Sports

What Does the Worldwide Leader in Sports Broadcast in a World Without Sports?

Stephen A. Smith and Max Kellerman on First Take, with the logo between them.
Stephen A. Smith, unfazed. Max Kellerman, fazed.
ESPN

On March 11, Hawaii beat Cal State Fullerton 72–59 in the Big West Women’s Basketball Tournament. As far as I can tell, that was the last major live sporting event in America. The coronavirus pandemic has ground every league and tournament to a halt, and any realistic timeline shows that the sports world will be barren for the foreseeable future.

So, what’s ESPN going to do for 24 hours every day?

A sports mirage appeared last week in the form of NFL free agency and collective bargaining news. Tom Brady’s move to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers was a megawatt story, but its afterglow is fading, and there isn’t anything on the horizon to replace it.

This would have been a big week for the network. There’d be coverage of the NCAA men’s and women’s basketball tournaments (ESPN has broadcast rights for the latter), Astros-related controversies throughout spring training, and the NBA playoff race would be heating up. Perhaps Zion Williamson is leading the New Orleans Pelicans to an eight seed in some alternate dimension unaffected by COVID-19. Gosh, remember Zion? He was great.

The Worldwide Leader in Sports is facing an existential crisis. Nevertheless, its on-air personalities and production crews gamely trudge on and try their best to fill the void. I spent my entire Tuesday watching ESPN to see how it is coping in these peculiar and frightening times.

Would this all-day binge help me realize that the power of sports transcends a crisis? Of course not. It wasn’t even a good way to stave off boredom during self-isolation. But boredom is a sign of privilege in these dire times, and I found myself grateful for the opportunity to watch football analyst Mel Kiper Jr. explain his NFL draft board over and over and over and over again.

Still, I don’t want to let a day’s worth of ESPN watching to go to waste. Allow me to humbly dump my notes and provide a snapshot of how a sports media empire is faring without sports.

• Because I’m on the West Coast, I rarely get the opportunity to watch Get Up, ESPN’s daily morning show. I tune in at around 6:50 a.m. PDT and the first thing I hear is host Mike Greenberg promoting “eight hours of home run derbies” on ESPN2 on Thursday evening. Clearly, things are bleak.

ESPN has nine cable networks by my count, meaning there are 216 hours of programming to fill each day. That dinger marathon will barely make a dent.

• Greenberg shows a clip from Tua Tagovailoa’s Instagram page. The Alabama quarterback is recovering from a hip injury as he prepares for the NFL draft, and Greenberg reads the video’s cheeky caption: “Practicing social distancing with the long ball today.” Not a bad line, though I’ll hear it approximately 3,785 times Tuesday.

• Get Up makes way for First Take, ESPN’s marquee debate show. Stephen A. Smith, Max Kellerman, and host Molly Qerim are all working remotely and form a triptych of floating faces on the screen. Kellerman’s audio is a little echo-y, leading me to suspect that he has hardwood or tile floors at home.

Qerem gets the ball rolling with a quote from Terry Bradshaw about Tom Brady’s ego informing his decision to join the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. “We know how great Terry Bradshaw was,” Stephen A. says, uncoiling his classic, cadence. “MY PROBLEM is, what’s the attitude for?” He’s on a roll. I go to brush my teeth, and when I return, Kellerman and Smith are screaming at each other about the relative popularity of the great Steelers and Cowboys dynasties.

I had worried that, without sports, First Take wouldn’t have anything to argue about. This was a stupid assumption. Stephen A. could be caught under a boulder inside a canyon for 127 hours and still come up with scorching takes. He is incredible.

• International Olympic Committee vice president and frequent Twitter trending topic Dick Pound joins the gang to discuss the biggest news of the day, the postponement of the Tokyo Olympics. Pound has some trouble with the video conferencing software (“I can hear you, but it’s a little delayed”), and it’s all very relatable. Stephen A. asks him some pretty good questions, namely why it took so long for the Olympic committee to reach such an obvious decision. According to Pound, the committee had expected countries to be better prepared for the pandemic than they were. It’s refreshing to hear an honest discussion of the federal government’s slow response to the coronavirus outbreak on the “Stick to Sports” network, even if it’s just Dick Pound briefly mentioning it while marooned in his study.

• SportsCenter is up, and we go live to Tom Brady’s introductory teleconference as a Tampa Bay Buccaneer. “I’m taking it day by day,” Brady says. It’s the most revealing thing he says during the entire half-hour teleconference. SportsCenter airs it all, and it’s like listening to a company earnings call for unflavored almond milk.

Brady wants to be a “team player.” He has a “ton of trust and respect for Coach Arians.” He’s “thankful to the Glazer family.”

There is no video, so clips of him throwing passes loop on the screen. A reporter asks about how the move to Tampa will affect Brady’s personal and family life. “My drive to work will be different,” he says.

• The teleconference ends, and I go to the bathroom. When I return, they’re replaying highlights of the teleconference.

