Impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on American sports broadcasting

Source: Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.

When the World Health Organization declared the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020, all major professional and collegiate organizations responded by suspending operations indefinitely. This effect was passed down to the world of sports broadcasting, which includes live coverage of thousands of events on an annual basis through stations and network available over the air, through cable, satellite, and IPTV companies, and via streaming and over-the-top services.

Coverage on March 11 and 12

The game on March 11 between the Utah Jazz and the Oklahoma City Thunder which was scrapped when Rudy Gobert tested positive for COVID-19 was to have been shown on AT&T SportsNet Rocky Mountain, Fox Sports Oklahoma, and NBA League Pass. Minutes later, the NBA announced that the season would be put on hold, but that the rest of the night's games would be played as scheduled. ESPN was covering the Denver Nuggets-Dallas Mavericks game; upon hearing the news, ESPN courtside reporter Rachel Nichols interviewed, and got reaction from, Mavericks owner Mark Cuban. That was the first of two scheduled games on ESPN that night. The second was to be New Orleans Pelicans versus the Sacramento Kings; however, that game was postponed when it was discovered that one of the referees scheduled to work the game had a similar assignment on a game earlier in the week in which the Jazz was one of the teams playing. ESPN responded by adding an edition of SportsCenter recapping the night's events.

On March 12, various TV channels and streaming services had planned to cover various conference tournaments in college basketball, The Players Championship on the PGA Tour, various NBA and NHL games, Major League Baseball spring training games, and other sports events. Of those, only the PLAYERS, the first half of a quarterfinal game in the Big East Conference tournament, and the spring training games in Florida (one of which was shown by MLB Network) went off as scheduled.

Once all events were scrapped, ESPN extended SportsCenter to an all-day live program, while ESPN2 aired some of that show as well as some simulcast content from ESPN Radio. ESPNU and Fox Sports 1 re-aired basketball games from earlier in the season, NBCSN elevated its coverage of the Mecum Auto Auctions show in Kissimmee, Florida from an exclusive stream, and Big Ten Network and SEC Network extended their studio programming.

First weekend after shutdown

Long-term replacement plans

Previously to the pandemic, the last extended shutdown of most major U.S. sports was in response to the September 11 attacks; however, in that case, those leagues in season returned within two weeks. As it would take far longer for sports organizations to return this time, networks and channels on all levels had to scramble to find, or create, alternative programming.[2] These eventual plans fell into four basic categories:

Telecasts of available events

Even before most organizations returned, some sporadic live programming was available to air on some channels.

  • Thoroughbred horse racing continued at most U.S. race tracks, so FS1 expanded its America's Day at the Races series and NBCSN reached a deal with TVG Network to simulcast its programming.[3]
  • ESPN reached a deal with the Korea Baseball Organization to air its games live for its 2020 season. The announcers were ESPN talent such as Karl Ravech, Jon Sciambi, Eduardo Pérez, and Tim Kurkjian, who called the action off-monitor from ESPN headquarters in Bristol, Connecticut.[4]
  • ESPN also aired the American Cornhole League on weekend afternoons, although some of that coverage may have been planned before the pandemic.
  • ESPN showed the entry drafts of the WNBA on April 17 and the NFL from April 23 through April 25. Both drafts were virtual, with ESPN's studio being the hub of each telecast. NFL Network canceled its usual separate feed and instead aired ESPN's; NFLN draft host Rich Eisen instead hosted a "Draft-a-thon" that aired on NFL.com and various social media channels.
  • On May 9, the preliminary fights to UFC 249 returned TV coverage of that league to ESPN. This was followed by FOX's telecast of a live NASCAR Cup Series race from Darlington on May 17, the same day as the TaylorMade Driving Relief charity event that was on NBC, NBCSN, and Golf and a Professional Bull Riders event on CBS. On May 24, Woods and Peyton Manning faced off against Mickelson and Tom Brady in The Match: Champions for Charity which aired on TBS, TNT, truTV, and HLN.[5]
  • The PGA Tour also returned before either the NBA, NHL, or MLB, as the Charles Schwab Challenge took place from June 11 to June 14; the tournament was shown on Golf Channel and CBS.

