Anyone for The Ocho? With nothing to broadcast, US sports TV burrows into the past | Sport

The most haunting reminder of America’s pandemic-driven sports hibernation is brought to you, fittingly enough, by All-State. The latest of the insurance company’s ads stars pitchman Dennis Haysbert (aka President Palmer, aka Pedro Cerrano) at home bingeing college hoops with friends. Just as the faux contest intensifies, the 30-second spot cuts to commercial – one of Haysbert’s All-State commercials, incidentally. When his buddies change over to another matchup, there Haysbert is again touting home and life policies. The point is to poke fun at All-State’s suffocating (read: expensive) television presence throughout the NCAA Tournament, the three-week college basketball extravaganza which takes over large parts of the States at this time of year. But instead of appearing during a break in the action between Dayton or Duke, the ads break up doom-and-gloom headlines on the 24-hour news channels now.

A month ago the notion of an America without live sports would have seemed more far-fetched than an alien invasion. After all, this is the country that played on through the Civil War and the Dust Bowl, through world wars and stock market crashes, after presidential assassinations and 9/11. But in the eye blink in which coronavirus exploded as the greatest threat to humanity since the nuclear bomb, America has had to rethink its entertainment priorities and with speed. Continuing play inside empty arenas was a have-your-cake-and-eat-it proposition that appeared to be working for soccer leagues across the pond. But when a beat reporter tested positive for Covid-19 and tennis’ fifth slam, the BNP Paribas Open at Indian Wells, abruptly canceled their two-week tournament on 9 March there was no more compromising. Shortly thereafter, the NBA and NHL suspended play, the major motorsports parked, Major League Baseball scratched Opening Day and, after some dragging (of the feet, on social media…), the NCAA called off March Madness.

Doubtless, the economic impact of this nationwide sports blackout is a subject that will be unpacked in peer-reviewed papers for the next half-century at least. The World Economic Forum reckons Tuesday’s official announcement that the Tokyo Olympics will be postponed until next summer deals a massive blow to NBC Universal, which had booked more than $1.25bn in ad sales against around 7,000 hours of content across TV, steaming and social media.

The NCAA, which depends on its tournament for much of its $1.1bn in revenue, stands to lose about half that income. CBS, which had partnered with Turner on an $8.8bn deal to broadcast the college basketball tournament, was left with a basketball-sized hole in its programming schedule. On the Thursday afternoon when early NCAA Tournament games were due to tip off last week, CBS transitioned from a Covid-19 briefing to an episode of The Young and The Restless – a soap that most people probably didn’t realize was still on the air that, as irony would have it, could not have more aptly described the broadcaster’s disenfranchised viewership at that moment. (Forget wondering whether San Diego State are for real. Are Summer and Theo gonna make it?)

It was enough to make you wonder if any TV show could approach the thrill of live sports, let alone match it outright. And, blessedly, within the first treacly notes of The Young and The Restless’s theme song, some answers began to emerge. ESPN turned ESPN2 into “The Ocho,” a residual gag from the movie DodgeBall that riffs on the broadcaster’s roots covering obscure sporting events; that weekend slate was stuffed with showcases that once would’ve seemed totally at home on ESPN2: axe throwing, “stupid robot fighting” and of course dodgeball. It’s the kind of thing that might have enticed gamblers sheltering-in-place to lay down a vig if said action wasn’t a year old, if Las Vegas and its sports books weren’t shut down until further notice and if the global economy wasn’t hurtling toward a recession. And it’s also the kind of thing that would make for juicy sports-talk fodder if the NFL weren’t hanging around to distract us with news of Tom Brady leaving the New England Patriots.

Soon, CBS, too found itself trawling the archives. For their Saturday lineup, the network replayed three classic college basketball nailbiters: the 1982 championship game (won on a last-second shot from a kid called Michael Jordan), the 1983 championship game between Houston and NC State, and the 1992 regional final between Kentucky and Duke (which introduced post-millennials to Christian Laettner, one of the greatest sports trolls there ever was). And as fun as it was to second-screen these classics with Twitter as if the outcomes were unknown, there was little helping the feeling that CBS had gone too big too soon.

On the other hand, the NBA continued to display judicious leadership in these troubled sports times. When the league wasn’t rightly defending teams for administering coronavirus tests to their players and personnel, it was dropping the paywall for its NBA League Pass streaming service and inviting fans to group-watch recent classics like the 2016 clash between Golden State and Oklahoma City, which saw Steph Curry nail a record-tying 12 threes on Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and crew. It’s a perfect idea for a league that ESPN’s Pablo Torre once aptly described as “a soap opera for dudes” and a gameplan NBC might well follow for the now-postponed Tokyo Games – that is, when they’re not filling time with episodes of Days of Our Lives. But more to the point, for hoops fans a certain generation (ahem) who’d prefer to tarry in the NBA’s past than think too far ahead, the prospect of revisiting NBA games that proved to be turning points in a decades-long storyline is irresistible.

In terms of forward-thinking, however, none could match motorsports for spectacle. Nascar drivers in particular lavished eager followers with virtual autographs and kept them entertained on iRacing – a PC-based simulator that is by turns a training tool for Sunday drivers, a proving ground for amateurs and a full-blown esport with dedicated pros and impressive purses. What’s more, iRacing’s close ties to Nascar made it possible for them to put together an impromptu showcase on Fox Sports 1 with a slew of star drivers (Dale Earnhardt Jr, Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch) that looked eerily like an actual race at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Granted, the likelihood of any of this alt-sports content pulling in as wide an audience as the traditional programming it replaces figures to remain as low as current toilet paper and hand-sanitizer supplies. That people bothered to tune it at all, though, speaks to something deeper. One of the things that makes sports worth paying attention to is their flair for the unpredictable. And while that attraction has only gotten stronger as America struggles through the most chaotic period in recent history, now the sense of uncertainty from watching televised sports comes from wondering how soon we’ll be able to return to a time when waiting out Dennis Haysbert’s All-State commercials was our nation’s biggest inconvenience. That is, if we’re even able to at all.

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