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With the NBA’s return to ESPN, A Look Back At Four Unforgettable Months of Adapting and Innovating

The span between the NBA’s cessation and its return was a time for ESPN to tap into over 40 years of adjusting and innovating.

When the NBA season was interrupted on the night of March 11, it essentially signified the end of live sports domestically and sent ESPN into adjustment and innovation mode.

Now, with the season re-started, Front Row takes a look back at the way ESPN helped bridge the gap between early spring and mid-summer when the sports we love cautiously began returning. In every sense, ESPN has demonstrated a #OneTeam approach – one that wouldn’t have been possible without the company’s league partners and the fans who have trusted us and experienced this historic time, together.

The timeline below is a fraction of ESPN’s successes and solutions since March 11. As Vice President, Production, Mike McQuade, wrote in a recent email to his Boxing team, that among a long list of accomplishments created 350 edit elements for Top Rank’s return: “It has always been the people that make ESPN great, perhaps no greater example in my 33 years than this group, during this time. Just incredible.”

Well said.

Rich Arden, Santa Brito, Ardi Dwornik, Mike Soltys and Sheldon Spencer contributed to this post.

March 13, 2020
Bristol, Conn., Studio X: Toni Collins and David Lloyd on the SportsCenter set (Joe Faraoni/ESPN Images)

As the sports world shut down in stunning fashion, SportsCenter stayed on the air and had every aspect covered with extensive reporting and minute-by-minute updates.

March 15, 2020 - Senior Night - Scott Van Pelt

When sports were halted, SportsCenter anchor Scott Van Pelt began honoring seniors who weren’t able to have their own “Senior Night.” It became a signature feature in the early days of the pandemic.

March 24, 2020 - Jorge Ramos y Su Banda

ESPN Deportes: On March 24, Jorge Ramos y Su Banda was the first live studio show to return to the air from home studios.

March 2020 - Studio Innovation

“We reinvented the studio production process to keep all of our employees safe and keep 12 hours of live shows on the air which were as creative as they have ever been because there were no sports to cover or highlights to show. Across these shows, our reporters – working remotely across the country – never missed a beat breaking stories around what is going on in the sports world re: Covid-19, but also every NFL free-agent move.” – Executive Vice President, Content, Connor Schell

March 30, 2020 - #oneteam

“This #oneteam Public Service Announcement (PSA) highlights that with games and practices on pause, we are still on one big team with important roles to play, including keeping our distance, checking on each other and supporting the heroes on the front line.” – ESPN VP, Corporate Citizenship, Kevin Martinez

April 13, 2020 - The Jump

The Jump, ESPN’s NBA news and discussion show led by host Rachel Nichols, was produced entirely remotely with high-level innovative technology that allowed all talent and associated staff to work from their homes.

April 17, 2020 - WNBA Draft

Reinventing familiar events became a hallmark of ESPN’s programming during the first part of the pandemic and our production of the WNBA Draft is a prime example of how we used innovation to deal with abnormal circumstances.

April 19, 2020 - The Last Dance

“The Last Dance” wasn’t just a sports documentary, it was a cultural phenomenon. On April 19, ESPN wisely moved the premiere up and gave sports fans a reason to cheer for five straight Sundays. In July, it was nominated for three Primetime Emmy Awards.

April 23-25, 2020 - NFL Draft

Not only was ESPN’s and ESPN Deportes’ presentation of the 2020 NFL Draft the most watched ever, but the event may also go down as the most ambitious production we have ever attempted in our 41-year history. Our ability to successfully navigate the many obstacles associated with this year’s Draft proves that no challenge is too great for ESPN.

May 2, 2020 - Deadlifting on ESPN Deportes

The Ocho appeared on ESPN for the first time with a live world-record attempt by the 2018 World’s Strongest Man and Game of Thrones “The Mountain,” Hafthor Bjornsson. The ESPN Deportes telecast marked the first time ESPN televised a live event in the US with announcers at home, as Kenneth Garay and Pablo Viruega called the action from Connecticut. There have been more than 5,400 hours of content in Spanish and Portuguese for fans in the U.S. and Latin America and over 1,700 hours of News and Information from home studios in Bristol, Miami, Los Angeles, Mexico City, Buenos Aires and Sao Paulo.

