It is enough, quite frankly, to make a sports fan’s head explode: NBA Finals games competing with NFL games ... A Hurricanes football game airing at the same time as a Miami Heat playoff game … A potential Miami Marlins playoff series opposing a Heat postseason game.
Welcome to this bizarre new world for sports fans, where the unimaginable is now reality and stressful decisions have become the norm for networks, particularly ESPN, and viewers.
The race to reschedule games postponed by COVID-19 has created an unprecedented confluence of games that are providing a smorgasbord for sports fans but challenges for even the most skilled network programmers.
A look at some of the unusual conflicts facing networks, leagues and sports fans, and some background:
▪ NBA playoffs vs. NFL:
The NBA has tried to minimize direct conflicts with NFL games but that has been impossible in some cases, and several more remain in the days ahead, including Lakers-Nuggets opposing Dolphins-Jaguars on Thursday, a potential Game 6 of Heat-Celtics airing against Saints-Packers on Sunday night, and two potential conflicts during the NBA Finals with Sunday night NFL games (Eagles-49ers and potentially Vikings-Seahawks).
ESPN, more so than TNT, has tried to avoid overlapping with pro football because the NFL has crushed the NBA playoffs in four head-to-head matchups over the past two weeks.
Two examples: Last Thursday, Bengals-Browns on NFL Network averaged 6.7 million viewers, compared with 3.5 million for Game 2 of Heat-Celtics. Sunday night’s Patriots-Seahawks game dominated Lakers-Nuggets to the point that it was the least-viewed NBA conference finals game since 2003.
The NBA knew it was impossible to avoid NFL conflicts altogether. But the league and ESPN have done all they can to minimize them, including skipping a Monday date this week in the Heat-Celtics series and scheduling NBA playoff games 45 minutes or more before prime-time NFL games begin.
“I don’t think it’s something we would have chosen if up to us,” ESPN programming director Ashley O’Connor said of the NBA playoffs competing with NFL games. “We spoke to our audience research team and attempted to find the sweet spots.”
The NBA is facing a losing battle here. It would behoove the NBA to change its original plans and avoid competing with NBC’s Sunday Night Football during the first two Sundays of October. And ABC/ESPN understandably do not want to - and do not intend to - hurt two of their marquee properties by scheduling ESPN’s Monday Night Football opposite NBA Finals games on ABC.
▪ MLB playoff games vs. NBA postseason:
There will be a bunch of these conflicts in the next three weeks, with seven MLB first-round series airing — in an NCAA Tournament type presentation — on ESPN and ESPN2 next Tuesday through Friday. (Turner has the eighth first-round series.)
The NBA hasn’t announced whether a possible Game 7 of Heat-Celtics would air on ABC or ESPN — or on Tuesday or Wednesday — in part because of those potential baseball conflicts and the first presidential debate on Tuesday on ABC and in part because it’s obviously unknown if a Game 7 will be needed in the Western Conference finals.
The original NBA Finals calendar given to cable operators had Games 1, 2 and 3 next Wednesday, Friday and Sunday on ABC, but that won’t be possible if either conference finals goes seven games. A Nuggets-Lakers seventh game - if needed - would be played Wednesday, Sept. 30.
And if the Marlins make the playoffs, there could be a conflict between one or two Marlins playoff games and a Heat game --either Game 7 of the Eastern Finals or Games 1 or 2 of the NBA Finals.
Among the possibilities for the Marlins — should they make postseason — would be best of three series at the Cubs or Padres.
What’s more, most or all NBA Finals games likely will compete with baseball playoff games. Keep in mind that NBA Finals series have out-rated World Series games four of the past five years.
▪ Golf vs. NFL and college football:
One major conflict with the NFL was avoided with the U.S. Open moving from Fox to NBC this past weekend. But another one looms in several weeks.
On Nov. 15, the final day of The Masters, CBS has no 1 p.m. NFL game — which is unprecedented — but every market must get a 4 p.m. game, with Jets-Dolphins among three 4 p.m. games on CBS that day. Meanwhile, on the third day of The Masters, CBS will air Alabama-LSU at 6 p.m. instead of the traditional 3:30 window.
CBS Sports chairman Sean McManus explained to me how it came down: “We worked really closely with the NFL, the management of Augusta National and the SEC. We were fortunate that the NFL accommodated us and gave us only late games the Sunday of The Masters, so we’re able to do what we did this past year, which is come on the air at 9 o’ clock [in the morning] and finish by approximately 2:30 or 2:45, and then go right into NFL football.
