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TV networks scramble and dig into archives to fill sports broadcasting void

A television cameraman prepares to broadcast a UEFA Europa League match between Wolfsberg and Shakhtar Donetsk on Thursday.
A television cameraman prepares to broadcast a UEFA Europa League match between Wolfsberg and Shakhtar Donetsk on Thursday.
(Getty Images)

Steve Rushin was playing a game of one-on-one with his basketball-obsessed 11-year-old son, Thomas, in the driveway of their suburban Hartford, Conn., home on Friday when a couple Rushin didn’t know but recognized from an adjacent neighborhood walked by with a large dog.

“Mind if we watch?” the man, who was wearing what looked to be an orange Syracuse hoodie, asked Rushin. “There aren’t any games on TV.”

Rushin, the longtime Sports Illustrated writer and author of several books, laughed and invited the couple to stay.

“This,” Rushin told them, “is as close to March Madness as you’re going to get.”

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He might be right.

When U.S. professional basketball, hockey, baseball, soccer and football leagues, college and most high school sports shut down last week because of the global coronavirus pandemic, it left television network executives scrambling to fill hours of air time devoted to live sporting events.

If the first weekend without live sports action is any indication, the pickings are going to be pretty slim for those who are holed up in their living rooms with the TV remote in one hand and a bottle of hand sanitizer in the other.

ESPN and ABC had scheduled a full slate of weekend events, including three NBA games — one of them Sunday’s Denver-Lakers game — the Atlantic Coast, Big 12 and Big West college basketball tournaments, a UFC fight card and an XFL game.

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A New York Yankees minor leaguer became the first pro baseball player to test positive for COVID-19, and MLB took steps to mitigate the virus’ spread.

The UFC went on Saturday as scheduled, but in place of the other events were the “Best of the X Games” from Norway and two “30 for 30” documentaries — “I Hate Christian Laettner” and “Phi Slama Jama” — on ABC; an encore presentation of UFC fights on ESPN, and several “Basketball: A Love Story” documentaries and the replay of Saturday’s UFC fights on ESPN2.

Sunday’s schedule featured three “College Football 150” documentaries, which chronicle the greatest 150 games in college football history, on ABC; four “30 for 30" documentaries and a documentary about NBA star Dwyane Wade on ESPN, and replays of eight men’s and women’s college basketball games on ESPN2.

“This is an unprecedented situation,” Josh Krulewitz, ESPN’s vice president of communications, said in a statement. “We have great relationships with our league partners and are confident we can address all issues constructively going forward. Our immediate focus is on everyone’s safety and well-being.”

Krulewitz added in an email that “our programming team is hard at work to fill the holes on our networks,” a challenge that was reflected in the weekend sports sections of The Times.

The daily “On the Air” package, which is two columns wide and usually runs from the top of Page 2 to the bottom on the weekends, consisted of eight events Saturday and 10 Sunday — 12 soccer games from far-flung regions around the world, five horse-racing telecasts and one pro-bowling tournament.

Fox Sports Prime Ticket’s original Saturday schedule included a Ducks-Kings game at 1 p.m. and a Clippers-New Orleans Pelicans game at 7:30 p.m.

Those were replaced by replays of an NHRA drag race, something called the “Air Race World Championship” from Spielberg, Austria, and a Crashed Ice downhill ice-skating race from Marseille, France.

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Instead of Angels exhibitions on Saturday and Sunday, FS West televised a Red Bull air race and downhill mountain-biking competition Saturday and a snowboard competition and replay of a tennis tournament Sunday.

Spectrum’s Lakers station had a full slate of boys and girls CIF state championship games scheduled for Friday and Saturday and a Lakers game Sunday. They were replaced by episodes of “Backstage Lakers” and “The Birth of a Dynasty,” a documentary about the 1999-2000 Lakers.

SportsNet LA filled weekend slots for Dodgers exhibitions with episodes of “Backstage Dodgers” and replays of full games from its “Timeless Dodgers” series.

“We fully support our league partners, and we’ll continue to work closely with the Lakers, Dodgers, Galaxy and CIF as we continue to navigate through these unprecedented times,” Stacey Mitch, the senior director of sports and news communications for Spectrum Networks, said in a statement.

“Spectrum SportsNet and SportsNet LA programming will include encore airings of our award-winning original shows, classic games, including Dodgers, Lakers, Galaxy and CIF games, and live studio programming where we can. We will continuously monitor the situation and adjust our programming suitably.”

MLB Network filled slots for weekend exhibitions with documentaries on Johnny Bench and the 1989 Oakland Athletics. The Golf Channel showed a replay of the 2019 Players Championship. The Tennis Channel showed replays of the 2019 Indian Wells tour event.

NBCSN’s English Premier League match of the week was replaced by replays of Arsenal-Tottenham on Saturday and Manchester United-Chelsea on Sunday. Sunday’s scheduled telecast of the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg was replaced by a replay of the 2019 event.

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The suspension and cancellation of sporting events around the world in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic has hit sports books in Las Vegas hard.

The network also devoted several hours on Saturday and Sunday to the Mecum Auto Auction, a Phoenix-area event in which a 1962 Shelby Cobra CSX 8000 Roadster sold for $133,000 and a souped-up, 750-horsepower 2015 Ford Mustang sold for $82,000.

Sports bars are feeling the effects of the virus. At the Golden Road Brewery, across the street from Angel Stadium in Anaheim, a dinner-hour crowd that one server said was “about one-third the usual size” on Saturday paid no attention to the six large television screens in the main dining room.

Two TVs showed a year-old golf tournament, two showed drag racing, one showed the X Games from Norway and one showed replays of college basketball games in place of the scheduled live conference tournament action and, eventually, Sunday’s NCAA tournament selection show.

If it’s live hoops action you crave, your best bet might be to head to your local playground or neighborhood court, like the one in Granby, Conn., where the couple walking their dog Friday would have gotten an eyeful of action had they arrived 15 minutes earlier.

Rushin, 53, is married to former University of Connecticut and WNBA star Rebecca Lobo, 46. They were playing two-on-two with Thomas and their 13-year-old daughter, Maeve, before Rebecca left to drive their 9-year-old daughter to a birthday party, just minutes before the neighborhood couple arrived.

“They paused for less than a minute while we continued to play, and then they walked on,” Rushin said. “So they just missed seeing some decent basketball from an aging Hall of Famer. Instead, they got me.”


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