May 5, 2020 - KBO

“It’s another tribute to the ridiculously talented and determined people at ESPN. This has been an incredible effort, and I believe a blueprint for the future.” Baseball Tonight host, play-by-play commentator Karl Ravech on calling Korean Baseball League games from his Connecticut home

May 9, 2020 - UFC 249: Ferguson vs. Gaethje

UFC 249: Ferguson vs. Gaethje, the country’s first live sporting event since mid-March, streamed exclusively on ESPN+. The PPV event was the first of three UFC events that took place in Jacksonville, Fla., with no fans in attendance (also May 13 and 16).

May 9, 2020 - Cornhole

Cornhole gained a regular spot on ESPN and was also part of the return of “The Ocho,” the ever-popular annual event that was needed this year more than ever. In addition to procuring live sporting events during the pandemic, ESPN’s programming team also created various “stunts” that included Friday night Disney movies, classic games from the most popular sports, and an Undefeated Marathon.

May 29, 2020 - Roy Halladay Story

“While our live event programming was on pause, our original storytelling shined through. Beginning with the premiere of “The Last Dance” on April 19, ESPN delivered 10-straight weeks of original content that included 30 for 30 Films, E:60 Specials about Alex Smith and Roy Halladay, and a new episode of Backstory With Don Van Natta about LeBron James’ infamous ‘Decision’.” – Connor Schell

June 9, 2020 - Top Rank Returns

“Boxing was the first ESPN-produced sport to come back during the pandemic, and the challenges from the outset were daunting. The dedication of the staff in Las Vegas was unprecedented, historic and inspiring. What this series and the past two months have shown is the incredible toughness and dedication that this group possesses.

“More importantly, we had zero ESPN positive COVID-19 tests amongst our crew in two months. A few other numbers of note: 25 SportsCenter Segments, 22 [boxing analyst] Mark Kriegel Essays, 64 hours of Zoom Meetings, 350 edit elements created, 2,100 COVID-19 tests administered.

“It has always been the people that make ESPN great, perhaps no greater example in my 33 years than this group, during this time. Just incredible. Thank you – Mike” – Vice President, Production, Mike McQuade, in an email to his team

June 10-11 2020 - MLB Draft

The 2020 MLB Draft on ESPN was the most-watched telecast in its history. The event also generated the most social engagement for an MLB Draft ever. Highlights include: cameras with the General Manager or select personnel of all 30 MLB Clubs and ESPN MLB Analyst Jessica Mendoza conducting one-on-one interviews with several of the top players in a series of videos packages.

June 15, 2020 - Return of Sports

As plans ramped up to bring live sports back, ESPN led the discussion with a show featuring commissioners and conversations about how to safely resume play and what fans could expect.

June 21, 2020 - The ESPYS
“We staged a virtual awards show that raised nearly $4M for the V Foundation, honored heroes like Kevin Love and Taquarius Ware, and sparked important conversations around social justice from the commentary of superstar athletes [co-hosts Sue Bird, Megan Rapinoe, Russell Wilson].” – Connor Schell

June 24, 2020 - Time for a Change: We Won't be Defeated

An ESPN primetime special tackled systemic racism and the unifying role sports plays in bridging the widening gap between law enforcement and the African-American community.

July 5, 2020 – Formula 1 Returns to Racing

After a four-month delay to start the 2020 season, Formula 1 kicked off with the Austrian Grand Prix. The event set viewership records with an average audience of 752,000 viewers.

July 8, 2020 - MLS Is Back

The MLS is Back Tournament’s opening match averaged 492,000 viewers on ESPN and ESPN Deportes, according to Nielsen. This is the second most-viewed MLS regular-season telecast (over 64 matches) on ESPN networks since March 11, 2018.

July 23, 2020 - MLB Returns

ESPN generated the largest audience ever for an MLB Opening Night Telecast with four million viewers for New York Yankees at Washington Nationals.

July 25, 2020 - WNBA Returns

July 27, 2020 - Redesigned App

ESPN’s App saw a redesign and included the new “Stories” feature, just in time for sports’ return.

July 30, 2020 - The NBA Returns
ESPN’s NBA production compound at ESPN WWOS in Florida (Ryan Humble/ESPN)

“There is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach when dealing with such different leagues and situations. So the work was invented from whole cloth for every event in terms of where we are producing from and how we are producing.

“It’s made possible by years of work innovating the production process and incredible know-how from our team to very quickly rise to the occasion, as in the case of the NBA, with our partners at Disney and the league, we have constructed what in essence, is an Olympic Village [see photo above] in under two months.” – Connor Schell

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