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Sports TV and radio stations seek solutions to programming with no sports to discuss

Toni Collins and David Lloyd on the ESPN

Toni Collins and David Lloyd on the ESPN set of "SportsCenter" on March 13, 2020. Credit: ESPN Images/Joe Faraoni

The last time a pandemic did this much damage to the sports calendar, an outbreak of the Spanish flu in Seattle caused the 1919 Stanley Cup Final to be called off after five games, with no champion named.

But that was before the invention of television and the advent of commercial radio, so there were no content-starved sports media hosts and executives to fret over it.

This time is different, with the COVID-19 pandemic having brought the North American sports world mostly to a halt, leaving many hours of programming in limbo.

Nationally and locally, TV outlets such as ESPN and MSG Networks no longer have games to show, and programs on WFAN and ESPN New York radio must find other things to talk about.

It is an unprecedented situation in its earliest stages, so solutions still are a work in progress, and executives are reluctant to talk about it in detail.

At the least, the hope is to create a community of sports fans eager for information — or company.

“This is a spot where you still can get together; the FAN never goes dark,” WFAN midday co-host Maggie Gray said on the air on Friday. “There is anxiety now that people might be feeling isolated, but we’re not going to go anywhere . . . We’re going to make it work.

“We’re going to be as entertaining as humanly possible. We’ll give you as many updates as we possibly can . . . We’re all going to keep continuing on here. We hope that you’ll go through the journey with us, because it’s going to be awhile.”

That it will be, with no end in sight. Other than NFL free agency and the occasional COVID-19 update, look for lots more non-sports talk from both local radio stations’ hosts.

“We have lot of ideas to hopefully keep listeners both informed and entertained,” said Mark Chernoff, WFAN’s longtime programming chief.

The local television outlet most affected in the short term is MSG, which carries Knicks, Rangers, Islanders and Devils games. (YES Network carries the Nets.)

The plan is to show a mixture of classic games and interesting ones from this season, including the Knicks’ upset of the Rockets on March 2, Mika Zibanejad’s five-goal game for the Rangers against the Capitals and games from the Islanders’ early season, 17-game point streak.

ESPN expected this week to be showing college basketball conference tournaments but instead has had to devote much of its programming time to “SportsCenter” and its coverage of breaking news.

As the pace of news slows in the coming days, the network will have to adapt.

“Our programming team is hard at work to fill the holes on our networks for the days ahead,” spokesman Josh Krulewitz wrote on Twitter.

Friday’s schedule featured another heavy dose of debate/news shows such as “Get Up!” and “First Take” as well as extended versions of “SportsCenter.”

The network has a vast library of archival programming it can access, such as old “30 for 30” documentaries.

Its ESPN+ digital service also will be deprived of chunks of its live programming.

Fox on Friday put its studio shows on hiatus at least through the end of next week.

A YES Network spokesman said, "Until games are resumed, we will be evaluating our programming options. In the meantime, we will continue simulcasting 'The Michael Kay Show' while also drawing upon our extensive library of award-winning original programming.” 

SNY plans to put its original studio programming on hiatus for up to two weeks, a development first reported by the Daily News.

CBS will fill its time slots reserved for the NCAA Tournament with its regular mix of news, entertainment and local programming.

The far more complicated matter is how a disruption in sports will affect the TV networks’ contracts with leagues and conferences, and many other financial implications.

Live sports is one of the few things that has kept the traditional cable bundle from unraveling altogether in an era of cord-cutting, and a long drought without games could accelerate that process.

“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.”

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