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Now is the time for ESPN, NFL, NBA and more to air the classic games we love

Why not air classics like the Los Angeles Lakers-Boston Celtics 1985 NBA Finals? (Photo by George Rizer/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

As essentially everyone in the world is being asked to stay indoors and away from others during the coronavirus pandemic, we no longer have the one thing that could reliably bring us together and keep us from vacating our couches: live sports. Nearly every active sports league has suspended games, including the NCAA’s marquee, March Madness.

Instead of spending this week pretending to be busy at work while secretly watching college basketball games at our desks and checking our brackets on our smartphones during meetings, many of us are stuck indoors with our pets, roommates, partners, and children — and there are no live sports to escape to. With normalcy gone in every corner of our lives, it’s even harder for us to do what we absolutely need to do: stay indoors and distance ourselves from people outside our households.

This is a chance for the sports channels on our cable guide to help us. To keep the sports-loving people of the United States in their homes and glued to their televisions, it’s their civic duty to open their vaults, resolve those rights issues, and show us the best sporting events of all time.

Imagine having non-stop, wall-to-wall games on evenings and weekends, giving fans that comfortable, nostalgic feeling of witnessing great sports history — or at least a few hours of grown-up normalcy and an excuse to turn off the eighth straight hour of “Shimmer and Shine” and “Blaze and the Monster Machines.”

The NBA’s network, NBA TV, has already caught the snap. (So to speak.) They’ve responded to the suspension of the NBA season by programming clinching games of NBA Finals and championship documentaries.

Not every network has been so fast to respond. Let’s see how things stand with some of the other sports networks.

NFL Network and MLB Network

NFL Network is busy with free agency and the bombshell Tom Brady news at the moment (though no one would say no to a night-by-night rebroadcast of the 25 greatest games of all time). MLB Network has nothing but time. It barely has anything but “MLB Tonight” programmed for days and days.

It’s time to break out the good stuff. Game 7 of the 2016 World Series between the Cubs and Indians, which went into extra innings and gave the Cubs their first championship in 116 years. The 45-run game between the Phillies and Cubs in 1979, when it felt like the homers (and the game itself) would never end. Game 6 of the 1993 World Series, which featured a series-clinching walk-off home run from the Jays’ Joe Carter, breaking the hearts of millions of Phillies fans for all eternity.

Rights issues complicate this. Playoff games are shown on several different networks, and rights for regular-season games are tied in with regional sports networks. But there’s never been a better time to sit down and work out a deal to give MLB Network something to show its baseball-loving audience besides the millionth offseason showing of “The Natural” and “Field of Dreams.”

ESPN

ESPN has a cadre of in-studio shows that it broadcasts on a daily basis, which leaves little time for capturing the eyes of aimless sports fans hungry for something beyond professional bowling. It should, however, use its web of networks (ESPN2, ESPNU, ESPN3, ESPN Classic) to give the people what they want.

ESPN has the original rights to broadcast numerous tennis tournaments (like Wimbledon and the U.S. Open), soccer matches, NBA games, baseball games, college football games, and Monday Night Football. It’s time to renegotiate with rights holders and get those games in front of people who are tired of talking to their pets, or who desperately, desperately want to avoid another family viewing of “Frozen 2.”

ESPN is working on it. In an interview on Tuesday, executive vice president Burke Magnus said that the network is “exploring” the possibility of re-airing classic games, that fans have said they want, and has already started working with sports leagues on securing the rights for encore presentations.

ESPN is the original sports network. This is the time to remind people that it’s still the best at what it does: broadcasting sports.

CBS Sports Network

CBS has broadcast the NCAA Division I men’s basketball tournament since 1982. The sports network has recently been showing men’s and women’s games from the past few years, but a random midseason game between Colorado State and San Diego State isn’t exactly appointment television.

It’s time for it to reach into its archives and pull out the best, most exciting, and most celebrated games of all time. Games from the magical Cinderella runs of George Mason in 2006 and VCU in 2011. Christian Laettner’s mind-boggling late-game heroics in Duke vs. Kentucky from 1992. The 2016 national championship game between Villanova and North Carolina, which became an instant classic.

CBS also broadcasts the PGA Tour as well as the Masters. It’s time to dust off some of those classic Masters performances and get them back on TV. Want to see the Golden Bear win his sixth Masters at age 46 way back in 1986? Or any of Tiger Woods’ five Masters victories? CBS can give that to you.

Masters-winning Tiger is the best Tiger. (Photo by David Cannon/Getty Images)

NBC Sports Network

NBCSN hasn’t appeared to adjust its schedule very much in response to the pandemic, but it’s in a very special and unique position. As the broadcaster of every Summer Olympics since 1988 and every Winter Olympics since 2002, it has millions of hours of Olympic competition. It even has a whole network devoted to it!

Sarah Hughes beating Michelle Kwan for the gold at the 2002 Olympics? It has it. The Dream Team dominating in 1992? It has that, too. It has Kerri Strug’s miraculous, gold medal-winning vault in the 1996 team all-around, Rulon Gardner’s surprise wrestling gold in 2000, and every single one of Michael Phelps’ 23 gold medal moments. It has it all. Any Olympic race or emotional triumph from the past 30-plus years is at its disposal.

This is something that only NBC can deliver. No other network has Olympics rights going back 20+ years. The 2020 Tokyo Olympics are still in question, but the Olympics don’t ever have to end on NBCSN.

Kerri Strug (second from right) and the 1996 U.S. women's gymnastics team were nicknamed the Magnificent Seven. (Photo by David Madison/Getty Images)

Fox Sports 1

Things are a little more complicated for Fox. It doesn’t have the rights to show the same things on Fox Sports 1 as it does on its over-the-air network. What FS1 has is baseball, some golf, professional bowling, and tons and tons of soccer. It can truly win the hearts of America’s soccer lovers by showing key CONCACAF and Bundesliga matches from the past few years, and every Major League Soccer match that it’s allowed to show.

Fox Sports 1 has a lot of bowling programmed for the next week. Instead of showing a sport that the majority of Americans have failed to notice or care about for decades, why not instead rebroadcast the USWNT’s outstanding show of dominance from 2019 Women’s World Cup? Those women are some of the most popular athletes in the country, and the average age of USWNT fans is much lower than bowling.

Give sports fans something to look forward to

For these networks, this is an unparalleled opportunity to connect with fans and pry eyes away from streaming services. They could have days of programming organized by theme, like the best buzzer-beaters, best overtime games or best come-from-behind wins. They could create hashtags to keep people engaged. Fans could vote on themes, or even decide entire blocks of programming. With unprecedented things happening across the sports world, sports networks should follow that lead and break away from traditional programming choices. Give fans a reason to watch!

There’s also an entire generation of fans who haven’t seen more than clips and highlights of many legendary sporting events. This is a chance to expose young, bourgeoning sports fans to classics they’ve never been able to watch, and give them experiences that will shape their fandom from years to come. Every network has the opportunity to turn a kid into a lifelong sports fan, and give them their fandom origin story. Kids like this around the country are begging for sports to engage with.

Beyond that, this is a chance to revitalize appointment television while doing something good for society. This is a time when people need to stay home for the good of everyone. Sports networks have the opportunity to help everyone out by simply opening their vaults and programming two straight months of compelling sports.

They have the resources. The people are waiting.

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