Scott Van Pelt was speaking specifically of ESPN’s plans for “SportsCenter” while the sports world pauses during the coronavirus pandemic. But the anchor might as well have been speaking on behalf of everyone who is trying to figure out how to program a sports network at a time when there will be no live games for the foreseeable future.
“We’re trying to figure it out,’’ said Van Pelt, who hosts the midnight edition of “SportsCenter,’’ during an interview Friday on the “Dan Patrick Show.’’ “I like to think we’re a fairly creative bunch that can create content in many different ways, but I’m not a [expletive] magician.
“I honestly don’t know what we’ll do. I don’t know if we’ll hit the pause button and everything becomes ESPN Classic. I don’t know. None of us have ever been confronted with a world where there truly are no games.
“We just need [the NFL free agency period] to be popping and go nuts. Like [Tom] Brady to the Raiders. We could make a day out of that.”
“A day,’’ replied Patrick. “I’m making a week out of that. A month.”
While the NFL, at least for now, plans to go ahead with free agency (beginning next Wednesday) and the draft (the first day is April 23), thus leaving plenty of programming for the NFL Network and at least some for national networks like ESPN and Fox, Friday brought more postponements and cancellations in sports.
On Friday alone, the Boston Marathon was moved to September, the Masters was postponed, and NASCAR and IndyCar races were called off this weekend. The NBA, MLB, and NHL had already paused their seasons, while the NCAA basketball tournaments were canceled.
All of this has left enormous voids in the television schedules of sports networks. For instance, ESPN is a rights-holder for both MLB and the NBA, with double-figure programming hours dedicated to live games this week alone before everything stopped. Locally, NESN had Bruins games and spring training Red Sox games on the docket.
As of Friday, many of the networks were scrambling for solutions. ESPN, which has a variety of channels to program, wasn’t even certain as of Friday afternoon what its weekend schedule would look like.
Here is a breakdown of how several sports-only or sports-centric channels planned to handle their programming vacancies as of Friday:
NESN: In lieu of live Bruins and Red Sox games, the network plans to air (on NESN and NESN Plus) a combination of the Bruins’ 38 wins so far this season, the latest 20-plus episodes of NESN’s player profile series “My Story,” the most recent episodes of the Bruins-produced “Behind the B” and “Bruins Academy,” as well as other NESN original programming. Friday night, NESN ran a marathon of “My Story” episodes on the Bruins, beginning with a new one on Sean Kuraly.
NBC Sports Boston: The home of the Celtics will continue to air simulcasts of The Sports Hub’s “Zolak and Betrand” and “Felger and Massarotti” shows, as well as its live studio shows such as “Early Edition” and “Boston Sports Tonight.” Programming may also include encore presentations of Celtics games, including classic matchups.
ESPN: With so many NBA and MLB live sports slots to fill, the network is taking its schedule day-by-day right now. Friday night’s schedule included multiple repeats of the 7 p.m. “SportsCenter” and a replay of a “30 for 30” documentary on the Lakers and Celtics history. Said an ESPN spokesman in a statement: “Our programming team is hard at work to fill the holes on our networks and we will provide updates when finalized. Thanks so much for your understanding.”
CBS: CBS, which is the home of the Masters and shares the NCAA men’s basketball tournament with Turner Sports, has taken a huge hit on its upcoming sports content. A network spokesman said the time that would have been dedicated to the NCAA Tournament will be filled by the main network’s regular daytime, prime-time, and news programming. Its plan for the Masters slot is still to be determined.
NBC: Replacement programming on NBC, NBCSN, and Golf Channel will include encore presentations of events, specials, and feature programming across NBC Sports properties, including Olympics, NHL, Premier League, IndyCar, NASCAR, golf, rugby, figure skating, skiing, and snowboarding.
TNT: The network was one of the first to have to alter its programming on the fly. Thursday night, the evening after the NBA paused its season, the network aired a one-hour “Inside the NBA,’’ then showed replays of this season’s All-Star Game and a December matchup between the Lakers and Knicks. TNT expects to fill the gaps left by the shutdown of the NBA and the cancellation of the NCAA Tournaments with entertainment programming and movies.
Of course, everything is tenuous. It’s possible that studio shows across the networks could be put on hiatus; Fox Sports 1 already made the decision to do so Friday. (Fox Sports did not respond to a request regarding its plans.)
The MLB Network and NHL Network have modified their schedules, a spokesman said, to prioritize the safety and health of its employees. “MLB Tonight” will air a live one-hour program on a daily basis at 6 p.m. Other afternoon programming for the following week will feature MLB Network Countdown programs, “Top 100 Players Right Now!” and “Top 10 Players Right Now!” Primetime programming will feature “MLB Network Presents” documentaries.
“NHL Tonight” will air a live one-hour program on a daily basis at 7 pm ET. Other programming will include “NHL Network Originals,” “Raising The Cup,” “Franchise Classics” and Stanley Cup films.
While sports fans figure out how to get their fix during the pandemic (I’ll be watching Hardwood Classics on NBATV and hoping they’re not all repeats of boring ’90s Knicks games), the reality is that no one really knows what to expect.
We just know that right now, there are no more games, and that will take some getting used to for fans and network personnel alike. Tom Brady rumors won’t be enough.
“We’re going to have to come up with content and be creative,” Van Pelt told Patrick, “because there’s nothing left to postpone.”