Apr 21, 2020 - Economy

How viewer-starved sports networks are filling the coronavirus void

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

Virtual competitions, reruns of classic games and, most recently, sports documentaries are filling a void for both TV networks and fans during the coronavirus pandemic.

The big picture: All the substitute programming in the world isn't going to make up for a loss of live sports. In the past 90 days, each of the top nine cable sports networks has lost more than 25% of its audience compared to January, per data from Samba TV.

Driving the news: ESPN's "The Last Dance," which chronicles Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls' 1998 championship run, averaged a record-breaking 6.1 million viewers on Sunday night, the network said Monday.

  • The previous high for a documentary premiere in the "30 for 30" era was "You Don't Know Bo," which drew 3.6 million viewers on Dec. 8, 2012.

Why it matters: The MJ doc marked the first time in nearly two months that individual families — and the sports world as a whole — sat down to watch something together.

  • The 10-part series will give ESPN a tentpole event to build its programming around, while providing sportswriters and other content creators with fresh source material for the next five weeks.

Between the lines: Without live sports, networks have had to get creative to fill their airwaves. Some experiments have worked (CBS' Masters rewind drew 2.2 million viewers), some started off strong but have since lost steam (virtual racing) and others have failed (ESPN's HORSE challenge drew just 686,000 viewers).

  • It's against this backdrop that documentaries have proven to be one of the most effective ways to engage fans, which explains the uptick in widespread digital releases and bumped-up release dates.
  • "What we're seeing is that even our previously released documentaries are having a really strong second life upon rerelease during this crisis," Ray Machuca, chief content officer of FloSports, tells Axios.

What to watch:

  • "Jump Shot: The Kenny Sailors Story," which spotlights the inventor of the jump shot and was executive produced by Stephen Curry, was released digitally on April 16.
  • "Bad Cut," FloSports' documentary about the dangers of extreme weight-cutting in combat sports, premieres on Friday.
  • "A Kid From Coney Island," which tells the story of Stephon Marbury and was executive produced by Rich Kleiman and Kevin Durant, was released digitally earlier this month.
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