Re-airs of prior events

Television

Radio

Virtual/esports competitions

Every major sports organization used esports in some way during this period when real competition was suspended. In addition, some existing esports platforms received elevated coverage.

The most popular single esports event was the eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series, which took place on simulated versions of tracks on which NASCAR had planned to compete prior to postponement. The April 5 race, set at Texas Motor Speedway, drew an audience of 1.339 million on FS1 and many FOX affiliates, making it the most-watched video-game competition show in U.S. television history. It broke the record of 903,000 set two weeks earlier for the race set at Homestead–Miami Speedway.[40] The series earned a renewal for a second season in 2021 and is credited by some for an increased interest in NASCAR, as evidenced by increased in-person attendance and TV audiences for races run since NASCAR resumed.

NBC, the other partner in carrying NASCAR Cup Series races, also teamed up with iRacing; this was a four-race series that took place between April 6 and April 9.[41]

Elsewhere in motorsports:

  • Formula 1 ran a series called "And We Race On" using the tracks from their postponed races, most notably the Monaco Grand Prix; races were shown on its worldwide broadcast partners including ESPN.[citation needed]
  • IndyCar included a five-race miniseries at both current and former tracks; one of the races was set at Indianapolis Motor Speedway and was conducted the day before the 2020 Indianapolis 500 was to have taken place. NBCSN showed all the races.[42]
  • NBCSN and AMA Supercross came together to organize a virtual motorcycle race set at Angel Stadium of Anaheim, which held several races earlier in the season before the pandemic but would be left off the 2021 schedule.[citation needed]
  • On Saturdays, ESPN aired The Race All-Star Series, on which sports cars competed in simulated races at tracks around the world.[43]
  • On Wednesday nights, FS1 simulated races using sprint cars and those that were used in the defunct International Race of Champions; the races used the iRacing platform. Mario Andretti was a guest commentator on one of the episodes.

MLB and the Major League Baseball Players Association organized the MLB The Show 20 Players League. Pitcher Blake Snell, then of the Tampa Bay Rays, won the final match which was shown May 3 on ESPN.[44]

The NHL staged a tournament with 32, two-person teams, one for each club in the league (including the Seattle Kraken, which had not only yet to play a game at this point, but had not even announced its nickname). The platform was EA Sports' NHL 20. NBCSN had occasional broadcasts as part of "Hockey Happy Hour," while the entire tourney streamed on NHL.com.[citation needed]

The Madden NFL franchise received elevated coverage on ESPN of its invitational and tournament of champions, and added a celebrity tournament that aired on FS1.[citation needed]

The NBA2K League season, which normally is an exclusive stream on ESPN3, aired on Friday nights on ESPN in the late spring. Before that, 16 NBA players competed on the NBA 2K game in a single-elimination bracket format, with ESPN and ESPN2 televising.[45] Another elevated telecast was the League of Legends Spring Split Playoffs, which landed on ESPN2.[46]

MLS held a tournament with 16, two-person teams; each team consisted of an MLS player and a professional video gamer representing a different side in the league. FS1 showed this event on Sunday nights, when actual MLS games would normally air.[47] The Premier League also staged an esports tournament, with players from all 20 clubs participating in a single-elimination format; the final was shown on NBCSN in the U.S. after preliminary rounds were streamed on NBCSports.com.[48]

Video-game simulations of games that were scheduled, but canceled due to the pandemic, aired on NBC Sports Philadelphia,[49] NBC Sports Washington,[50] and on KMVP-FM in Phoenix, Arizona.[51]

Documentaries, features, and specials

ESPN persuaded the producers of The Last Dance, a documentary covering the 1997–98 Chicago Bulls season, to expedite post-production so the show could debut on April 19 in place of Sunday Night Baseball. The 10-part series averaged 6.71 million viewers, making it the most-watched non-sports program in ESPN history. Discussion about the documentary trailed only NFL off-season news among topics discussed on sports radio in the days after the docuseries ended. ESPN also re-aired episodes of 30 for 30 and ESPN Films throughout the shutdown, including many weekends on ABC.

