As NBA and NCAA Go Dark, Turner and CBS Brace For Losses

Seats are empty prior to the New York Knicks playing the Washington Wizards - March 10 2020- Getty -H 2020
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Last year's March Madness tournament brought in an estimated $655.1 million in ad revenue alone.

The loss of NBA and NCAA tournament games amid the coronavirus pandemic will leave a lot of basketball fans without their spring fix of high-stakes hoops and will cost the TV outlets who would have aired those games millions of viewers and millions of dollars.

The NBA on Wednesday suspended play until further notice with about 20 games left in the regular season for each team. The National Hockey League and Major League Soccer followed suit Thursday, and the NCAA canceled all of its spring championships, including the men's and women's basketball tournaments. Major League Baseball will delay the start of its season by at least two weeks and has canceled spring training games.

The suspension of the NBA and cancellation of the NCAA men's tournament will be a double loss for Turner Sports: NBA games air on TNT and the company's TBS and TruTV have rights to college games. TBS was also to have aired the Final Four and national championship games this year as part of its rotation with CBS. Last year's March Madness tournament brought in $655.1 million in ad revenue alone, per a Standard Media Index estimate. 

ESPN, meanwhile, will lose its coverage of the women's tournament along with its share of NBA telecasts while the league is suspended. CBS Sports was set to have dozens of hours of NCAA coverage in the next three weeks, and NBC Sports will lose NHL games.

The suspension of play across multiple sports also means lost revenue, as any programming airing in place of live sports won't command ad rates on the same level. Just how much, though, is an open question: Since this has never happened before, industry analysts queried by The Hollywood Reporter were loath to estimate how much money is at stake.

"We are fully supportive of the NCAA's decision to cancel this year's NCAA Division I Men's Basketball Championship," CBS Sports and Turner Sports said in a joint statement. "We'll continue to work closely with the NCAA and all of our partners as we prioritize the health and well-being of everyone involved."

Said ESPN, "This is an unprecedented situation. We have great relationships with our league partners and are confident we can address all issues constructively going forward. Our immediate focus is on everyone’s safety and well-being."

TNT has not yet formulated long-term plans to replace NBA programming. On Thursday night, it plans to air a new installment of Inside the NBA discussing the news of the past few days, followed by replays of February's NBA All-Star Game and a December contest between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Milwaukee Bucks.

TNT has a vast library of programming it can use to fill the NBA holes, and ESPN can marshal its resources for news coverage in the interim, even though ratings for either one might not be as high, Moodys senior vp Neil Begley told THR.

Regional sports networks, however, could feel the loss of games more acutely, particularly with the start of the MLB season delayed as well.

"RSNs are very exposed since they typically have one or two teams that they depend upon," Begley said. "ESPN and Fox Sports are also very exposed but have more diverse programming and libraries that they can air, but ratings and ad demand will surely drop without live sports. More diversified media outlets — CBS, TNT ABC, Fox, NBC — will be hurt, but can more easily replace the programming with news and entertainment. They also will save the broadcast license fees."

Depending on how long the suspension of play lasts, professional leagues may reach a point of no return for their current seasons.

"The NBA and NHL start their next preseasons in September, and it is unlikely that they would [finish out their seasons] in the summer just before the new season," said Begley. "The players need that time off to rejuvenate between seasons. It would be more likely that they would hold their championships in the spring in empty arenas to finish out the season and at least claim the broadcast fees from those tournaments."