When Coronavirus Turns Every Sports Channel Into ESPN Classic

In a DVR and streaming world, sports are practically the only thing that needs to be viewed on a specific channel at a specific time. If a network has enough live sports media rights, cable companies are all but forced to carry it — and to pay a hefty monthly fee for the privilege of offering the games to their customers — and advertisers have to pay large sums of money to reach the vast audience of sports fans.

Live sports are the star of the show, and the surrounding programming is just window dressing.

Regional sports networks, which show the vast majority of N.B.A., M.L.B. and N.H.L. games in the United States, take this to the extreme. Most barely bother to offer compelling daytime programming. The networks know they are indispensable because of the three hours each night they show your favorite team’s game — why run up costs during the other 21 hours of the day?

Even at ESPN, FS1, NBCSN and other networks that try — with varying degrees of success — to persuade viewers to watch programming that isn’t live action, people generally understand the reality.

“The majority of the costs, the majority of the ratings, and the majority of the revenue is always going to be from the games,” Brian Windhorst, an ESPN analyst who appears on a number of the company’s shows, told me two years ago. “If we could put games on 24/7, there wouldn’t even be us.”

Then came the sobering kicker. “We’re just filling times between the games,” he said.

So what happens when the sports are all filler and reruns?

The second a game ends, its value drops precipitously. As programming, live sports aren’t the brand-new car that loses 10 percent of its value the second it is driven off the lot. Live sports are the brand-new car that gets totaled by a speeding semi-truck the second it is driven off the lot.

In other words, nobody wants to watch sports when they already know the outcome.

Scripted programming, on the other hand, is still watchable — and therefore valuable — years or even decades later. Streaming services pay around $85 million annually to show the sitcom “Friends” and $100 million annually to show “The Office.” “Friends” went off the air 16 years ago, and “The Office” ended in 2013. People will watch these shows years later, and then rewatch them and rewatch them.

What makes sports so enthralling — the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat, to steal a phrase from ABC’s “Wide World of Sports” — is the same thing that makes sports channels so useless right now.

“Sports is really good in the moment,” Reed Hastings, the chief executive of Netflix, said a few years ago. “So you want to watch the game, but the afterlife of a given show is quite small.”

Quite small indeed.

Almost alone among sports leagues, Ultimate Fighting Championship opted not to cancel its competition this weekend in Brazil, but to instead hold fights without fans in attendance. Dana White, the U.F.C. president, said he went forward after consulting with the White House. Whether or not this was just risky, or highly irresponsible, remains to be seen. But for the sports fan, it was manna from heaven: Something live.

The fighters dispensed with hamming up their entrances. The ring announcer bellowed their names into a cavernous nothingness. Grunts and punches were clearly audible. Yet when Charles Oliveira guillotined Kevin Lee to end the main event, I felt the familiar thrill of experiencing the unexpected for the only time all weekend.

That feeling soon disappeared.

ESPN’s “Bottom Line,” that comforting scroll of data, transactional news and the churning of the sports world all around me, had changed.

There was news about a few college basketball players who were entering the transfer portal, and of Rick Pitino’s hiring by Iona. But mostly the scroll was an inescapable reminder of the enormous challenge in the weeks and months ahead for the world:

Rudy Gobert donating $500,000 to coronavirus relief. Donovan Mitchell in isolation, feeling fine. Trevor Bauer speaking about virus stoppage. Teams assisting arena workers during the hiatus. Japan’s prime minister: Olympics on as planned. Unidentified Seattle player has coronavirus. Baseball, Pro Football Halls of Fame close.

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