After The Last Dance, ESPN aired two new episodes of 30 for 30 - "Lance" (about cyclist Lance Armstrong) and "Like Water" (about martial artist and actor Bruce Lee) on later Sunday nights.

On June 15, ESPN aired a two-hour series of interviews with commissioners of major professional sports leagues for a SportsCenter special hosted by Mike Greenberg.[52]

Other outlets produced features to fill content holes until resumption of play.

  • ESPN ran a 64-player bracketed tournament to determine the best individual player in college basketball history; a fan vote would determine the winner of each matchup. The player announcement took place on March 19 and the final "match" took place on March 31.[53]
  • ESPN revived its "The Ocho" stunt of offbeat sporting events twice during the shutdown. The first time was on March 22, airing on ESPN2,[54] and the second time was on May 2, airing on ESPN.[55] (The name originated in the film Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story; the associated stunt normally airs on or about August 8 (8/8, "ocho" in Spanish.))
  • Also on ESPN was a eight-player, single-elimination tournament using the playground basketball game H-O-R-S-E. Mark Jones was the play-by-play announcer.[56]
  • NHL.com had a number of series, including Hat Trick Trivia, Skates and Plates, and Who Wore It Best?. These also aired on NBCSN and NHL Network.
  • MLB.com organized two virtual tournaments honoring the history of MLB; both were called "Dream Bracket." In the first, all-star teams were selected for all 30 franchises and were joined by teams representing stars of the Negro leagues and players aged 25 and under to complete a 32-team bracket. In the second, 64 intact teams - all of which had played from the 1961 to the 2019 seasons, except for some Negro league teams - were selected. In both cases, games were simulated using the Out of the Park 21 program and all rounds were best-of-7 series. The New York Yankees defeated the Cincinnati Reds in the final of the first tournament, while the 1986 New York Mets defeated the 2001 Seattle Mariners in the final of the second tournament.[57][58]

TV networks also took advantage of special competitions conducted in some sports. Tennis Channel aired the Ultimate Tennis Showdown, the Adria Tour, and other exhibitions, while the AT&T SportsNet Southwest regional sports network carried the Constellation Energy League, a rare example of a professional league outside of MLB that actually played.

Impact on studio programming

The following chart shows what studio programming were affected, what - if anything - replaced it, and when the shows returned. Even upon resumption, all of part of production was done remotely through at least summer in most cases.

