The Night Sports Turned Off the Lights

The evening of March 11 seemed like any normal night for Disney-owned ESPN, with evening NBA telecasts between the Utah Jazz and Oklahoma City Thunder, and Sacramento Kings and New Orleans Pelicans, respectively, rounding out a broadcast schedule that was preceded by the University of North Carolina playing Syracuse University in the ACC Tournament in Greensboro, N.C.

College game commentators Jay Bilas and Dick Vitale went through their paces discussing the NCAA’s decision to run the pending March Madness national basketball tournament without spectators due the spreading coronavirus pandemic. The news overshadowed an upset in the making on the court as the storied N.C. Tar Heels were being dominated by the visiting Orange.

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Then came the bombshell: the NBA was suspending its season indefinitely after a player on the Jazz tested positive for the coronavirus. With games in Oklahoma City and Sacramento canceled before they began, and Jazz players and team officials quarantined in their locker room by health officials (a second Jazz player would test positive a day later), ESPN toggled between its headquarters in Bristol, Conn., Oklahoma City, Sacramento and Greensboro giving updates on the rapidly changing situation.

“I’ve loved [college basketball] for 40-something years,” Vitale said. “I never in my wildest dreams would think that I would say the NCAA tournament should be canceled, but it should be. There’s no doubt it should be. Health and safety is a priority. That’s the No. 1 priority. The NCAA has got to act and act quick.”

Indeed, within the next 24 hours the NCAA and most professional leagues (MLB, NHL, MLB, XFL, Nascar, PGA Tour and Association of Tennis Professionals, etc.), the Boston Marathon and high school sports competition in the United States had been either shut down or postponed for the next 30 days or longer.

With President Trump March 13 declaring a national emergency regarding COVID-19, ESPN and ESPN+, the brand’s subscription streaming video platform, and other sports TV networks were left with a gaping content hole that not even endless coronavirus chatter could fill.

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“This is an unprecedented situation,” ESPN 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.”

The network March 12 aired its venerable “SportsCenter” program non-stop interviewing (now) idle coaches and game analysts around the country — many backtracking earlier comments that they felt the games should continue.

Fox Sports shuttered until March 20 all studio show productions due to the virus. NBCUniversal, Netflix and Amazon, among other media companies, advised their employees to work from home going forward.

With most of Hollywood shutting down content production to safeguard employees, and AT&T mandating that all employees (including WarnerMedia Entertainment) work from home if possible, the COVID-19 fiscal impact on the entertainment industry and the U.S. economy in general remains to be seen.

“In terms of impact on media, it really depends on how the virus plays out,” Mark Cuban, owner of the Dallas Mavericks, told The Wall Street Journal. “The NBA and major media companies will have to focus on the health and safety of their employees and stakeholders. That will drive all decision-making.”

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