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For the sports-entertainment business, coronavirus is taking a huge toll

In this April 4, 2016, file photo, Villanova's Kris Jenkins makes the game-winning three-pointer during the NCAA tournament championship game against North Carolina. The NCAA tournament is one of many lucrative sports events canceled due to coronavirus. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
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For years, U.S. television networks have spent increasing amounts of money on “sports packages," paying billions of dollars for the rights to show baseball, basketball and other sports exclusively. The exorbitant fees were justified because live contests offered a unique asset — unskippable real-time drama in the age of DVR.

But that major virtue of immediacy is now proving to be sports-television’s great weakness. Coronavirus has shut down events wholesale, in turn toppling the sports-entertainment hierarchy at a scale experts say they have never seen before.

The depth of the destruction is so vast and so uncertain that in many ways it is incalculable, even as many are trying to calculate it.

“This is unprecedented,” said Neal Pilson, the longtime head of CBS Sports who now works as a consultant. “Sept. 11 comes closest, but I’m not sure how close it really comes. There’s going to have to be an adjustment to the very economic base of sports.”

Only the NFL, televised sports’ biggest cash cow, has been spared — for now.

Broadcasters form part of a highly interdependent ecosystem. Network fees strengthen leagues, which as a result mount sports that attract viewers and advertisers, which then bolsters the networks, which can then turn around and pay more fees. Disruptions at any point affect the whole chain.

“Sports broadcasting rights are the mother’s milk of sports in the United States,” said Marc Ganis a longtime sports consultant and adviser to numerous teams. “And a lot people need to drink from it.”

Perhaps nowhere is that more evident than March Madness, the men’s and women’s Division I basketball tournaments that were supposed to start this week.

CBS and Turner together pay the NCAA some $785 million a year to broadcast the men’s tournament, a stunning $330,000 per minute of game action, not including overtime. (Turner includes TNT, TBS and TruTV.)

Now that the tournament is canceled, the networks won’t get a cash refund. Most likely they’ll get their money back in another way --- for instance, by a one-year extension of the current deal at no additional cost. But that means the networks will see an interruption in cash flow, having paid out hundreds of millions of dollars without the corresponding ad revenue to show for it.

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“It may not hit them later. But it will hit them now,” said Neil Begley, a senior vice president at Moody’s who this week released a report headlined, “Sports Cancellations, Delays Over Coronavirus Are Credit Negative for Media Companies."

And that ad revenue is significant — the take for the men’s tournament topped $1 billion for the first time two years ago. A 30-second spot in last year’s men’s final between Virginia and Texas Tech — watched by an average of nearly 20 million viewers — cost about $1.5 million. While some of that inventory has been sold (itself to be refunded in the form of free-commercial “make goods”), not all of it is. CBS and Turner did not comment for this story.

Meanwhile, the NCAA and the schools that the revenues support could also be in straits. Some 72 percent of the NCAA’s annual revenue comes from the CBS-Turner deal.

Patrick Rishe, director of the sports business program at Washington University’s Olin Business School in St. Louis, said that one of the greatest impacts of the tournament’s cancellation will be on smaller schools to which it can give a major boost — like the University of Dayton, a small Roman Catholic school of 8,700 undergraduates that was heading to a No. 1 seed this year.

“You can’t pooh-pooh what that means for schools. You lose marketing value, you lose exposure value," Rishe said. “Just look at Duke,” he added, noting a small top-tier academic school that has become far more well-known thanks to its run of five men’s basketball titles under coach Mike Krzyzewski. (Actual payouts come in the form of nearly $2 million per tournament win, paid to the conference to which the team belongs.)

“March Madness benefits a lot of parties,” Rishe said. “So when it doesn’t happen it costs a lot of parties.”

March Madness is worth billions to the NCAA and networks. Canceling will cost them.

Also lost: the opportunity for advertisers to promote their brands. A slew of companies — they include Capital One, Coke and Turner parent AT&T — use the tournament to launch and sell products.

March Madness isn’t the only realm that will feel a major promotional impact because of the virus. If the Olympics this summer fall victim to the pandemic — so far they remain on, despite widespread calls for their postponement — it would be disastrous for NBC.

