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The absence of live sports is pummeling TV networks. Here's how ESPN is working around it

Dallas Mavericks' Dorian Finney-Smith (10) dunks during the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Chicago Bulls, Monday, March 2, 2020, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Paul Beaty)
  • The lack of live sports has hit TV networks hard as leagues delay games.
  • Without live sports, Disney's sports properties ESPN and ABC are filling air time with programs like the NFL Draft, documentaries, and replay games.
  • ESPN has signed on advertisers like State Farm, Verizon, and Pizza Hut that regularly sponsor live events to advertise in the interim.
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One of the advertising industries hit hardest by the coronavirus are sports TV networks that banked on advertising tied to National Basketball Association, Major League Baseball, and National Hockey Association programming.
According to data from TV ad-buying firm Tatari, during the week of April 13, viewership on sports networks fell 33% to 82% depending on the TV network compared to January and February.
Disney is particularly exposed to the lack of live sports, according to a note from Wall Street firm UBS. The firm estimates that sports accounts for 16% of Disney's total viewership, with sports making up about 45% of ESPN and ABC's programming.
ESPN is filling the gap from live sports with programs like a 10-part documentary about Michael Jordan's career titled "The Last Dance." The network says the first two episodes of the series that aired on April 19 averaged 6.1 million viewers, making it the network's most-watched documentary ever. State Farm, Facebook, and Reese's Peanut Butter Cups are the doc's sponsors.
ESPN, ABC, and the NFL Network, meanwhile, are broadcasting the NFL Draft from April 23 to 25 across all three networks with 100 brands like Pizza Hut, Verizon, and Bud Light Seltzer advertising during the broadcast. According to Disney, 60 of the brands are first-time NFL Draft sponsors.
There are also replays of old sports games airing across ESPN's network. And its brand The Ocho, which began in 2017 and is based off of the fictional ESPN channel in the movie "Dodgeball," is broadcasting obscure sports like marble racing and cup stacking.
Sean Hanrahan, SVP of sports brand solutions for Disney Advertising Sales, said that advertisers have asked when live sports will return so they can plan out the rest of the year.
"Just because there aren't live sports doesn't mean that we're not doing that," he said. "There's still sports news to talk about, there's still prognostications to make, there's still analysis to be done."
Read more of Business Insider's coverage of the coronavirus' impact on TV advertising here:

  • The coronavirus ground $10 billion in sports advertising to a halt. Here's how State Farm pulled a campaign for ESPN's high-stakes "The Last Dance" together in a few weeks.
  • Even media companies that don't rely on sports could be hit hard if football season is delayed. Here are the TV companies most at risk.
  • Live sports like NBA games are evaporating, leaving marketers with billions of ad spend to reallocate
  • 40 advertising execs who manage $90 billion in spending describe how they're shifting their 2020 budgets in a new report. Here are 4 key takeaways for the TV industry.
  • The Tokyo Olympics were just postponed until 2021 — here's why that could be terrible for the TV industry
  • Leaked document: Top ad agency predicts that cancelled NBA and NCAA events will cost TV networks up to a 25% drop in viewership 

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