• Reporter Jeremy Schaap videos in from what appears to be his office to give a tick-tock of the Tokyo Olympics postponement. Upon closer inspection I see that he’s sitting in front of a trompe-l’œil image of an office. Some on-air personalities get backdrops with ESPN graphics, while others sit in front of their real bookshelves. I don’t know why they make Schaap look like he’s in a frumpy den when he doesn’t have to.

• The anchors tease the night’s “Happy Birthday Peyton Manning Marathon” on ESPN2. They’re celebrating the quarterback’s landmark 44th birthday with an entire evening of Manning-related programming.

• SportsCenter shows brief highlights for a “this day in tournament history” segment. There’s Dunk City beating San Diego State in 2013! Hey, it’s Loyola Chicago and Sister Jean celebrating their win against Kansas State two years ago. OK, now I’m sad.

• SportsCenter’s second hour begins with what appears to be a repeat of an earlier Olympics report. Things are bleeding together now, so I can’t tell for sure.

• NBA scoop machine Adrian Wojnarowski videos in from an office decorated with absurdly dark wood. It looks like a despondent count’s hearth room. There are no scoops, so he talks about the draft, which is supposed to take place on June 25.

• Here comes a SportsCenter feature where viewers vote to determine the the best college basketball player ever. It’s a bracket format, and two-seed Michael Jordan defeats Nancy Lieberman. The next round will be Jordan vs. Tim Duncan, and ESPN college basketball analyst Seth Greenberg videos in to remind viewers that UNC Jordan was “not the Michael Jordan of the NBA!”

I get flashbacks of ESPN’s summerlong “Who’s Now” tournament from 2007 that featured matchups like “Reggie Bush vs. Danica Patrick” and “Dale Earnhardt Jr. vs. Chuck Liddell.” At least we’re in a global pandemic now; what was their excuse back then?

• There’s more “this day in history” highlights and … holy shit, it’s Randy Johnson killing that bird with a fastball back in 2001! Why isn’t there wall-to-wall coverage across every ESPN network dedicated to this? That’s how you fill 216 hours of dead air.

• Top 10 time: It’s Peyton Manning’s top 10 moments. Remember, it’s his 44th birthday.

• NFL Live kicks off with more Tom Brady coverage, and Bucs head coach Bruce Arians videos in from his office. He must be using his laptop, because the camera angle is tilted up.

• News comes in that Cam Newton will be a free agent. Brothers Matt and Tim Hasselbeck argue about where he will go. The former quarterbacks really get into it. It’s like that Chris and Andrew Cuomo tiff but without any of the self-awareness.

• Hey, more excerpts from the Tom Brady teleconference.

• Time for a new show: MEL KIPER JR.’S NFL MOCK DRAFT 3.0. There’s theme music and everything, but it’s all the same people from NFL Live.

• How will Tua Tagovailoa’s Instagram video affect his draft stock? I zoned out, so I don’t know.

• NFL Live is back. I think it’s a repeat from earlier, but MEL KIPER JR.’S NFL MOCK DRAFT 3.0 wiped my memory clean.

• Flash-forward an hour, and we have a new SportsCenter with new hosts and a new intro. The topics? Tom Brady, the Tokyo Olympics, and Tua Tagovailoa’s Instagram video.

• Host Kevin Negandhi says that Tua’s Instagram workout video is only 10 seconds long. Given the coverage, I had assumed it was a two-hour feature. Who cares? I’ll take it.

• Beach volleyball player Kerri Walsh Jennings FaceTimes from her car to talk about the Olympics cancellation. She makes a great point about how good the games will feel after we get through these traumatic times. God, what I wouldn’t give for some decathlon right about now.

• Midway through this iteration of SportsCenter is an extended Pardon the Interruption segment with Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon videoing in from D.C. and Arizona, respectively. The coronavirus outbreak doesn’t seem to have altered this program whatsoever.

• SportsCenter is back, and Mel Kiper Jr. is talking about Tua Tagovailoa.

• Cam Newton posted something on Instagram, so let’s get that on screen.

• The Hasselbecks are back.

• Zion Williamson defeats Danny Manning in the best college basketball player ever bracket. I’m starting to suspect that these results shouldn’t be taken seriously.

• It’s 7 p.m. EDT, and ESPN runs Parts 1 and 2 of their Oscar-winning documentary O.J.: Made in America. What a great movie. The network has tons of terrific 30 for 30 documentaries. Why don’t they just run those on a loop?

• I forgot about all the amazing O.J. Simpson highlights from this movie. I know that’s not the point, but things are getting desperate without sports.

• I turn the TV off before SportsCenter With Scott Van Pelt comes on. They’re playing it all night. I’ll catch it later if I want.

Listen to an episode of Slate’s sports podcast Hang Up and Listen below, or subscribe to the show on Apple PodcastsOvercastSpotifyStitcherGoogle Play, or wherever you get your podcasts.