How ESPN Plans to Survive Without Sports During Coronavirus Hiatus

Network charts uncertain path filled with stunt programming, studio shows and archived games

What’s a sports network to do when there are no more sports? That’s the dilemma ESPN faces right now as the coronavirus pandemic that has brought sporting events to a screeching halt.

Typically around this time, ESPN would be preparing for the women’s NCAA basketball tournament, the first pitch of the MLB season and the tip off for the NBA playoffs in April. But after real-world issues collided with sports on an unprecedented scale last week, ESPN is left sifting through the rubble of a schedule now littered with holes.

“Thursday, March 12, 2020 is a day none of us will soon forget,” Burke Magnus, executive vice president, programming acquisitions and scheduling, said in an interview conducted by ESPN’s Front Row.

The NBA made the decision to suspend its season on March 11 after Utah Jazz player Rudy Gobert tested positive for COVID-19, which put every other sporting event on the clock.

“We had already established a programming task force that was tracking cancellations and postponements, yet on that day, our programming grids went from a handful of events or programs impacted to a significant amount of distinct programs, games, events or streams impacted,” Magnus said.

Now the network is charting a path down a road that has no end in sight.

On Monday, the network received a much-needed jolt from the NFL, which kicked off its new league year with a flurry of news and player transactions. Whether it was Houston Texans fans upset about the trade of star wide receiver De’Andre Hopkins, or New England Patriots fans reeling from Tom Brady’s decision to play somewhere other than Foxborough, ESPN was given a brief return to normal.

The network has scheduled 13 hours of live NFL free agency coverage this week, and still plans on televising the NFL Draft next month. The NFL, which is still in the early stages of its lengthy off-season, said on Monday that it still plans to hold the draft at the end of April in some fashion but canceled all public events that were to be held in Las Vegas.

Magnus said the NFL free agency will now be an even bigger part of its programming in the near term, but admitted the network still faced a huge challenge to fill the rest of the schedule when the NFL news well dries up.

“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,” he said. “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.”

On Tuesday, ESPN is kicking off a “Greatest College Basketball Players of all Time” March Madness-style bracket that fans can vote on; the bracket will be unveiled in an hour-long “SportsCenter” special.

ESPN is looking at moving up the premiere date of upcoming docuseries such as “The Last Dance,” which centers on the last year of the 1990s-era Chicago Bulls and was slated to premiere in June to coincide with the NBA Finals on ABC. But a new promo over the weekend listed the 10-part series as “coming soon,” which led to belief that ESPN would move up the premiere date.

While network execs are looking to move up premieres where they can, Magnus said “The Last Dance” isn’t ready just yet. “The reality is that the production of that film has not yet been completed, so we are limited there at the moment,”  he said. “Obviously, you can’t air it until it’s done.”

In the meantime, ESPN is exploring the use of archival footage of classic games and other sporting events, but rights issues have to be worked out. “Re-airing full-game presentations is not a right that we or other media companies typically have at our disposal at all times,” Magnus said. “Each one of these circumstances requires individual conversations with the specific league or property to determine what’s possible.”

The network is also relying heavily on its mainstay studio programming like “SportsCenter” and morning shows “First Take” and “Get Up.”

“The lines of communication have been constantly open between ESPN and our league partners,” Magnus said. “In very difficult and challenging circumstances, our team has sincerely appreciated how leagues and properties have communicated with us as much as they possibly can about the decisions and complications they are facing.”

ESPN has been one of the most reliable cash cows for Disney, bringing in more than $10 billion in revenue a year, according to S&P Global Market Intelligence. That is despite continued subscriber losses that come amid a larger dwindling of the pay-TV bundle. ESPN lost 3 million subscribers in 2019, to 83 million by year’s end, and has shed 16 million since 2013.

The MLB is in better shape to have some kind of season while the NBA season could be in very real danger of getting permanently shelved, though league executives are not close to that decision.

According to estimates from MoffettNathanson, NBA coverage accounted for 11% of the time people spent watching ESPN in 2019, and accounted for 21% of its ad revenue, totaling $640 million. If the rest of the season were to get called off, MoffettNathanson estimates that ESPN’s parent company, Disney, would lose $481 million in ad revenue, when factoring in the losses ABC would incur for not airing playoff games or the NBA Finals.

Tim Baysinger

Tim Baysinger

TV Reporter • tim.baysinger@thewrap.com • Twitter: @tim_bays



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