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Volume 23 No. 24
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Plenty of questions, few answers as the sports media business sees live events totally vanish

ESPN has balanced live programming like “SportsCenter” with evergreen content such as documentaries.
Photo: ESPN Images
ESPN has balanced live programming like “SportsCenter” with evergreen content such as documentaries.
Photo: ESPN Images
ESPN has balanced live programming like “SportsCenter” with evergreen content such as documentaries.
Photo: ESPN Images

have always thought that Dan Patrick has the smartest radio show in the business, so when he asked me to come on as a guest on March 13, I jumped at the chance.

 

Patrick’s first question to me that Friday was about trying to quantify the impact of sports leagues suspending the season. My answer: “Gosh, that’s an impossible question to answer.”

His second question was about how the finances around the canceled NCAA Tournament would shake out — who stands to lose the most. I gave a rambling answer that essentially boiled down to, “We’ll see.”

After he asked his third question — about the future of the XFL — I laughed and said, “I think I’m going to answer every question of yours with ‘nobody knows.’ I apologize for that. But nobody knows.”

My answers mimic what sports executives were telling me all last week. Nobody knows. Fallout from the coronavirus outbreak has changed from hour to hour. At first, many sports executives believed the leagues would be up and running again within weeks. Then it was believed that they would be back in a number of months. At deadline last Thursday, nobody wanted to venture a guess, even off the record.

With no live sports to discuss, I’ve been asked to be on many more sports radio shows than usual over the past week.

These are the four topics that I’ve been asked about most frequently:

With no live games, what will ESPN show?

ESPN received so many media inquiries on this that its PR department posted a Q&A with Burke Magnus, executive vice president of programming and scheduling, to its website.

Magnus essentially described a situation where ESPN scrambled to figure out how to program its multiple TV channels and ESPN+ streaming service in the days after leagues suspended their seasons. ESPN tried to balance live programming like “SportsCenter” with evergreen content from its library, like its “30 for 30” documentaries.

Because things were changing so quickly in the week after the NBA suspended its season, ESPN would not release its programming schedule until the day before.

By the end of last week, ESPN began shifting out of “triage” mode into a more regular programming schedule that it will follow for the next several months until live games come back.

That means more programming marathons, like last Sunday’s Tom Brady marathon on ESPN. It means more of what it calls stunt programming, like the return of “ESPN8: The Ocho” on ESPN2, complete with competitions such as cherry-pit spitting, miniature golf championships and axe throwing.

What’s going on with ESPN’s SEC deal?

Back in December, Michael Smith and I reported that the SEC decided to move its broadcast schedule from CBS to ABC/ESPN. That deal still hasn’t been signed, as the two sides have spent the past three months proverbially dotting i’s and crossing t’s.

Could that deal now be in jeopardy?

Not according to all of the sources I’ve contacted. Although, as you would expect, there’s been no movement for the past week. Everybody has hit the pause button on those talks. Nobody knows when they might resume.

SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey said he’s in daily contact with ESPN, but those talks mostly are about programming for SEC Network in the absence of spring sports events. Sankey: “Our conversations about the elements in our TV contract will be, as you can imagine, appropriately between ourselves and our TV partners, which are very positive and healthy relationships, and we’ve been in dialogue with them on a daily basis.”

What happens to the media rights deals if games don’t take place?

These coronavirus-fueled suspensions in play are similar to any other work stoppage. The leagues are protected in the short term — networks still are making their rights-fee payments. But the networks will be able to get some concessions on the back end — either in the form of extra games or a deal extension.

Last week, multiple executives, all speaking on the condition of anonymity, said they expect all sides to work with each other without public rancor, at least at the beginning, while they try to figure out how to navigate the pandemic.

What if it’s the fall and games still aren’t being played?

No two contracts are the same. Generally, contracts between leagues and national networks mandate that the leagues supply a specific number of games to a network.

The NBA and NHL suspended operations so deep into their regular seasons that this clause likely would not be triggered. The playoffs would be different. Both leagues are holding out hope that they can stage their playoffs – though the unpredictability around the virus makes planning virtually impossible.

Technically, national networks could demand a rebate, sometimes on a per-game basis, if leagues fell behind the mandated threshold. MLB’s deal with ESPN, for example, assigns specific value to the “Home Run Derby” and wild-card playoff game.

In the few cases where networks could have demanded refunds — from various work stoppages — they didn’t, and that looks to be the most likely scenario this spring. In the past, network executives pushed for concessions in the following season, from added games, better games or simply more access.

All bets are off, though, if no sports are being contested in the fall. That would mark an entirely new scenario that has never been contemplated in any real way.

John Ourand can be reached at jourand@sportsbusinessjournal.com. Follow him on Twitter @Ourand_SBJ and read his twice-weekly newsletter.