Fill the Void: Sport networks turn to classic games, docs and archive content

The Canadian Press

TORONTO — With the live sports schedule all but wiped out due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Canadian sports television networks are turning to classic games and archival content to help fill the massive void.

It doesn't come close to the real thing, but replays at least give fans an option to get their sports fix while providing a much-needed distraction from national and world events.

Games across the country and around the world have been postponed or cancelled. Almost every league has shut down indefinitely. How long it all lasts is anyone's guess in this time of uncertainty.

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That presents a significant challenge for outlets that produce, broadcast or analyze sports content. The quick fallback on the TV front is so-called classic programming.

Look for replays of vintage NHL matchups, Bianca Andreescu's U.S. Open win, NBA Finals repeats and the like. It's part of the new normal in the sports television world — at least for now.

"I think in the immediate, there's some easy low-hanging fruit fixes," said Tom Mayenknecht, a Vancouver-based marketing communications executive and sport business commentator.

"But the longer this goes, you wind up seeing a transformation of some programming schedules that could not live in my view on archived and historical content alone. They'd have to have some new reasons to maintain audience and viewership."

For the interim period, sports documentaries are also getting prime-time treatment. Plays-of-the-month packages appear to be on a loop.

Sportsnet temporarily ceased all live in-house production Monday morning and will soon unveil plans for original content ideas that can be done remotely.

In a statement, the network said its primary focus remains the wellbeing of its employees while "continuing to serve sports fans during this unprecedented time."

"With the lack of live sports programming, we are giving viewers a look back at memorable moments in sports with classic NHL, MLB, and NBA games plus other fan favourite sports events. We will add more unique content to our programming lineup in the near future and will regularly update our schedule on sportsnet.ca and through our social channels."

Upcoming plans for TSN, Sportsnet's main rival, were not immediately available. The CBC, which has recently shifted its sports programming to more of an amateur focus, was also finalizing plans.

The CBC is also a rightsholder for the Tokyo Olympics. It has to balance planning and feature story preparation with the distinct possibility that the Games could be postponed or cancelled.

Television, of course, is only one part of the sports media equation.

Sports radio stations are also trying to fill air time with limited options. Sportswriters at online outlets and newspapers will need to think outside the box.

Mike Naraine, an assistant professor with Brock University's department of sport management, said that once stories on athlete and team adjustments run dry, expect outlets to play the prediction game.

"This is such an unprecedented extenuating circumstance," he said. "But it will shift coverage from what happened last night to what is going to happen a week from now or a month from now.

"Let's play Nostradamus and let's play fortune teller and try to cover the sports world that way."

Poker was a go-to option for networks when labour trouble halted sports leagues in the past. But even the Las Vegas tables have been impacted by the coronavirus as the Strip is essentially deserted.

Meanwhile, with so few sporting options, gamblers have had to turn to betting on things like UFC bouts in empty arenas or searching out games in faraway domestic leagues.

Options are so scant the Coolbet Canada sports betting website was highlighting odds on which companies would fare better on the financial market. GM, for example, started Monday as a pick 'em against Harley Davidson, with both listed with a -118 money line. 

Sport often serves as a welcome respite when life gets serious. It has the power to bring the country together — think the 2010 Vancouver Games, Bianca beating Serena or the Toronto Raptors winning the NBA title — and its absence in these difficult times is deeply felt.

"It is the great equalizer as far as the social connection mechanism," Naraine said. "The fact that we have this indefinite pause is a massive issue partly because it is directly impacting our ability as Canadians to connect to one another."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 16, 2020.

Follow @GregoryStrongCP on Twitter.

Gregory Strong, The Canadian Press

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