ESPN, TV networks ‘threw out rule book’ to rebroadcast classic games and weather sports drought

Fans are starved for games to watch, and television networks have never been more desperate for sports programming.

More than a month has passed since the COVID-19 crisis led to the postponement and cancellation of nearly all U.S. sporting events, and while networks are turning to classic games from the past to fill the void, it's not as easy as pressing play.

The problem? Rebroadcast rights, or the ability for a network to show a game it originally aired, can be restrictive. In general, an NFL game that aired on NBC, an NBA game that aired on ABC or ESPN or an MLB game that ran on Fox reverts to the respective league's classic games library. 

"Now we're starting to understand at the end of games exactly what 'without the expressed written consent of the league' really means," said David Carter, Southern California associate professor and sports business expert. "The lifeblood for these sports networks is live sports. So now, all the sudden, a league's library of old games has a lot more value."

Monday night football technology in 2013. (Photo: Jessica Brandi Lifland, for USA TODAY)

So naturally leagues are charging networks exorbitant fees, right? Not so says an ESPN executive.

"We all threw out the rule book to work collaboratively for the sole benefit of sports fans because we recognized these are extraordinary times," said Ilan Ben-Hanan, ESPN's senior vice president for programming and acquisitions. Ben-Hanan oversees the ACC Network, ESPNU, Longhorn Network and SEC Network.

Another reason to work together is because working together is what leagues and networks have been doing for years. They often describe each other as partners, and those partnerships are being leveraged now.

For example, the NFL is not charging the major sports networks for classic games outside of a slight profit from advertisement inventory, according to a person with knowledge of the situation who requested anonymity because the deal is not typically made public.

Fox Sports has been airing a marathon of the greatest NFL games on Thursdays, Fridays and Sundays across its channels. ESPN has been showing classic "Monday Night Football Games." NBC Sports has been airing two "Sunday Night Football Games." And CBS will do a week-long marathon of classic NFL games starting Thursday.

The eyeballs on classic games have contributed (with ad revenue and appeals for donations during rebroadcasts) to an effort that has raised $47 million through the league’s foundations for charities and nonprofits such as Feeding America’s COVID-19 Response Fund, American Red Cross, Salvation Army and United Way’s COVID-19 Community Response and Recovery Fund among others.

"As the impact of the virus led to the cancellation of games, the first thing we asked ourselves was how can we serve our fans," said Hans Schroeder, EVP and chief operating officer for NFL Media. "We didn't look at this as a licensing opportunity. Sports is a great escape for so many fans so we said, 'How can we get them through these tough times?' We also asked, 'How can we help our partners who have done a great job promoting our product?' "

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ESPN had to scramble when live sports were cancelled to acquire old-school footage for the coming months. (Photo: Mike Windle, Mike Windle, Getty Images for ES)

Carter said there's no reason for leagues to "nickel and dime a network." 

"Throughout society, people are playing nice for the foreseeable future, so things aren't going to play out the way they normally would even though the money is very real in all of this," Carter added. "Everyone is hoping this is a short-lived phenomenon. The networks, leagues and rights holders really need to get through this together." 

Even if negotiations are cordial, acquiring classic games and designing a schedule is not easy.

When sports were halted last month,  the sports networks had to act fast to fill large programming gaps and were often working day to day.

"A lot of people work hard on scheduling, but this type of hiatus has never been experienced before in our industry," said Neal Pilson, former president of CBS Sports. "The worst we ever had to deal with before this was a weather delay for thunderstorms and lightning, and we planned in advance for that so we had old footage to air.  Even with the Olympics in Tokyo, there was probably a plan in place to run old events if there was an earthquake. But this is different. In some cases, it should be relatively easy because these leagues and rights holders should want their product shown; in other cases, it could be a challenge to get everything in order."

The networks have now gained a better footing and are planning 30 to 60 days out, leaning on their staples.

NBC Sports Network will show Olympic highlights from the 2016 Rio Games, 2012 London Games and 2008 Beijing Games – thrusting Olympic legends Michael Phelps, Simone Biles and Usain Bolt back into the spotlight.

CBS Sports Network has been airing classic NCAA Tournament games on repeat – meaning Christian Laettner's game-winning shot to sink Kentucky has been aired close to a dozen times since the cancellation of the NCAA Tournament a month ago. 

The 2020 NCAA tournament was canceled, leaving CBS without its signature sporting event. (Photo: Ron Chenoy, USA TODAY Sports)

"Sports fans have a tremendous appetite and the nostalgic route might work for a while. But it's a fraction of what people are looking for," Carter noted. "We've seen two things from these networks – the 'this day in sports' historic reel and the best-of reels. Hopefully we don't have to get back to the walk-off home run from 1949." 

While most classic games that originally aired on a certain network will re-air on the same network, there have been some exceptions.

ESPN signed a short-term deal with WWE to broadcast three WrestleMania events that were originally shown on pay-per-view.

After Tom Brady left the New England Patriots to sign with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, ESPN ran a Brady marathon from condensed games that originally aired on several networks.

ESPN's April schedule, which still leans heavily on talk shows, features a more regimented approach. Monday is for "Monday Night Football" classics. Tuesday is for great World Series games. Wednesday is for classic NBA Finals games. And Thursday is for College Football Playoff games.

"A lot of our planning felt fairly intuitive," Ben-Hanan said. "We wanted to show the games on nights where fans are used to seeing those live games in the past." 

In a case where two networks share rights to an event, the rebroadcast rights typically fall in line with the original broadcast agreement. For example, ESPN and CBS have shared the Masters for several years, with CBS broadcasting the championship round since 1956.

Now they are splitting up the rebroadcasting of memorable final rounds. CBS Sports showed Phil Mickelson's 2004 victory and Tiger Woods' 2019 stunner this weekend, and ESPN featured Masters week, including Jack Nicklaus' 1986 victory, and Woods' first Masters win in 1997.

NBC Sports is re-airing Olympic events with no live sports to air. (Photo: Aaron Doster, USA TODAY Sports)

Classic games can help to connect fans as they relive memorable moments or educate younger viewers, according Mike McCarthy, general manager of Marquee Sports Network – the new regional network for the Chicago Cubs that took over TV rights from WGN and NBC Sports this year.  

"The bad news is there's an unknown and open-endedness to what we're going through," said McCarthy. "The good news is we're looking at this as a unique opportunity to engage with our fans because people are paying a lot more attention to their televisions and devices these days – there's a captive audience. We're not trying to just throw a classic game out there and hit play.

"Unlike 10 years ago, we now have social media, and we're hearing what fans want. We're letting them help us decide – literally." 

Most regional sports networks have been hit hard by the lack of live games, with the Midwest Atlantic Sports Network (MASN) rebroadcasting all 12 of the Nationals' postseason victories and the World Series championship parade for the first week of April.

Marquee launched in February and was put in a unique predicament: Two weeks into preseason games airing, it started to show classic games that had aired on previous channels (which the MLB had rights to and has shared with special permission), namely the 2016 World Series.

McCarthy put it plainly: "Like any good DJ, we are playing the hits."

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