, executives felt the best thing to do was halt it for the time being, according to a person familiar with the matter.
ESPN’s next steps could provide a road map of sorts to how many others will also work through a relative drought of live-sports programming. In the past few days, the network has relied more heavily on its mainstay “SportsCenter” and two of its flagship talk shows, “Get Up” and “First Take.” Indeed, on one day, the relatively new “Get Up” even took on an extra afternoon berth. “We’ll be with you every morning as long as we can, trying to bring some normalcy to your day,” host Mike Greenberg told viewers via Twitter on Monday.
The network has tested airing some “classic games” and may do more of it, says Magnus. But it’s not clear how sustainable the strategy will be. “Re-airing full-game presentations is not a right that we or other media companies typically have at our disposal at all times,” says Magnus. “Each one of these circumstances requires individual conversations with the specific league or property to determine what’s possible.” ESPN is “working with the leagues themselves to free up the possibility to show encore presentations and discussing how we can present them.”
Some relief may waft on the horizon. The NFL has canceled many of the public events surrounding its popular NFL Draft, but indicated some of the actual proceedings around it are likely to be televised. An ESPN spokesman was unable to comment on any potential plans to cover the Draft. Last year, ESPN and ABC each televised it, with ESPN putting on a show for sports aficionados and ABC tapping Robin Roberts to do a show aimed at a broader audience with interest in sports and celebrity.
There are some natural steps ESPN can take, suggests Charles Coplin, an independent producer who once supervised programming at the NFL Network and the NHL Network. In the early days of not having live sports programs, he suggests, the quick goal is to serve as a news source, while considering what programming you have that can be entertaining. What’s in your library? If you’re ESPN, is this the time to run a ’30 For 30′ marathon? There is only so much chatter about what to do in this time if it’s prolonged.”
ESPN’s Magnus says the network is also considering moving up the debut of “any original content project” it may have previously announced. One much-anticipated project is “The Last Dance,” a ten-part miniseries about the 1997-98 season of the Chicago Bulls, which was Michael Jordan’s last with the team. The network had planned to release it in June of 2020 – the same month when the NBA Finals would have spurred interest among die-hard and casual fans alike. “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,” says Magnus. “Obviously, you can’t air it until it’s done.”