It’s Game On as Live Sports Events Flood Network Lineups

Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes II.
Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes II. (Image credit: ESPN)

The National Football League kicks off its 2020 season tonight (Sept. 10) with NBC’s live coverage of Houston Texans-Kansas City Chiefs game, adding to what is emerging as a cornucopia of live sports content for fans to watch on broadcast and cable networks during the fourth quarter as the entertainment industry continues to recover from the COVID-19 outbreak.

The next few months will be an exhilarating and exhausting period for sports fans and network sports producers as the NBA Finals, NHL Stanley Cup finals, baseball’s playoffs and World Series, The PGA Masters Tournament, the Preakness Stakes -- the third leg of horse racing’s Triple Crown races -- and live NFL and college football regular season games are all scheduled to hit the field. That doesn't include the numerous live boxing, mixed martial arts, tennis and other pro sports events that are also set for action through the end of the year. 

With the launch of the traditional fall broadcast television season mostly on hold due to the pandemic-delayed production of scripted series, networks will lean on those live sports events to help fill the original programming void in primetime.

Just this past Sunday, three of the four major broadcast networks featured live sports programming in a primetime block usually reserved for new, original entertainment content. ABC aired the Houston Rockets-Los Angeles Lakers NBA Western Conference Semifinal game; NBC offered the first game of the Dallas Stars-Vegas Golden Knights NHL Western Conference Finals and Fox stepped into the boxing ring for a live fight card. Ratings have at least been solid and in some cases show there was pent-up demand: NBA games in primetime after the July restart were 80% ahead of the viewing before the March shutdown, the Wall Street Journal reported.

“Usually everybody in the sports business works hard not to have major sports events bump into one another,” said sports analyst Lee Berke. “It’s going to be less so this year because of the pandemic. At the same time you’re going to have primetime nights of the week that are going to be bereft of original programming if not for sports.” 

The sports schedule is getting so packed for NBC that it will move a Sept. 19 Notre Dame-South Florida primetime telecast to sister cable service USA Network so it can televise a live NHL Stanley Cup playoff game.

Berke says while the glut of sports programming could dampen ratings for some live sports events, he believes there is a huge audience of sports fans willing to watch the games, particularly events that feature familiar and popular players and teams. 

“I think there is a big enough audience for all of it,” he said. “Some events will suffer, particularly if the events don’t have stars in place, but the flip side is the cupboard is bare on the entertainment side. You’ll have a much broader audience that will tune into live sports for the foreseeable future.”

R. Thomas Umstead

R. Thomas Umstead serves as senior content producer, programming for Multichannel News, Broadcasting + Cable and Next TV. During his more than 30-year career as a print and online journalist, Umstead has written articles on a variety of subjects ranging from TV technology, marketing and sports production to content distribution and development. He has provided expert commentary on television issues and trends for such TV, print, radio and streaming outlets as Fox News, CNBC, the Today show, USA Today, The New York Times and National Public Radio. Umstead has also filmed, produced and edited more than 100 original video interviews, profiles and news reports featuring key cable television executives as well as entertainers and celebrity personalities.