After a full year of rumors, predictions, hypotheticals, clues, and easter eggs, the 2018 NBA free agent class is nearly ready to make things official. This is without question the most compelling NBA storyline of the past year, and ESPN has been at the center of the coverage. But just as the storyline reaches its crescendo when the calendar turns to July, ESPN’s NBA coverage will be a maze to find, due to Wimbledon.
Imagine if the upcoming final season of Game of Thrones … had its last episode was moved to an alternative HBO channel. That is what will take place next week on ESPN when Wimbledon is airing.
Several of ESPN’s shows that would undoubtedly be centered around free agency talk next week – Get Up, First Take, The Jump, SportsNation – will be airing on ESPN2, while Highly Questionable, Around the Horn, PTI, and High Noon will be off completely.
With NBA free agency becoming arguably the most entertaining story in all of sports, the daily studio shows would likely pull in monster numbers as they employ many of the NBA’s top reporters and opinionists.
Being preempted to ESPN2 is not just an easy “push the arrow up on the remote.” ESPN2 has essentially become a ghost channel since First Take was moved off of it. When First Take was last preempted to ESPN2 on April 5 and 6 for The Masters, it averaged 201,000 viewers, significantly lower than the numbers it regularly draws on the main ESPN channel.
Like during The Masters, First Take will not display its regular cast of Stephen A. Smith, Max Kellerman, and Molly Qerim when moved to ESPN2. They will instead be appearing in the afternoons on ESPN from 4:30 to 6 pm on July 2-3 and 5-6.
Wimbledon’s impact on First Take is strange, to say the least. Airing specials in the afternoon will provide a strong ratings cushion leading into the evening, but the mornings could become problematic on ESPN2 without Stephen A. leading the charge.
Regardless of what time of day LeBron James' decision becomes final, most NBA fans will still be interested in the story in the morning. As recent numbers have proven, viewers will turn on ESPN, but when they see tennis, will they switch to ESPN2?
This will negatively impact Get Up the most significantly. Michael McCarthy of Sporting News is reporting that the disappointing, expensive morning show has until football season to get ratings up, or changes will be made. With Brian Windhorst saying the belief is most of the free agency drama will be finished by July 4, Get Up is missing out on what may have ended up as their highest-rated week until the aforementioned football season.
In recent years, several of the NBA’s biggest stories have broken late at night. Get Up is going to miss out on hundreds of thousands of viewers turning on the late editions of SportsCenter and leaving the channel on for the morning.
While Wimbledon annually does preempt ESPN’s morning lineup, they have not had a morning show with the stakes of the New York-based project. ESPN has also built the show, at least to this point, to be NBA-centric with Jalen Rose and Michelle Beadle.
ESPN’s resident NBA show, The Jump was made for weeks like next week. No show will provide more news, accurate analysis, in-depth nuggets next week than The Jump, but in its normal 3 pm start time on ESPN2, a large chunk of its regular audience will be missing out.
While it is not hard to imagine why ESPN elected to air First Take specials next week in place of Highly Questionable, Around the Horn, and PTI with Stephen A. being the most sought-after ESPN opinion when major NBA news breaks, all three of Rydholm shows have been around for 5+ years and have an audience.
This may not strike as a negative to ESPN as a whole, as a live sports event like Wimbledon should rate better than the daily shows. It does, however, raise several interesting questions. With ESPN pivoting more and more towards the NBA, and the NBA offseason becoming more and more thrilling, is it worth it?