ESPN Commentary Shows Get a Boost During Game Cancellations

With pro-sports games off the air again this week because of players protesting police violence and racial injustice, ESPN and other networks were once again in the position of scrambling to fill their schedules.

But this time, viewers seemed interested in hearing sports figures talk about the situation -- leading to a boost for commentary and recap shows. On Wednesday, after NBA and baseball games were canceled, ESPN’s “SportsCenter” and “Pardon the Interruption” saw their biggest audiences in more than a month.

ESPN, owned by Walt Disney Co., had to move up its 11 p.m. East Coast time “SportsCenter” show after the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Francisco Giants decided not to play. A special version of the basketball-themed show “The Jump,” meanwhile, got its highest viewer numbers -- 345,000 -- since the season was postponed in March.

“SportsCenter” drew 383,000 in its normal 6 p.m. time slot, while 511,000 tuned in to “Pardon the Interruption” at its normal time.

The numbers don’t easily compare with what the networks would draw with a live sporting event. But impromptu conversations made for some gripping television.

In lieu of games, sports analysts were left grappling with what prompted the walkout: a police shooting of a Black man in Kenosha, Wisconsin, that has sparked a fresh wave of outrage.

On Charter Communications Inc.’s Spectrum SportsNet, former NBA player and analyst Robert Horry talked about how he discussed the shooting with his son. Chris Webber, another player turned analyst, choked up during his comments on TNT’s “Inside the NBA,” which aired in place of canceled games Wednesday.

Commentator and retired player Kenny Smith walked off the set of the same show during the broadcast.

“Right now, my head is just ready to explode,” Smith said.

ESPN and other networks have grown accustomed to filling airtime without games. The coronavirus brought a near-standstill to pro sports in March, and the major pro leagues didn’t resume play until July.

In this case, the break will be short. Major League Baseball teams have begun playing again, and the NBA players will resume the playoffs on Saturday. As part of an agreement with the league, a social-justice coalition will be created to focus on issues such as voting access and criminal-justice reform.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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