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Commentary: Sports are on hold due to the coronavirus. ESPN hosts are mourning the loss too

Max Kellerman
Max Kellerman on the set of ESPN’s “First Take.”
(Nick Caito / ESPN Images)

“Stick to sports.”

It’s a dismissive catchphrase that became a rallying cry for some fans, one that has changed the course of careers, cable network coverage and one justifiably revered website.

Now, with the coronavirus pandemic forcing the cancellation or uncertain delay of every live sporting event including March Madness, the NBA, the NHL, the Masters and the Kentucky Derby, just what is a 24-hour sports network like ESPN to do when there are no more games to cover?

Heading into the first weekend with a clear shortage of events, the network’s typically boisterous presence carried a mournful air. One segment, produced by the network’s reporter Mark Schwartz under the title “March Sadness,” blended footage of lunatic college kids cheering their basketball teams with a grim requiem for the careers of NCAA stars such as Dayton’s Obi Toppin and University of Oregon’s Sabrina Ionescu, both of whom have now played their final college games without a championship or so much as a final ovation.

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“There are things bigger than basketball,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo told the network last Thursday after the tournament was canceled amid a growing public health crisis.

And, thankfully for ESPN, one of those things is football. This weekend, the NFL ratified a collective bargaining agreement between the owners and the players union that, theoretically, assured no interruption in games through 2030. With the ability to negotiate trades and free-agent contracts unaffected by social distancing, the arrival of actual NFL news brought a sense of normalcy back to TV sports.

With barely any time to argue about a trade that on Monday sent a star receiver from the Houston Texans to the Arizona Cardinals, Tuesday morning brought another gift to ESPN’s roster of pundits. Future Hall of Fame quarterback Tom Brady announced on Twitter that he would not be returning to the New England Patriots, his team of 20 years. Speculation — long the network’s favored indoor sport during daytime hours — ran high enough to fuel NFL programming through the morning and beyond with the promise of more moves ahead.

Disney’s lucrative sports network has hours to fill as arenas and stadiums go dark. The coronavirus could be a major challenge for ESPN, which was already grappling with sharp declines in subscribers before the pandemic struck.

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New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady during the the AFC Wild Card Playoff game against the Tennessee Titans earlier this year.
New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady during the the AFC Wild Card Playoff game against the Tennessee Titans earlier this year.
(Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

In an interview released by the network on Tuesday, ESPN Executive Vice President Burke Magnus offered a view of the uncertain weeks and months ahead. “We have two simultaneous goals,” Magnus said. “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. 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.”

Over the weekend, there were still corners of the sports world not yet silenced by the threat of the coronavirus. Shortly after the network’s crawl offered word that Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro called the response to the global pandemic “hysteria,” ESPN broadcast its regularly scheduled UFC Fight Night live from Brazil led by a lightweight match between Kevin Lee and Charles Oliveira.

While the rest of the world considered the wisdom of sharing enclosed spaces with airborne particulate matter, the fights went on without any spectators at Ginásio Nilson Nelson in Brasilia. Backed by only the sound of the fight and the sparse chorus of shouts from coaching staff, two women’s flyweight boxers, Maryna “Iron Lady” Moroz and Mayra Bueno Silva, battered one another in a bloodied ring for one of the undercard matches, a spectacle that looked even more barbaric than usual given the circumstances. Moroz won her bout, as did Oliveira, but the shadow of a greater opponent remained — UFC’s next three events were canceled on Monday.

On Saturday night, the network turned to Mexico for one of the few remaining live events via its Spanish-language affiliate ESPN Deportes, which showed a Liga MX soccer match between F.C. Juarez and U.A.N.L. from Estadio Universitario in San Nicolás de los Garza. Also played before empty stands, the match carried an eerily hushed, unsettling quality without a familiar backdrop of cheers, chants or whistles in a stadium with a capacity of more than 41,000. U.A.N.L. defeated Juarez, and, a day later, the league announced it too was suspending all future matches.

Thursday, England’s Premier League will decide the fate of the remainder of its season, which prior to its indefinite suspension looked set to deliver the first league title in 30 years to runaway leaders Liverpool. Usually broadcast on NBC Sports in the U.S. and covered with a fan’s giddy passion by the network’s commentators Roger Bennett and Michael Davies (better known as hosts of the podcast and weekly NBC show “Men in Blazers”), the league was mourned by both hosts as news continued about postponements of tournaments such as the European Championships and South America’s Copa America.

“Football’s signature tournaments shifting to Summer 2021 sensible but unsettling,” Bennett wrote on Twitter Tuesday. “Return of sports is now a symbol of the normality and safety we yearn for.”

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The coronavirus pandemic has created plenty of problems for television networks that rely on live sports to fill up their daily programming.

In the absence of live events, sports fans eager for a competitive fix are now left turning to the past. Second maybe only to movie fans, sports fans have a long-held hunger for the achievements of history, and ESPN’s award-winning documentary series “30 for 30” was called upon over the weekend to help fill the void with episodes dedicated to North Carolina’s NCAA title run and Michael Vick. ESPN and NBC rebroadcast recent events from UFC, the Premier League and college basketball.

ESPN is also exploring full rebroadcasts of games from its library as well as other games where the network is not the primary rights-holder. “Each one of these circumstances requires individual conversations with the specific league or property to determine what’s possible,” the network’s Magnus explained.

Major League Baseball also allowed access to its archive of classic games on YouTube and, for those looking to venture even further back, Ken Burns has made his 1994 documentary “Baseball” available for free via PBS. “As many of us hunker down in the days ahead, it’s important that we find things that bring us together,” Burns said in a video released Sunday. “That’s why, in the absence of many of our favorite sports, I’ve asked PBS to stream my film about America’s pastime.”

A new season of baseball, like the NBA and the NHL, also remains in the balance as the pandemic continues to unfold. The NBA recently announced a best-case scenario of mid- to late-June for a return, a time that traditionally marks the start of the playoffs. On Monday, the prospect of a lost season served as red meat for ESPN’s roster of opinion-havers, and “First Take” co-hosts Stephen A. Smith and Max Kellerman weighed in. Kellerman was — like so many of us — hoping for the best but expecting the worst for a crisis that has proved immune to predictable timelines. Smith, as he does, begged to differ.

“I believe in this country, I believe in this world,” argued Smith, who was framed in isolation in one studio while, at the other side of the screen, Kellerman remained boxed in another. “Can we be a bit optimistic, my brother?”


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