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How do you run a regional sports network when there are no sports?

At a time when Fox Sports North is normally gearing up for one of its busiest stretches, COVID-19 has brought the sports calendar to a halt. So how does Minnesota’s regional sports network choose what to put on TV?

Target Field
Target Field, Minneapolis
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan

Like so many offices in states with stay-at-home orders during the time of coronavirus, Fox Sports North’s studios in downtown Minneapolis sit dark. FSN shut down the place in mid-March, at a time when Minnesota’s regional sports network usually gears up for one of its busiest stretches.

April and early May normally bring the final weeks for the Timberwolves and Wild, the first weeks for the Twins, and groundwork for the upcoming Lynx season. Not this year. COVID-19 has brought the sports calendar to a halt.

With no live games to air and hours of programming to fill, nine or so FSN editors set up at home preparing old games for rebroadcast. Things like the 1987 and 1991 World Series; key games from the Wild’s 2003 Western Conference finals run; and two Kevin Garnett fan favorites — his 2015 return to the Timberwolves, and the 2004 playoff victory over Sacramento where he celebrated atop the Target Center press table above a bemused Sid Hartman.

So how does FSN choose what to show? It’s not as simple as grabbing a tape off a shelf and popping it into a console. FSN needs permission from the various leagues to show old games. A lot of that video is in standard definition, which went out in the mid-2000s, and must be converted to HD. 

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“It’s a daunting task when you look at it,” said Mike Dimond, senior vice president and general manager of Fox Sports North and Fox Sports Wisconsin. “It’s one thing if you got into a work stoppage from either a lockout or a strike and you played some classic games one team at a time. This is a case where they all stopped at the same time, so there’s a bit of a mad scramble to get things.”

Dimond said FSN is free to replay anything from the current suspended NHL and NBA seasons or last season’s MLB. On older games, broadcast rights revert to the leagues — MLB, NBA, NHL and WNBA. So FSN needs permission to air those games, even if a copy exists in its archives or on a server. Fortunately, Dimond said, getting permission hasn’t been a problem.

“The leagues and the teams have been tremendously supportive and cooperative in this whole endeavor,” he said. “They’ve all opened up the library of games we can access, and they’ve been very helpful. Our library, if you will, has expanded greatly because of that cooperation.”

Editors then put the broadcast together. Sometimes games are edited down to fit a time slot. Certain music may be edited out to avoid paying license fees. Most editing can be done at home, though occasionally it requires a trip to the studio, where Dimond said one-person editing booths afford social distancing protection.

“Our crew and staff has done a great job of figuring this out on the fly,” Dimond said. “We had our people set up at home as one of the earliest companies to really kind of do that. That presents its own sets of challenges when you’re talking about television and editing and sourcing games and those kinds of things. Our staff has done a great job of meeting that challenge.”

Dimond wouldn’t discuss ratings or ad revenue for these telecasts, saying only the audiences are “a fraction” of a live game. “I think there’s an appetite for the classics, because there’s only so much Netflix and Hulu and (Amazon) Prime that you can watch,” he said. “Speaking for myself, I’m looking for another series to binge-watch and I’m kind of running out of them. People have a longing for sports.”

Some memories have been cool to revisit. It’s been years since I saw the controversial Kent Hrbek/Ron Gant play from Game 2 of the 1991 World Series, and on second look I’m convinced Hrbek yanked Gant off the bag. That may not be a popular opinion around here (it’s certainly not with my editor); either way, there goes the argument that Minnesota teams never get any calls. Seeing a baby-faced Tom Glavine, the future Braves Hall of Fame lefthander, and an equally youthful Ron Gardenhire coaching third base for the Twins make me smile.

Allianz Field, St. Paul
MinnPost photo by Pat Borzi
Allianz Field, St. Paul
So with the return of live games uncertain, what’s coming from FSN in the next few weeks? A special about Nelson Cruz and baseball in the Dominican Republic debuted this week. FSN secured rights to all three MLB All-Star Games in Minnesota — 1965, 1985 and 2014 — that aired already and will likely be repeated. Monday night, look for the memorable 2009 Game 163 between the Twins and Detroit.

Soon to be announced: Eight Lynx classic games, a mix of regular season and playoffs, beginning May 13 with Lindsay Whalen’s career-high 14 assists against Los Angeles from 2013. Also on the list, with air dates to be determined: Maya Moore’s 2015 Finals Game 3 buzzer-beater at Indiana, and Game 5 of the 2017 Finals at Williams Arena. Roundtables hosted by FSN on-air personalities are also in the works.

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FSN is operating with a much smaller staff than usual. Many of the faces you typically see, and all the technicians you don’t, are out of work. A handful of FSN announcers employed by the clubs they broadcast may be getting paid, but it’s not clear who falls into that category. Studio hosts and sideline reporters like Marney Gellner and Annie Sabo do not. Earlier this month, Gellner tweeted about receiving her first unemployment check. 

While major networks like CBS and Turner paid production crews through mid-April or longer, Sinclair Broadcasting, which last year bought FSN and 20 other Fox regional sports networks from Disney, came up light. It essentially offered its crews a payday loan — a $2,500 salary advance to be repaid in installments once games resume. Techs, who make $250 to $600 per game, had to work 60 percent of last year’s games to be eligible. Only 50 to 60 out of the nearly 200 members of IATSE Local 745, the union representing FSN’s production workers, even qualified, according to Local 745 president Chris Tveitbakk. 

“I could take my TV down to the pawnshop and get almost the same kind of deal,” said Tveitbakk. “A lot of us took it as a slap in the face.”

Few applied, he said; most are collecting unemployment. Sinclair, meanwhile, still reportedly pockets cable subscriber fee revenue even though there are no games. It’s a tough business at a strange time. For now, the lineup of classics is all we have.