How Smaller, Quirkier Sports Are Stepping in to Fill the Live-Events Void

Daniel Holloway

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Cornhole isn’t new to ESPN. But viewers who tuned into the Worldwide Leader in Sports on May 9 were likely to stumble upon a rare treat: live cornhole action.

The American Cornhole League’s “Cornhole Mania 2020” aired on ESPN and ESPN2 Saturday, bringing four hours of live sports to a public and a network starved for them. Since the coronavirus pandemic brought so many aspects of American life to a halt in mid-March, viewers who would be excited for baseball’s Opening Day, enjoying midseason NBA and NHL action and looking ahead to the start of NFL training camps have instead been deprived of major global sports events. 

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Enter the bean bag-tossing stylings of cornhole — and lacrosse and Korean baseball and weightlifting. As programmers look to fill the gaping live-events void, many of the first into the breach are smaller sports with which mainstream viewers may not be entirely familiar.

“This season, we didn’t anticipate being able to have live linear opportunities,” says ACL commissioner and founder Stacey Moore. “Now we’re faced with the opportunity of potentially doing live on linear for seven weeks in a row, if all things go right.”

The ACL signed a TV and digital deal with ESPN in 2017. But before Saturday, the league events had been featured live on ESPN’s linear channels only twice. 

Typically, ACL national competitions take place every other month and involve as many as 1,200 players. But after the March 14 national set for Cleveland was canceled just 10 hours before the start of competition, Moore’s organization developed a plan that would involve breaking up infrequent large events into multiple smaller ones that could be held in more intimate venues with fewer players, no spectators and only essential personnel present. Saturday’s event in Rock Hill, S.C., featured players who had undergone health screenings, wore masks and maintained social distance from one another. 

As a result, the ACL was able to return to competition quickly and create several new events that could be spread out over ESPN’s schedule. 

“In a lot of senses right now, it’s a moment for experimentation,” says Ilan Ben-Hanan, ESPN senior VP of programming and acquisitions. “We’ve never been shy about the notion that sports can be anything from the traditional to something a little more esoteric or offbeat.”

The ease with which smaller organizations pivot has helped them get back to competition more quickly. NBC last week finalized a deal with Premier Lacrosse League for a 16-game tournament designed to run July 25-Aug. 9, in the broadcast window left vacant by the postponed Tokyo Olympics.

Shortly after the announcement that the Olympics would be rescheduled for next year, PLL co-founder Paul Rabil reached out to NBC Sports, which already had an agreement with the league. Rabil proposed a plan in which PLL’s regular season would be condensed and reorganized as a single tournament that would require players be tested and, if needed, quarantined.

That nimbleness allowed PLL to adapt quickly to the current crisis, according to Jon Miller, NBC Sports president of programming. “You’ve got a relatively small footprint with which to execute this,” Miller says. “You couldn’t do that with Major League Baseball or the NBA or the NHL.”

But the big leagues are on the move, too. The NFL announced last week that it would kick off its 2020 season in September, with or without fans in the stands. NASCAR will return to live racing May 17 with an event at an empty Darlington Raceway set to be broadcast on Fox — while NBC’s own NASCAR coverage will resume July 5 with the Brickyard 400 in Indianapolis. The PGA Tour will also resume in June, and the Kentucky Derby has moved from its traditional May post to September — after NBC worked with organizers of the derby as well as the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes, who have yet to finalize their plans, to assemble a plan to preserve horse racing’s Triple Crown.

The NBA, NHL and Major League Baseball, meanwhile, have yet to work out their respective returns to action. The need for large organizations to move cautiously has presented opportunity in the short term for others. ESPN, for instance, last week broadcast “Game of Thrones” star Hafthor Björnsson’s attempt to break the world deadlifting record, signed a new broadcast deal with Korean baseball league KBO and aired on pay-per-view the controversial return of UFC fighting. 

Already, Moore’s ACL is feeling the effect of increased exposure. Just before the Saturday event, men’s grooming brand Manscaped signed up as a sponsor, joining meat purveyor and longtime ACL partner Johnsonville. “I’m hoping that this opens up the door for a lot of new opportunities for us,” he says. 

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