Network Show Date suspended Date returned Notes
ESPN Around the Horn March 16 July 13 ATH was a segment on SportsCenter from April 13 to May 8 and a 20-minute show from May 11 to July 10. PTI was a segment on SportsCenter from March 30 to July 10. HQ and Jalen & Jacoby were 20-minute shows from May 8 to July 10.[59]
Pardon the Interruption
Highly Questionable
Jalen & Jacoby
ESPN Daily Wager March 16 Sep. 8 The show's return was also the debut of its new studio at The Linq on the Las Vegas Strip.
High Noon March 16 never This show was canceled by ESPN and was not part of the return to full studio programming.
Fox Sports 1[a] The Herd with Colin Cowherd March 16 March 18 This program, a simulcast with iHeart Radio was moved from Fox Sports in Los Angeles to iHeart in Burbank, California and was available only on radio. Fox amended the plan after Brady unexpectedly signed with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as a free agent on March 17. At that point, the simulcast was restored as iHeart rigged a TV camera in the Burbank facility. The show returned to L.A. on May 27.
Undisputed with Skip and Shannon March 16 March 23 There had been nighttime editions from March 18 to March 20 before the return to its usual daytime slot.
First Things First
Speak for Yourself
NASCAR Race Hub March 16 March 30 Returned with remote production as the studio remained closed
NBCSN Pro Football Talk March 16 March 23 This program had been replaced by Sky Sports News, which ran for six hours a day that week.
Lunch Talk Live with Mike Tirico[60] N/A N/A These shows were added to the NBCSN schedule. Lunch Talk Live began on April 6 and ran through June 12. Flex began on April 13 and ended sometime in June.
NBC Sports Football Flex
The Rich Eisen Show N/A August 17 This audio simulcast from iHeart was also added to the schedule and removed after the July 10 episode as the Premier League resumed play; however, it came back to NBCSN, only to sign off again on October 2. On October 5, the video feed was moved to Peacock, joining The Dan Patrick Show; both had been on Audience prior to that channel signing off.
MLB Network MLB Tonight March 18 July 20 This program aired live at 6 p.m. Eastern time on March 16 and 17, then Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays until the MLB season began.
MLB Central N/A July 20 These shows were on hiatus during spring training, but were to have resumed on March 26. During the break, they were available only on MLB.com and the organization's social media platforms.
MLB Now
Intentional Talk
NHL Network NHL Tonight March 18 mid-July This program aired live at 7 p.m. Eastern time on March 16 and 17, then Tuesdays and Thursdays until the 2019–20 NHL season returned from its pause.
NHL Now March 16 mid-July This show was available only on NHL.com and on the league's social media platforms.
NBA TV NBA GameTime March 16 March 30 When this show returned, it was done entirely via remote until the NBA returned in mid-July.
NFL Network NFL Total Access March 16 early August This program remained on the air, but the main studio in Culver City, California shut down, with anchors at either a backstage set or the newsroom. At some undetermined point, even those were closed and episodes done remotely.
Good Morning Football March 16 April 13 The Embassy Row studio in lower Manhattan from which this show originated did not reopen until November 9.
Golf Channel Golf Central March 16 April 20 These programs resumed with remote production; the studios in Orlando, Florida remained closed.[61]
Morning Drive

Tennis Channel kept its studio open for the entire hiatus of major tours, except for one week in April. Tennis Channel Live had news updates and hosted the All-Star Fantasy Tournament, a virtual competition in which the results were determined by fan vote and supplemented by archival footage.[62]

ESPN Radio[63] and CBS Sports Network maintained their talk lineups, but all shows (except for the Jim Rome Show on CBS SN and CBS Sports Radio) were done remotely.

Response to George Floyd protests

Some new content was added by sports networks in response to the George Floyd protests that began at the end of May:

  • On June 1, ESPN re-aired a panel discussion from 2016 on how sports organizations and athletes should deal with police brutality.
  • On Juneteenth (June 19), MLBN and NHLN aired separate editions of MLB Tonight and NHL Tonight, each called "A Conversation." Both shows had Black hosts and panelists discussing racial issues.

Coverage of sports events after resumption

Members of the sports media had to abide by the same health and safety protocols that governed athletes and officials in the sports they covered. They were banned from entering team locker rooms (a rule that continued into most sports as of April 2022), and access to other areas of their training and practice facilities were severely limited, thereby affecting their broadcast preparations. In addition, sports leagues and organizations limited the number of media, including announcers and production personnel, allowed at each site.

ESPN and TNT sent all of their game announcers and sideline reporters to the 2020 NBA Bubble at ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Bay Lake, Florida. Play-by-play and color analysts were required to remain separated by Plexiglas structures and reporters had to conduct interviews based on social distancing. Local broadcasters did not travel with their teams; instead, they called games off-monitor at either studio facilities or from their homes. When the NHL resumed play in the "hub cities" of Edmonton and Toronto, all Sportsnet/CBC announcers were on-site, but NBC/NBCSN opted for off-monitor calls originating at NBC Sports studios in Stamford, Connecticut. Announcers also called the WNBA and MLS bubble events (at, respectively, IMG Academy and ESPN WWOS) from remote locations.

