With Live Sports on Hold, Broadcasters Have Dug Deep to Find Alternative Programming

As networks scramble to keep sports fans engaged, 'You can’t go dark; that’s not a choice'

Documentaries like ESPN's The Last Dance have helped fill the programming void in the absence of live sports. ESPN

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Almost as soon as sporting events around the country and the world shut down two months ago, ESPN began talking to filmmakers about speeding up the release of Michael Jordan documentary series The Last Dance.

The 10-part series, a partnership between ESPN’s film division and Netflix, had been in the works for two years and had been slated for a June airing, but following the bottoming out of live sports in mid-March, the network was eager to air something new, and premium, for sports-starved audiences. And the hustle from the docuseries’ team to speed up the release paid off: The Last Dance, which began airing Sunday nights in mid-April and aired its last episodes this week, didn’t only receive critical acclaim—it has become the most-watched documentary in the channel’s history, averaging 5.6 million viewers in live-plus-same-day ratings.

The Last Dance is the most successful example of the many ways sports broadcasters have attempted to fill their networks following the sudden drop-off of almost every live sporting event on the calendar and the near-immediate drought in advertising dollars from that programming’s disappearance. It’s not just docuseries, though. They’ve tapped alternative live sports programming, dug through their archives and pushed their technological acumen to try to keep sports viewers satiated with new programming.

“I’ve been at ESPN for almost 18 years, and this has easily been the busiest stretch of my career. Every day has just been nonstop,” said Ilan Ben-Hanan, svp, programming and acquisitions, ESPN.

Most sports broadcasters point to March 11 as the day sports broadcasting would change forever. The NBA suspended its season abruptly after a Utah Jazz player tested positive for Covid-19. The next day, the PGA Tour pulled the plug on the Players Championship after one round.

“With [NBA commissioner] Adam Silver making his move and then [PGA Tour commissioner] Jay Monahan making his, that really was a wake-up call for the business that things were in dire straits, and then everybody else followed suit,” said Jon Miller, president, programming, NBC Sports and NBCSN. “But you can’t go dark; that’s not a choice.”

Sports programmers often operate with a fixed schedule that allows them to plan months in advance around tentpole programming and sporting events. Within 48 hours, though, that calendar was thrown out. At ESPN, operations that usually had plans 90 days out moved to a daily conversation around what could air.

“On March 12, I could have told you pretty comfortably what things would look like through June, but then we immediately went into: what’s going to be on the network today?” Ben-Hanan said.

Conversations with rights holders began almost immediately, and within 48 hours, NBC Sports had called all of its partners to determine what sorts of programs were available to them. ESPN opted to air the fourth edition of ESPN8: The Ocho, a collection of previous programming centered on lesser-known alternative sporting events, everything from marble runs to cherry-pit spitting.

Much of those early programming decisions centered on rebroadcasting old games and footage pulled from the archives, but those didn’t necessarily draw big audiences.

“We ran a lot of library footage, a lot of historic games,” said Seth Winter, evp of sports sales at Fox Sports, about the broadcaster’s early strategy. “Just tepid interest, I think, from both the viewers and certainly the ad community. I think it was nice to watch, but I don’t think it was anything that really resonated all that well with either our viewers or our advertisers.”

As the drought continued, broadcasters worked quickly to get remote set-ups to their talent so they could provide new commentary, analysis and news coverage of the ongoing pandemic’s effects on the sports world remotely. Those talking heads are now offering up commentary and analysis from their homes, weighing in on the sports news du jour and even discussing old matches that broadcasters are reairing.

It didn’t take long for broadcasters to develop an even deeper appreciation of live events, and there have been efforts to keep live sports on air—albeit from less conventional sources. ESPN has for weeks aired live matchups from the American Cornhole League, while CBS Sports Network opted to air live bull riding competitions in March.

With the Preakness Stakes and the Kentucky Derby both postponed, NBC Sports instead aired a virtual Kentucky Derby at Home Party, where past derby horses were pitted against each other via a computer algorithm. The company also broadcast the competitive FIFA gaming tournament ePremiere League in late April.

“Those have been fun and entertaining, and they have been great Band-Aids, but they are not a long-term solution,” Miller said. “People can watch them for a limited amount of time, but they’re not going to watch virtual gaming on broadcast television the way they would an NHL game or a Premiere League game or a Nascar race or an Indy car race.”

Among the programming experiences, some programmers have found hits. Fox began a simulated car racing competition, the eNASCAR iRacing Pro invitational Series, in mid-March, and found that the inaugural broadcast drew the biggest audience to FS1 since the sports shutdown began.

“For us, iRacing was a revelation, and I think it’s probably a property that we will continue to nurture and develop and to actually embrace moving forward,” Winter said.

There were still some sports tentpoles that programmers could schedule around. The airing of the NFL draft, which offered a videoconferenced event, drew ratings records for ESPN and ABC, and analysts from various sports properties provided their own commentary and analysis. The ensuing NFL season has also served as a regular source of focus for remotely made talk shows airing on sports networks.

Otherwise, documentaries and original segments have filled the rest of the on-air gaps. To capitalize on the success of The Last Dance, ESPN is hoping to continue attracting audiences with its documentary series 30 For 30, with three new documentaries airing on the next three Sunday nights. NBC Sports, meanwhile, is prepping and airing stories about Olympics athletes that it had originally prepared to air closer to the now-postponed Summer Olympics.

“With less live events, we’ve had to lean in heavier on the storytelling,” Ben-Hanan said. “And we’ve had a lot of fun in these last couple months doing things that are a little bit different.”

Make no mistake, though: Sports broadcasters are as eager for sports’ return as fans are—which is why they’re champing at the bit for the careful return of some races, matchups and other live sporting events that have already begun trickling back on air. Advertisers are equally eager to jump back in: One live sports matchup, Turner Sports’ The Match: Champions for Charity, sold out of its advertising inventory three weeks prior to this Sunday’s broadcast on TNT, TBS, truTV and HLN.

“People are so sports-starved, and I think that when sports come back, it’s going to be embraced in a big, big way,” Miller said. “People are going to consume it like they have in the past, and they’re going to be so thankful and will appreciate it even more.”

That is already starting to happen with the first live sports broadcasts in two months. Last weekend, Fox Sports’  Real Heroes 400 NASCAR race from Darlington, S.C., averaged 6.32 million viewers, a 38% jump compared to the last race held before the shutdown, while NBC Sports’ TaylorMade Driving Relief golf charity tournament averaged 2.35 million viewers.

Jason Lynch contributed reporting to this article.

@kelseymsutton kelsey.sutton@adweek.com Kelsey Sutton is the streaming editor at Adweek, where she covers the business of streaming television.