A sports-less reality: How networks and Louisville sports radio hosts are filling the time
Sports as we know it had only just been canceled when a Nashville sports bar resorted to replay. It was mere hours after the SEC Tournament and then the NCAA Tournament were called off March 12 when a watering hole off Broadway — with no March Madness to show — instead aired a Tennessee Titans’ playoff win over the New England Patriots from this past season.
On Wednesday night, ESPN aired NFL Live, ESPN2 showed an old Duke-UNC game and ESPNU had a high school game highlighting a 12th-grade LeBron James. “We’re in for a treat for many years,” commentator Bill Walton told viewers back in 2003.
College basketball upsets, including Evansville over Kentucky earlier this year, aired Thursday night on ESPN, the day CBS had been set to begin showing the NCAA Tournament’s Round of 64.
While the globe is rocked by the coronavirus pandemic, so too is the sports world, which is experiencing the most abrupt stoppage in modern history. Sports bars in Kentucky are shuttered until further notice. Athletes can't train on campus. There are no last-second shots to send hearts racing, no One Shining Moment to look forward to.
That’s made life bizarre and challenging for sports fans and sports radio hosts alike.
“Thank goodness for Rick Pitino and Tom Brady, but other than that not a whole lot to talk about,” said John Spears, the host of the "Afternoon Drive" local radio show on WXVW-FM. While sports are largely recessed, Spears is taking a hiatus from his slot hosting a sports talk show.
On ESPN Louisville radio, hosts have discussed the sports news of the past week, hypothetical situations on how leagues may proceed later this year — How will the MLB season be affected? What about college athletes with an added year of eligibility? — and they’re even conducting a mock NCAA Tournament complete with listener prizes.
“They can slow us down, but they can’t stop us,” host Bob Valvano said on air.
However, the local ESPN radio affiliate isn't only about sports in these hectic times. Shows are discussing coronavirus updates, and Mayor Greg Fischer was on the station earlier this week, as was a Jefferson County Public Schools spokesperson. Plus, the station has aired President Donald Trump’s and Gov. Andy Beshear’s press conferences.
“We are a local community radio station more than we are a local sports radio station at this point,” said Drew Deener, vice president of the station and host of "Morning Drive."
Sports radio hosts are accustomed to finding creative sports topics to discuss; during the summer, there is less to talk about, and radio hosts manage. However, this is uncharted territory.
“It’s like summer got here four months before it should have,” ESPN Louisville host Mark Ennis said.
With essentially all leagues postponed for the immediate future, the coming weeks and months will be some of the most challenging.
“That’s where you find out who’s actually good,” Deener said of slow months. “A circus animal could host a show in March in Louisville on sports talk radio, but somebody with some skill has to host on July 15.”
Sports fans have been stripped of what many consider to be one of the great sports weekends of the year — the opening round of the NCAA Tournament — and it’s left a profound dearth, which ESPN has tried to fill with old games and documentaries following the cancellation of most sports last Thursday.
“Thursday, March 12, 2020 is a day none of us will soon forget,” said Burke Magnus, ESPN’s executive vice president for programming acquisitions and scheduling, in a release.
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At home, socially distanced and sans sports, some fans are watching old highlights on social media, others are tuning into live programming on cable, and pro basketball followers can now watch classic games on NBA League Pass, free of charge. NFL fans can do the same with NFL Game Pass.
Of course, fans can’t watch in large gatherings.
“I think everyone has missed the morale-boosting part,” Ennis said of life without sports.
One key aspect of sport consumption is camaraderie; attendees watch in large stadiums, at populated sports bars, or with large groups of friends and family at home. But now those things are forbidden.
“I don’t like isolation. I like ball movement, I like player movement,” Valvano joked on air.
Sports fans are also getting creative: digging out old video games or creating their own mock brackets. Bellarmine men's basketball coach Scott Davenport, a daily runner, said he’s using his free time to run a few more miles a week. Spears said he’s watching more movies now, but that can only last so long.
“I miss it,” Spears said of the absence of sports. “And I think I’m going to miss it more and more as we go along.”