How ESPN is approaching sports during the Coronavirus outbreak

In the midst of a crisis, it’s normal to search for a distraction. That can be losing yourself in a novel never explored or finding joy in art, or crafting, which can be helpful. But in some of the US’ most trying times, sports have provided a reprieve during hardships.

After the terror attacks on September 11, sports seemingly united the US when New York Mets Hall of Fame catcher smacked a home run off Atlanta Braves right-hander Steve Karsay to give the Mets the lead in the eighth inning. Shortly after, President George W. Bush threw out the first pitch at Yankee Stadium after the attacks during Game 3 of the 2001 World Series. After the Boston Marathon Bombings, Red Sox legend David Ortiz famously united a broken city at Fenway Park by saying, “This is our f–king city.”

But in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak, sports aren’t here to save us. Getting lost in the fanfare of a baseball game this spring won’t happen for some time. Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred announced the start of the regular season would be pushed back after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended restricting outings of more than 50 people for the next eight weeks.

March Madness, which was slated to start this week, has been canceled. The NBA, NHL, tennis, and most soccer around the world have stalled in the wake of the coronavirus. It creates a hodgepodge of possibilities once the coronavirus outbreak is better understood, but for now, only silence and nostalgia will serve sports fans through the coronavirus pandemic.

That’s created an unprecedented disruption to ESPN. The Worldwide Leader finds itself unable to deliver live sports with sports seemingly on pause.

ESPN’s Executive Vice President, Programming Acquisitions and Scheduling, Burke Magnus spoke with the company’s media arm Front Row to discuss how ESPN is approaching a sport-less landscape that leaves the company trying to fill voids the past week.

“Thursday, March 12, 2020 is a day none of us will soon forget. Coming off the NBA’s decision to suspend play the night before, so many leagues and properties had to make really challenging decisions about their seasons or events,” Burke said. “As those decisions were made, the downstream effects began to unravel the ESPN programming schedule across our networks and we had to adjust accordingly.”

Burke said ESPN had an all-hands meeting at one of its buildings to discuss sports content where they were forced to make “in-the-moment decisions” regarding content and production and live studio presentation. But by Friday, ESPN shuffled workers home where they were forced to rely on digital communication.

He said ESPN has two goals moving forward: to figure out how to be as relevant as possible to deliver news and live studio programming for sports fans where major sports news would be presented, such as NFL’s free agency, which kicked off Monday, and secondly, to keep fans entertained through archival footage and themed-event programming.

“This element speaks to both the experience we’ve had programming over the years and the ideas that people have been forwarding to us in recent days,” Burke said. “There are so many creative things we can do, similar to some of the initiatives we’ve done in the past for special event anniversaries, “The Ocho” day and more. The challenge is that now we need to replicate that dynamic 24 hours a day, seven days a week across multiple networks. That’s what is in front of us in terms of long-range planning.”

Burke said re-airs of full-game presentations are an obstacle since ESPN and other media companies don’t own the rights of specific league programming. He said ESPN is exploring avenues in which it would be able to re-air events and content that they don’t have rights for.

If you’re hoping ESPN will bump up the air date of its highly anticipated 10-part documentary “The Last Dance”, about Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls, unfortunately, you’ll still have to wait — it won’t be coming until June since it’s still in production.

“I know some have asked about The Last Dance and the reality is that the production of that film has not yet been completed, so we are limited there at the moment. Obviously, you can’t air it until it’s done,” Burke said.