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The Impact of COVID-19 on Sports Media

Mark Bacon—Main Event Sports DC

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to progress worldwide, many are trying to better understand how the virus is affecting everyday life.

The novel coronavirus has affected the sports world like nothing before in its history. Usually when there is a significant world event, sports serve as a distraction and a way to unify people. That was evident with 9/11, Hurricane Katrina and many other events throughout history. In this pandemic, sports is a central part of the story, part of the problem. The virus easily spreads in large crowds. It will be months, if not years, before people feel comfortable attending events with 80,000-plus people.

It is tragic. COVID-19 has robbed us of the best sports has to offer. The NCAA Basketball tournament, the build-up to the NBA Playoffs, Major League Baseball’s Opening Day, the NHL Playoffs, Wimbledon and the Kentucky Derby.

To speak specifically to sports television, the last few decades have witnessed a huge rise in the number of sports television outlets — a rise that first followed along with the growth of cable television and then, more recently, the growth of internet-distributed television. To a great extent, the expansion of sports television over the last few decades has relied on live sporting events — not just to generate live event coverage itself, but also to generate content that can be discussed in the many studio shows that also fill these outlets’ programming schedules.

Without those live sporting events, these many sports television outlets have had to look to alternative programming to fill their schedules. A notable example has been the many outlets uncharacteristically turning to replays of older event telecasts. Of course, the loss of live event coverage has dramatic financial implications. As more and more television viewers either time shift or watch on demand, and in the process bypass advertising, live sports coverage has had great appeal for advertisers, with viewers largely reluctant to watch sporting events on delay. Both advertisers and sports television networks will be struggling to adjust to the loss of that valuable programming. More generally, sports television networks will, like the rest of the television industry, also potentially have to adapt to a broader decline in advertising as companies reevaluate their marketing budgets.

There are still a lot of stories to cover and write about. The beauty of sports is it touches every part of society and is ingrained in our culture. Nearly everyone can relate to sports. In addition, famous athletes—and even some journalists—have a tremendous platform on social media. Many are now using that platform to communicate with the general public and urge them to practice safe measures and social distancing.

Without live sporting events to generate coverage, we are witnessing an even greater emphasis on transactions, with the NFL’s free agency period dominating the coverage on many sports television outlets. In recent decades, sports media coverage has increasingly focused on managerial activities, with more and more attention paid to player transactions and other roster maneuverings. This trend is perhaps best exemplified by the increasing interest in NFL draft coverage over the last few decades. Unsurprisingly, too, the coronavirus and its effects on the sports world have also dominated discussions.

Sports is going to play a central role in our recovery and getting back to normalcy. When live sporting events return, people will feel safer and better about things. Many events will begin without fans in attendance, but slowly we’ll get back to normal. I truly believe that once people feel safe going to a baseball or basketball game, they will feel safe resuming their normal lives.

Without any certainty regarding the return of live sports, I would expect transactional coverage to continue to play a large role. For example, I would assume that as many outlets as possible will supersize their NFL draft coverage. I also expect that the effects of the coronavirus will continue to dominate coverage, with many discussions centering around either what it might mean to resume suspended seasons or to transition into new ones. Moreover, television networks will likely also keep experimenting with other types of programming that might be able to fill their programming schedules, such as esports coverage. Meanwhile, television networks and advertisers will continue to have to figure out how to adjust to inevitably lower ratings and the loss of event coverage that could be counted on to gather large, live audiences.

How do we stay tuned with the sports industry during this time? Support media outlets and read, watch and consume everything you can. There is tremendous sports journalism and storytelling out there. Learn from it and try and add to it. When the pandemic finally passes, and none of us can say with certainty when that will be, sports will provide the most immediate feeling of a return to “normalcy.”

I, for one, cannot wait.

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