With U.S. sports shuttered by the coronavirus pandemic, ESPN is turning to international options.
The Walt Disney-owned sports-media giant, scrambling to fill its programming grid as most major U.S. sports leagues have suspended play, said it had struck a deal with Eclat Media Group to show six live 2020 regular-season games per week from the KBO League, South Korea’s baseball organization. One game will air each day, Tuesday through Sunday, generally on ESPN2 and on the ESPN App – but the telecasts will air in wee-morning hours, owing to the time difference between the U.S. and South Korean. An opening-day broadcast featuring The Lions vs. Dinos will air on ESPN, following a “SportsCenter” with Scott Van Pelt.
“We’re thrilled to become the exclusive English-language home to the KBO League and to showcase its compelling action and high-level of competition,” said Burke Magnus, ESPN’s executive vice president, programming, in a prepared statement. “We have a longstanding history of documenting the game of baseball and we’re excited to deliver these live events to sports fans.”
The move shows the lengths to which ESPN is working to return live-sports broadcasts to its air – even if they may not be seen by large chunks of its audience when they take place. Like other sports networks, ESPN is under pressure to deliver live hours of sports coverage to maintain its relationships with cable and satellite distributors, who charge subscribers a hefty monthly fee for the outlets, which are among some of the industry’s most costly programming options.
ESPN will strive to weave the games into its sports empire. Several ESPN commentators, analyst and reporters will provide commentary on the games from home studios. Karl Ravech, Jon Sciambi, Eduardo Perez, Jessica Mendoza and Kyle Peterson will all lend expertise, with Ravech and Perez calling the season-opener and May 6 and May 7 games. ESPN will also air highlights from KBO League games within its news and information programming, including “SportsCenter.” And ESPN.com will cover the league’s overall season.
The new baseball-rights deal is the latest in a series of maneuvers by ESPN to keep its business operating amid a perfect storm of onerous conditions. The lack of new games from ESPN’s major partners – the NBA has suspended its season and Major League Baseball has delayed its Opening Day – have forced executives to consider all kinds of alternatives, including running classic “WrestleMania” matches and Disney sports movies.
But there have been successes as well. ESPN’s recent telecast of the NFL Draft – a complicated effort that required processing dozens of feeds of athletes, coaches and officials participating remotely, was a ratings bonanza – a sign that the nation craves sports content, perhaps more than it did when live games were taken for granted.
“During this unprecedented and difficult time, I hope the KBO League can bring consolation to the communities and provide guidelines to the world of sports,” said Un-Chan Chung, Commissioner of the Korea Baseball Organization, in a statement. “I am pleased that the KBO League can be introduced globally and hope this can be an opportunity for the development of our league and the sport.”