“With our Saturday coverage of The Masters, the SEC accommodated us and moved the start time approximately to 6 p.m. so we can get off the air with Masters coverage at 5 to 5:30. Everybody gave a little bit at the office to accommodate this…. Our Alabama-LSU game will benefit greatly by having The Masters lead in. And I think The Masters will do really well on this high-profile weekend.”
▪ Stanley Cup Finals vs. everything:
Pity the poor NHL, which was not only saddled with a low-rated, underwhelming Dallas-Tampa finals, but also faces heavy competition every night.
Game 2 competed with Raiders-Saints on Monday, Game 3 on Wednesday went head to head with Heat-Celtics, Games 4 and 5 potentially oppose NBA playoff games, Game 6 opposes Chiefs-Ravens and Game 7 would go head-to-head with MLB playoffs and possibly Game 1 of the NBA Finals.
▪ NBA playoffs vs. college football:
ESPN/ABC didn’t want to oppose Heat-Celtics with Miami-Louisville last Saturday, but it was unavoidable once ABC’s prime time Virginia-Virginia Tech game was canceled due to COVID-19, and the Heat drew slightly more viewers than the Canes locally and nationally. ABC didn’t want to carry UCF-Georgia Tech in prime time merely to avoid a Heat/UM conflict.
On Saturday, UM-FSU on ESPN will oppose Game 5 of Lakers-Nuggets on TNT. That should be the final NBA/college football conflict this year barring an change of plans by the NBA.
▪ Sports vs. the presidential debates:
The first next Tuesday will oppose MLB playoff games and possibly Game 7 of Heat-Celtics if it’s needed and scheduled that day. The second debate on Oct. 15 will compete with a Kansas City-Buffalo NFL game and the third on Oct 22 will oppose a Giants-Philadelphia NFL game.
The Oct. 7 vice president’s debate will conflict only with MLB playoff games.
No NBA Finals games are expected to compete with any of those four debates unless the league changes its original postseason schedule.
THIS AND THAT
Hall of Fame receiver Michael Irvin — who will be on NFL Network’s studio team for Thursday’s Dolphins-Jaguars game (including a 6 p.m. pregame show) — was hit hard by COVID-19 this summer. He calls it the worst thing he has ever dealt with.
“I didn’t know I had it, and then I got real sick,” Irvin said on The Rich Eisen Show. “I mean, a pounding headache for like four or five days. You couldn’t eat. You can’t sleep. You’ve just got to endure the pain. I took two tests. They all came back negative. So I’m thinking, ‘OK, I’m good. I don’t have it. I don’t have it.’
“But I’m feeling the pain, and then after I went through about three weeks of hell — about three weeks of hell — I said, ‘OK, I’m going to go and take the antibody test,’ because it had to be something. It had to be COVID. There’s no way I went through that kind of pain, that kind of hell, and nobody knows what it is. Then, I’m scared it may come back. So I took the antibody test, and of course the antibody test, which I think is more accurate, came back that I had the antibodies. My doctor said I should be pretty good now.”
Irvin’s career ended with a cervical spinal cord injury that left him temporarily paralyzed. He also injured his collarbone and tore an ACL during his 12-year career.
“I pray for anybody who has it,” Irvin said. “The headache, I said to myself, I’m not lying, I wanted out of here. I was like, ‘Man, there’s no way I can even endure this.’ The only thing I kept saying is, ‘You’ve only got two weeks of it. Two weeks. Two weeks.’
“I pray for all the people that have those migraines, because it’s severe like a migraine, and they have it all the time. That would be the hardest thing in the world to live with, because I just went through it. It was the hardest thing in the world I’ve ever dealt with.”
▪ With Notre Dame-Wake Forest canceled on Saturday due to COVID, ABC instead will air UCF-East Carolina at noon. Here’s the full college football TV schedule for this weekend.
▪ Fresh off its 10-part documentary on Michael Jordan, ESPN announced it will air “The Man in the Arena: Tom Brady,” a nine-episode series on the iconic quarterback, beginning next year.
▪ Adam Sandler is partnering with LeBron James to create “Hustle,” an “upcoming Netflix film about a basketball scout,” according to Yahoo.
▪ James’ Uninterrupted also is producing a new documentary series, “Sign Language” that chronicles the ‘17 Astros and the continued effects of their cheating saga. Yankees pitcher CC Sabathia also assisted the project, with Quibi airing it.
Here’s my Wednesday Miami Dolphins 6-pack with lots of news and notes.
Here’s my Wednesday Miami Hurricanes 10-pack with lots of news and notes.