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Amid coronavirus outbreak, ESPN struggles to fill airtime

Thomas Barrabi

ESPN is struggling to fill its programming schedule this month after the coronavirus outbreak prompted all major U.S. sports leagues to indefinitely suspend their seasons.

With no live sporting events available, the Disney-owned network has relied on news broadcasts such as “SportsCenter” and studio shows such as “NFL Live” to keep fans entertained. Recent guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which called for an eight-week moratorium on gatherings of 50 or more people, virtually assured that no major sporting events will take place until mid-May at the earliest.

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Meanwhile, ESPN and other sports-centric networks will have to get creative to fill out their lineups.  Burke Magnus, ESPN’s executive vice president of programming acquisitions and scheduling, said the network has “two simultaneous goals” in the coming weeks.

“One is the immediate future in terms of how we can be as relevant as possible through news and live studio programming in order to frame for sports fans the impact that these unprecedented circumstances are having on the sports world,” Magnus said in a blog post. “Since this week coincidentally is the beginning of the NFL league calendar and free agency, we’ve built our schedules with an eye toward that being a major topic of conversation.”

“The second goal is aimed at looking ahead to entertain fans through fun, compelling archival content and/or themed and stunt event programming that will provide a diversion at a time that there are virtually no other live sports to watch,” he added.

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ESPN has billions of dollars tied to media rights deals with U.S. sports leagues, including key contracts with the NBA and MLB. Both leagues have suspended games for the foreseeable future.

ESPN and fellow NBA broadcast rights holder TNT earned nearly $600 million from national television advertising last season alone, according to Kantar, a media research firm.

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So far, U.S. sports leagues have received universal support from their broadcast partners regarding their decisions to suspend play. Magnus said ESPN could fast track original programming or re-air archived game footage to fill airtime.

“Since we’ve heard from fans that would love to relive full-game presentations, particularly at this moment in time, we are exploring that possibility for events and content that we don’t have re-air rights already,” he said.

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