Games Are Gone, But Sports Nets Go On

After an unprecedented shutdown of live sports events due to the coronavirus outbreak, national sports networks are looking to get back on the field with replacement content until the games resume.

Fox Sports and ESPN are both turning to library programming and talk shows in an effort to satiate fans looking to get their sports fix. “The challenge is that now we need to replicate that dynamic 24 hours a day, seven days a week across multiple platforms,” ESPN executive VP Burke Magnus said in a March 17 Q&A posted on “That’s what is in front of us in terms of long-range programming.”

Sports nets are filling the gap with library content and talk shows like FS1's 'Skip and Shannon: Undisputed.'

Sports nets are filling the gap with library content and talk shows like FS1's 'Skip and Shannon: Undisputed.'

Sports analyst Lee Berke said the unprecedented moves by Major League Baseball, the National Basketball Association and National Hockey League and other major sports entities to suspend their seasons due to the coronavirus outbreak will cost national networks millions in lost ad revenue. Ultimately, those costs could be made up once the games begin.

“From a business standpoint, all of the contracts have force majeure clauses, and this is about as force majeure as it gets,” Berke said. “Financially they could shift payments, extend years of the term, prorate any lost revenues — there are a variety of ways to approach it.”

In the meantime, networks are looking to fill lost scheduling time with library fare and chat. After a short hiatus, FS1 on March 18 returned two daily talk shows, Skip and Shannon Undisputed and The Herd With Colin Cowherd, to the schedule “in a modified format.” Further, FS1 will lean on evergreen programming, including classic baseball, NASCAR, boxing and college football contests, to keep viewers tuning in until the major sports leagues come back to the field of play.

Fox Sports continues to distribute live sports content — albeit with no live audiences — from such franchises as the Professional Bowlers Association tour and WWE.

“Fox Sports has been working tirelessly, to return our FS1 daily lineup, while at the same time maintaining the health and safety of our employees during these challenging times,” the programmer said in a statement.

ESPN’s Magnus said that the network’s goals going forward are to be “relevant” through news and live studio programming such as SportsCenter and to entertain fans through archival and stunt event programming.

Magnus also explained that the network doesn’t have rights to full-game presentations across the leagues, adding it will require individual conversations with specific leagues or properties to determine what’s possible to air.

“We are working with the leagues themselves to free up the possibility of showing encore presentations and discussing how we can present them,” he said. “Event programming will continue to be supplemented by ESPN live studio and news programming, plus original shows and films.”

Berke said once the games do return, so will the viewers. “When sports comes back, sports viewership will come back with a vengeance,” he said.

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.