The network is already taking a hit with the postponement or cancellation of the Kentucky Derby, Stanley Cup finals and French Open. Yet it is the Olympics that are massively essential to NBC, which paid about $1.1 billion for the U.S. broadcast rights for the Tokyo Games.

That’s in part because the high viewership means high ad rates — an average of well over 25 million people were watching many nights four years ago, plus many more on streaming, pushing ad rates up.

But it’s NBC’s ability to promote off the Games that truly makes them so valuable. The company not only plans to publicize its upcoming shows there, as it does every Summer and Winter Games, it plans to launch a new business off these Games: The Olympics will be the kickoff event for Peacock, the new streaming service executives hope can compete with Netflix, Disney Plus and HBO Max.

At an investor presentation in January, the company said that it would feature opening and closing ceremonies live exclusively on the platform along with three daily Olympics shows. Its TV viewership would also provide the kind of launchpad to attract subscribers that other streaming services only dream about.

Asked to discuss the impact, an NBC Sports spokesperson said only that “The safety of our employees is always our top priority, but our preparations continue full steam ahead for the Tokyo Olympics on July 24” and referred to recent comments by Brian Roberts, the chief of NBC’s Comcast parent, calling the Games “just the rallying moment for our country to enjoy."

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ABC/ESPN and Turner also are likely to suffer if the NBA’s current suspension of its season becomes a cancellation. While much of the season had been played before NBA players were discovered infected with the coronavirus, it’s the postseason when the networks recoup their $300 million annual payment. Last year’s finals between the Raptors and Warriors saw average viewership top 18 million for the last two games. Not having those games this year could heavily damage ad revenue for parent companies Disney and AT&T.

“The linchpin for keeping people engaged in linear television is news and sports," Begley said. "This black-swan event may be a boon for one but it’s a serious threat to another.”

The NHL suspension of its season just weeks before postseason play was to begin on April 6 will impact an unlikely player: the so-called regional sports networks that are the sports’ primary broadcast vehicles. NBC pays just $200 million per year for broadcast rights. But ratings in many local markets are strong, and the suspension of the stretch run as teams jostle for playoffs and positioning would impact the companies with holdings there.

That includes Sinclair’s Diamond Sports Group, which comprises the nearly two dozen regional sports networks, or RSNs, that Disney sold to Sinclair because regulators didn’t allow the company to keep them in the Fox acquisition. Diamond has networks with rights in several key NHL cities, including defending Stanley Cup champion St. Louis, currently vying for a top seed in the Western Conference.

The company also has local baseball rights for the coming season in the majority of Major League Baseball markets — a season now very much in jeopardy. MLB could lose months of its 2020 campaign with its late-March Opening Day delayed indefinitely, according to Commissioner Rob Manfred, and a hard-stop in November when colder weather arrives in many markets.

“Diamond is exposed because there are no games, and they’re exposed because they need the cash-flow to pay down their debt,” Ganis said. The company bought the regional sports networks for $10.6 billion.

A spokesman for Sinclair said in a statement that "Our agreements with our partners provide for scenarios such as this and the RSNs have dealt with these issues successfully in the past. For the time being, we have replaced live sports with classic games across professional, college and high school sports, ancillary programming, and third-party programming.”

Losses for regional networks could also affect team revenues and player salaries, since many clubs rely on that money to stay solvent. Already there’s been talk of dramatically lowering the salary caps in the NBA and NHL.

And while Fox would seem to have shed the regional networks at just the right time, the company hardly escapes unscathed. Fox Sports paid some $500 million for the 2020 rights to many MLB games, including the World Series. Even though much of those fees will come back for games that aren’t played, the ad revenue won’t.

Experts say that compounds the hit that Fox takes from the suspension of the NASCAR season. Fox declined to comment for this piece.

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Perhaps most imperiled of all, however, are niche leagues. For these entities, with comparatively lower cash reserves and smaller installed fan bases, a loss of even a few months could be devastating.

“I think the bigger leagues like the NBA and MLB in the long-term will be fine,” Rishe said. “But what about the XFL, which was doing well in its renaissance? Or the National Women’s Soccer League, which had momentum after the Women’s World Cup last year?” he said.

“What happens to them after all the lost revenue? It’s sometimes the little guy you have to worry about."