*Could* TV Networks Actually Air Old Basketball Tournaments?

An ESPN official said in a blog post that although the network doesn't have rebroadcast rights for old games typically, it is "exploring that possibility for events and content that we don’t have re-air rights already."

Last week, when it began to look likely that the NCAA would cancel March Madness, MSNBC’s Steve Kornacki proposed a solution:

“If there’s no NCAA tournament this year,” he wrote on Twitter, “I think CBS should go into the archives and assemble all the footage from one from years ago — commercials, pregame and halftime shows, in-game updates, everything. Use 1992 or something. Then just run it all like it’s new.”

Since then, the leagues have canceled or postponed March Madness, the Masters, the NBA season, the NHL season, spring training and the Major League Baseball season, and more because of the coronavirus. Basically the only thing remaining on the schedule to cover live is the NFL draft, while more and more people get stranded at home.

So could TV networks air old college basketball tournaments? Or the 2000 NBA playoffs? What about the 1997 Masters where Tiger won that first time?

I emailed representatives for a few of the major broadcasters earlier today with this general question of whether they would consider airing old playoffs and tournaments, or what issues might prevent them from doing so.

A spokesperson for ESPN quickly pointed me to a Tuesday Q&A with Burke Magnus, an EVP, about their programming plans without live sports to air (or even talk about).

The general answer is...it's thinking about airing old games:

Re-airing full-game presentations is not a right that we or other media companies typically have at our disposal at all times. Each one of these circumstances requires individual conversations with the specific league or property to determine what’s possible.

Since we’ve heard from fans that would love to relive full-game presentations, particularly at this moment in time, we are exploring that possibility for events and content that we don’t have re-air rights already.

We are working with the leagues themselves to free up the possibility to show encore presentations and discussing how we can present them. In some instances, we aren’t even the original rightsholder, which is the case for the Men’s NCAA Basketball Tournament, for example. Event programming will continue to be supplemented by ESPN live studio and news programming, plus original shows and films.

Basically, there are some real rights issues here. At a minimum, you’d need a willing partnership between network and league.

Elsewhere in the Q&A, Magnus said the network is currently geared toward covering the NFL draft (which is supposed to continue, just minus events) but are also looking at scaling “fun, compelling archival content and/or themed and stunt event programming that will provide a diversion at a time that there are virtually no other live sports to watch.”

(I also emailed reps for CBS Sports, Turner Sports, and Fox Sports earlier with the same question — no answer as of yet.)

But the beauty of Steve’s original suggestion is that a full tournament would provide narrative. In a situation where everyone is at home and isolated, you’re looking for something that could potentially create a communal experience with a beginning, middle, end, and surprises.

To get this, you need something that runs end to end — not just the one-off selection of Yankees Classics that air on the YES Network.

You need something that isn’t too recent to give a little mystery and fuzziness. (Nobody really remembers most of anything from, for example, 1992’s March Madness — except the Grant Hill–Christian Laettner play.) You need this to air with a little fanfare in an easily accessible place — nobody wants to harass their friends to dig up some random grainy clips on YouTube. And you need some good surprises in there too, like the actual ads from forever ago, since there’s no joy like seeing what was supposed to be cool 25 years ago.

You need an old basketball tournament! That’s what you need!

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