Everything Old is New Again in TV Sports

Brian Steinberg

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Veteran sports producer Fred Gaudelli was taking a walk recently to clear his head in tough times when a top executive at the National Football League reached out to him: Do you have any desire to run some of our old football games on TV?

Under normal circumstances, the answer would likely be no. But normal went out the window about two weeks ago.

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With live sports telecasts knocked out by the global coronavirus pandemic, the nation’s biggest media companies are subsisting instead on broadcasts of older games. CBS Sports last Saturday and Sunday aired classic NCAA March Madness tournament games, going back as far as a 1992 championship match between the University of North Carolina and Georgetown. The games proved a substitute for what would normally be rounds of the 2020 NCAA event.

An old sports telecast used to have the same appeal as a stale pot of coffee. Games have long been meant to be enjoyed live, as they happen, in the moment. Once the final score is tabulated, once “SportsCenter” has played the best highlight for the fourth time, once the late local news has pored over the stats, the game was truly over. At a time of crisis, however, the vintage athletics suddenly have new appeal.

To get them, however, the networks need to gain approval from the various sports organizations. The leagues “retain the copyrights to everything,” says Gaudelli, the executive producer of NBC’s “Sunday Night Football” – even though the networks produced the telecasts and staffed them with announcers, camera crews and producers.

“Re-airing full-game presentations is not a right that we or other media companies typically have at our disposal at all times,” says Burke Magnus, ESPN’s executive vice president of programming acquisitions and scheduling, in remarks recently provided by the Disney-owned sports-media outlet. “Each one of these circumstances requires individual conversations with the specific league or property to determine what’s possible.”

ESPN, with a broader business that hinges on its ability to show live games, has turned to encore telecasts of boxing, tennis and college basketball, not to mention airings of WWE’s past “Wrestlemania” extravaganzas. Fox Sports plans to run a doubleheader Thursday evening of classic Game 7 World Series contests from 2001 and 2016 – on what would normally have been Major League Baseball’s Opening Day.  NBC Sports is curating weeks of NHL hockey and broadcasts of “Sunday Night Football.”

Even the sports leagues are finding new ways to repurpose old match-ups. The National Basketball Association each night is streaming classic games on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Twitch. And the league opened up a subscription-video product, NBA League Pass, so people can watch full length games from the current suspended season as well as classics.  MLB will fill its cable network with a marathon of classic Opening Day games on Thursday.

The leagues are most likely extending a helping hand to their media partners, not pressing for profits, says George Pyne, CEO of Bruin Sports Capital, an investment firm that specializes in sports properties. “I doubt it’s a huge fee” for repeat games, he says. At the leagues, he suggests, executives are probably eager to “help the broadcasters out during this difficult time. And if you’re the league, it’s important to stay top of mind” with fans.

NFL executives typically don’t worry about supplying fans with game content in the early spring. But the league realized quickly it could help both its TV partners and the public, says Hans Schroeder, executive vice president and chief operating officer of NFL Media. “It’s a really serious time, and we think we have an opportunity to help our fans through this. We believe that people still have a vested interest in sports,”  he says. “How can we open up some of the rights we have and do so in a way that puts our fans first?”

Doing so may also keep important relationships going. The rights deals between the leagues and the networks are gargantuan. AT&T’s Turner Sports and Walt Disney’s ESPN, for example, agreed to pay around $24 billion to secure contracts with the NBA over the course of a nine-year deal. The NFL’s current deals with ESPN, CBS, NBC and Fox are nearing the end of their terms, so maintaining ties certainly can’t hurt. NBC, CBS and Fox are believed to be paying a combined $3.1 billion per year for Sunday games. ESPN’s rights to broadcast “Monday Night Football,” meanwhile, are believed to cost around $1.9 billion per year

The old games can provide new opportunities. Once the NBA suspended its season, executives felt they had a “mission” to “bring together all of our fans, try to build a community,” says Bob Carney, senior vice president of social and digital content at the NBA. The league can seed its social venues with clips of games, and, as they air at night, “resurface” old tweets that may have been attached to the action. There’s also a chance to burnish footage that may not have been seen widely in the past. “We have a number of people documenting every aspect of game. All of that content is in our library,” says Carney. “If we want to resurface a classic Finals game, we can then also resurface all of the extra content that surrounds it,” which could include players’ arrival at the venue.

NBC Sports saw a chance to curate a different experience for fans. Jenny Storms, the NBCUniversal unit’s chief marketing officer, met with producers to try to set up weeks devoted to particular sports the company works with, including the NFL, auto racing and National Hockey League, says Sam Flood, executive producer and president of production for NBC Sports. Liam McHugh and Kathryn Tappen, the NBC Sports personalities, have done new segments from their homes to put some of the hockey games in perspective.

Meanwhile, Gaudelli went through NBC’s roster of “Sunday Night Football” games, which he has produced since 2006.  The telecasts include Brett Farvre’s last game appearance, for example, and Tony Romo’s first. “We are trying to give people great nights,” he says. “We have a lot of games that people are going to remember.”

But there are limits to what can be done with the classics. Finding NBC’s old NHL telecasts makes sense, says Flood. Airing old NHL games that ran on other networks does not. Other games may not be suitable for modern high-definition broadcasting. Looking to see if ESPN can dig up some old “Monday Night Football” with Howard Cosell or Don Meredith? Some stuff is hard to find when offices are shut down, says the NFL’s Schroeder.

And older games still need little extras, like new intros or other nips and tucks. “We are still working through adding context to the content we have now,” says Chris Benyarko, the NBA’s executive vice president of direct to consumer. “We can come up with endless permutations of top ten lists.”

The old games still lack the power of new ones. But until a day comes when the leagues can start up again, the networks will have to bet that nostalgia can keep people paying attention.

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