The media and sports worlds remained on tenterhooks Thursday after the NBA, WNBA and MLB suspended a handful of important games last night in the wake of players protesting the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin.

The remarkable decisions halted a critical NBA playoffs game between the Milwaukee Bucks and Orlando Magic as well as two other games, and there has been speculation emanating that players may well decide to scrap the rest of an already bumpy NBA season made onerous by the effects of the coronavirus pandemic. By Thursday afternoon, the NBA appeared poised to move forward with post-game play, but in the wake of the decision by the Bucks and Magic. “We are hopeful to resume games either Friday or Saturday,” the league said in a statement, But the effects of the stoppage were already clear: the WNBA also postponed three games last night. MLB also postponed three games after the Milwaukee Brewers announced they would not take the field against the Cincinnati Reds in protest.

“The players have, once again, made it clear — they will not be silent on this issue. We stand with the decision of the players of the Milwaukee Bucks to protest this injustice and support the collective decision to postpone all of today’s games,” said Michele Roberts, the head of the National Basketball Players Association, in a statement.

At a time when the pandemic has scuttled the bulk of production of scripted TV programs and movies, the media industry has been relying heavily on sports to draw big audiences and the advertisers that follow them, as well as maintain the relationships entertainment companies have with cable and satellite distributors.

In a different moment, player protests spurred some hand-wringing. Colin Kaepernick’s decision to take a knee during the presentation of “The Star-Spangled Banner” at NFL games became a political issue. But now even the National Football League, which previously resisted embracing protest, has reversed course. In a recent interview with former NFL linebacker Emannuel Acho, Roger Goodell, the NFL Commissioner, said ” I wish we had listened earlier, Kaep, to what you were kneeling about and what you were trying to bring attention to. We invited him in several times to have the conversation, to have the dialogue. I wish we had the benefit of that. We never did. We would have benefited from that. Absolutely.”

Millions of dollars are at stake. With fewer new, viable entertainment options on TV, advertisers have rushed to surround baseball games, NBA matches, golf tournaments and more with commercials. Madison Avenue put down more than $972.5 million on last season’s NBA playoffs alone, according to Kantar, a tracker of ad spending, and another $288 million on the NBA Finals. Major League Baseball’s decison to postpone its Opening Day in the wake of the pandemic left  what is estimated to be $217.7 million up for grabs, according to ad-spending tracker Standard Media Index. Even the lack of live, in-venue audiences has not kept marketers from rushing into sports alignments. 

Two prominent sports-media outlets had to make difficult pivots as the players made their decision. TNT viewers were stunned after Kenny Smith, one of the network’s “Inside the NBA” analyst, decided in real time to walk off the set. “I mean, right now, my head is ready to explode,” Smith said during last night’s broadcast, later adding: “And for me, I think the biggest thing now as a Black man, as a former player, I think it’s best for me to support the players and just not be here tonight.”

At ESPN, Rachel Nichols, who anchors the daily weekday NBA program “The Jump,” ended the show’s regular hour on a cliffhanger. As the show’s regular hour ended, the Bucks had not made their way to the court in Orlando as had been expected. “We closed out our show, and handed it off to ‘NFL Live’ while we figured out what was really going on,” Nichols recounts in an interview. Twenty minutes later, “The Jump” returned to the air for more than an hour – with no plans sketched out in advance.

“There was nothing in the teleprompter, no plan. The news was unfolding right in front of us,” says Nichols. “We didn’t know who was going to be able to join us in terms of other guests or commentators.”

The show will have to do more than focus on games, says Nichols, who has more than two decades of experience covering the NBA for ESPN and The Washington Post, among other outlets. “We have to figure out not just what’s happening, but what this is about, what does it mean,” she says, noting that sports may be serve as one of the last elements of American culture that draws people with a range of beliefs under a single tent. “You get people with pretty different views in sports, and that is why it ends up being the place where a lot of complicated issues just play out.”


More to come…