2020 should have, by all measures, been a banner year for sports on television. In March 2020 B.C. (before the crisis), the annual March Madness college hoops tournament was expected to deliver a huge audience, leading into the Final Four in April. Basketball fans would then look forward to the NBA Finals in May that was shaping up to be a battle for the ages, featuring a stunningly resurgent Los Angeles Lakers team, led by the seemingly ageless LeBron James and anchored by recently acquired Anthony Davis, facing off against their cross-town rivals, the L.A. Clippers, helmed by the often unstoppable Kawhi Leonard assisted by Paul George. The victor of that duel almost certain to face the stunning Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton and the Milwaukee Bucks.
Beyond the world of college and professional hoops, Major League Baseball was shaping up their spring training in Arizona and Florida, preparing to take the field March 26, just as the pandemic was really spinning-up in the U.S. Other sports and leagues were on the verge of launching their seasons or prepping for sizeable annual increases in audience and TV deal revenue, while the summer Tokyo Olympics were certain to anchor a huge summer global TV sports feast for audiences and advertisers, alike.
In the post-crisis world, though, everything has changed. March Madness was canceled, leaving many college hoopsters without a huge national stage to either cap their NCAA career or highlight themselves for the professional leagues. All other events and leagues have, thus far, been postponed until later in the year, or next year (Tokyo Olympics). The NBA is still hoping to host some form of a final tournament, with empty-arena options being floated for a summertime match-up of teams in a 'play-in' style tournament in Las Vegas. All of this, after the teams and their players have been off the floor and out of the gym for two or more months, playing more NBA2K20 than actual basketball. When or if the players return to finish the season, the game will likely not be the game we've come to expect. Even in the NBA, there are haves (those superstars with built-in Olympic training centers in their mansions) and have nots (those younger players or rookies still living in apartments with no training equipment or hoops). There will be a massive disparity in conditioning, while team and individual play will be undoubtedly rusty. The NBA may, ultimately, decide that it's not worth trying to cobble together a season finale that might just embarrass the league, teams and players; instead just taking the massive financial loss that comes with upending league coverage sales to TV networks and lost advertising deals and potential player salary nightmares.
The upstart football league, the XFL, which was having a breakout season before being decimated by the shutdown of the economy and all sports, yesterday filed for Bankruptcy. Vince McMahon, the league's founder and backer (who is also the chairman and CEO of WWE - World Wrestling Entertainment, former home of none other than Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson and all the other big-name brands in the sport), will surely not go hungry during this business collapse, but both of his sports empires are now hobbled amidst the crisis.
The result of all this athletics upheaval is that billions of dollars in TV ad dollars are left stranded, with agencies and the sports leagues themselves racing to develop contingency plans. Meanwhile, in another part of the ecosystem, traditionally big ad spenders like travel (airlines, hotels and amusement parks), entertainment (Hollywood studios) and retailers, are among the worst hit by the crisis and are cutting back spending or cancelling it altogether as they try to await government financial relief or, at the very least, the reopening of the economy.
Meanwhile, networks are trying to fill the void left by the absence of sports. ESPN and others are backfilling with classic sports, but both advertisers and viewers are left wanting. Let's face it, you can only watch so many old Chicago Bulls games, even with the opportunity to watch MJ (Michael Jordan) in action again. Major networks are at a loss as well, finding that while production shutdowns have benched their major shows, just as they were spinning up for season finales or summer openers, consumers are feasting on news or bleeding off to streamers. Good for Fox News, CNN, Netflix, Amazon and Hulu, but bad for CBS, NBC, ABC and Fox (among others).
Scripted and unscripted television, alike, are left in the lurch - just like their sports counterparts. Even new development for programming headed to the streamers or in the works for next season is on hold as production companies and the supporting structures have been forced to close by their state governments. The result of these suspensions is a building backlog of production work that also holds the potential to overwhelm the soundstages, production firms and ancillary companies (design, sound, post, animation, etc.) that support the production of new content for the 'small screen'. As production for programming (and advertising) is held-up and development and airing of regular programming is delayed, the current shut-down will not only leave late spring and summer programming upended, but also jeopardizes the much anticipated fall launches of new and returning favorite shows.
What will happen to the rest of 2020, and even the early (winter 2021) seasons? We all were thinking that the crisis would only hamper movies (who also are stacking production backlogs and building demands for soundstages and scheduling for production contractors). This is likely to be the 'forgotten year' in the middle of TV's renaissance. In the end, many viewers will abandon their cable and satellite subscriptions for good, turning instead to the streamers. Sports may well see the habit broken for many, relying on the 'hard-core' fans to shore-up their base to rebuild beyond 2021. As studios and networks try to figure out their plans for the next 18-24 months, they will undoubtedly face shortages of the necessary production resources like soundstages, props, equipment, crews, animators and more. Winter '20-'21 may, indeed, be the winter of our discontent - at least as far as content is concerned.