Production for these telecasts were modified due to the pandemic protocols. Technical crews used more cameras in different locations than usual, while large-scale video walls were installed in locations close to the field of play to replace actual crowds. (The most elaborate and perhaps the best example of the video setup was WWE ThunderDome, which was in three locations in Florida from August 2020 to July 2021.) On-site audio was also enhanced, mostly with artificial crowd noise. Fox Sports also experimented with "crowds" using computer-generated imagery at some MLB games and had planned further use for the NFL and college football, but those plans would later be aborted. In addition, multiple sites were used for production, rather than the single on-site location that prevailed before the pandemic. Examples:

MLB chose to keep home-and-road schedules with no bubbles until the postseason. In those cases, only one broadcast feed was available; if a game was shown by FOX/FS1 or ESPN, it was the host feed; otherwise, it was maintained by the home team. Only the home announcers were on-site; everyone else was remote, including all FOX/FS1 or ESPN announcers. During the Wild Card Series, TBS sent Rich Waltz and Jimmy Rollins to Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Florida for the series between the Toronto Blue Jays and the Tampa Bay Rays, while all seven of the series shown on ESPN were still called remotely. For remaining postseason rounds, held in modified bubbles (Los Angeles and San Diego in California, and Arlington and Houston in Texas), all commentators and reporters were on-site.

All event commentary at the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing was conducted off-site in Stamford due to strict protocols imposed by the government of China; only some reporters and studio hosts were on-site. NBC also altered an earlier plan to have Tirico travel from Beijing to NBC's coverage of Super Bowl LVI in Inglewood, California and back; instead, after the Los Angeles Rams defeated the Cincinnati Bengals, Tirico hosted the rest of the Games in primetime from the NBC Sports studio.[64]

Financial impact

As a direct result of the pandemic - and the inability to sell ads for live sports events that were not played - Diamond Sports Group, the joint venture of Sinclair Broadcast Group and Entertainment Studios that bought Fox Sports Networks after The Walt Disney Company, which had acquired it, had to divest in 2019 - took a $4.23-billion write-off on the purchase in November 2020 of the RSNs. The RSNs were renamed Bally Sports on March 31, 2021.

While NBCSN closed on December 31, 2021 in the wake of revenue losses from the postponed 2020 Summer Olympics and other lost or rescheduled events, NBC Sports did not directly cite the pandemic as the cause.

Subsequent uses

  • In the fall of 2021, NESN moved the weekday blocks of Bruins and Red Sox games to NESN+; Bruins games re-aired in early afternoon and Red Sox games in late afternoon.
  • Networks and stations had to continue to scramble for replacement programming during frequent postponements and cancellations throughout the pandemic, with a peak coming during the spread of the Omicron variant. Alternate games aired wherever possible; if not, it was reverted to the late spring/early summer 2020 pattern. ESPNU replaced many of the lost time slots with re-airs of episodes of College Football 150, which premiered on ESPN during the 150th anniversary season of college football in 2019.
  • The 2021 Pro Bowl was played in a virtual format using the Madden NFL 21 video game, as the actual game was canceled. Teams were composed of current NFL players and celebrities, and the simulation was shown on NFL Network. Before the simulation, ABC and ESPN simulcast a two-hour special recognizing the players that were chosen as the best in the AFC and NFC that season.
  • During the 2021–22 Major League Baseball lockout, MLB Network reverted to a schedule similar to that earlier in the pandemic by showing vintage games during the day and movies at night; that was because images of active players could not be used.
  • On April 4, 2022, FS1 replayed Game 6 of the 1977 World Series in which Reggie Jackson hit a postseason record-tying three home runs; a live MLB game had been scheduled but was not played due to a delay in the start of the season resulting from the lockout.

Footnotes

  1. ^ At first, these talk shows were replaced by re-broadcasts of various sporting events.

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