The initial video images of ESPN's coverage of the Chiefs' victory parade shooting. The initial video images of ESPN’s coverage of the Chiefs’ victory parade shooting. (ESPN.)

When major sports or sports-related news happens, a first reaction for many is to turn on the linear ESPN network for coverage of what’s going on. But around the mass shooting at the Kansas City Chiefs’ Super Bowl LVIII victory parade Wednesday afternoon, that network was much slower to go to coverage of this than other news and sports channels. And they took significant criticism for that.

As per a TVEyes search, the first national mention of “shooting” in this context came on CNN at 3:07 p.m. ET, where CNN News Central‘s Boris Sanchez quickly pivoted from a planned interview with Congressman Mark Alford (R-MO). Sanchez announced that CNN had confirmed shots fired at the parade, and their video feed cut to live images of the scene in Kansas City. Sanchez got a two-minute statement on this from Alford (a representative from the Chiefs’ state who was in their parade last year), then pivoted back to the planned interview with Alford about immigration, and then went to full images-and-description coverage of reports coming in from the shootings at 3:15 p.m. ET.

Meanwhile, Newsmax’s studio show began discussing the shootings at 3:11 p.m. ET, with Fox News doing so around the same time. On FS1, First Things First was broadcasting live from the parade. They abruptly went to commercial at 3:17. At 3:26, that show did not return, but FS1 began simulcasting Fox News’ live coverage of the shooting (with no intro). First Things First host Nick Wright later confirmed that the show’s staff and crew were safe.

Also on the national front, MSNBC went to live coverage here at 3:20 p.m. ET. ABC does not have an associated cable news channel, but they had a web story and live streaming video coverage up around 3:20 p.m. ET as well, as did CBS. And on the sports side, the CBSSN broadcast of CBS Sports HQ highlights addressed this around 3:50 p.m. ET, and the main CBS broadcast network cut into their UEFA Champions League coverage with a short special report on this around 4 p.m. ET (before returning to that game).

On the local front, many of the local broadcast networks were carrying the parade. And they all started realizing something was wrong around the time things seemed to be wrapping up on the stage. For example, ABC affiliate KMBC went to a commercial there at 2:47 p.m. ET; it wasn’t quite clear if that was fully planned or not, but they then came back at 2:50 p.m. ET in full breaking news mode, discussing the shootings. The other local affiliates handled it similarly.

The giant contrast in how this was covered was ESPN. The first mention of this at all on ESPN’s website was 3:40 p.m. ET, with a story from ESPN News Services. But on air on the main ESPN network, NBA Today continued in normal fashion. That prompted comment and simultaneous screengrabs:

Finally, at 3:57 p.m. ET, Malika Andrews provided a short statement that there was a shooting in Kansas City around the parade. Then they went to commercial, and then they came back with  NBA Today for a final segment, with Kendrick Perkins talking about Valentine’s Day and Andrews cracking up. (This is likely because the show is pretaped, as we’ll discuss further below, but it was tonally odd to see for viewers, and it might have been better to just stay in commercial until NFL Live.)

At 4 p.m. ET, ESPN turned it over to NFL Live, and the focus there was entirely on the shooting. And the show seemed to handle it well, by most analyses, with commentary from Marcus Spears, Adam Schefter, and Louis Riddick (largely set over images and video from Kansas City) perhaps particularly standing out:

At 4:17 p.m. ET, ESPN went to live coverage from KMBC, the aforementioned ABC affiliate in Kansas City. They stayed with that through the top of the 5 p.m. ET hour, went back to NFL Live for more discussion (and some specific NFL-related updates, including player tweets on this), then went back to KMBC live coverage at 5:07 p.m. ET, and stayed with that until 5:28, with host Laura Rutledge then finishing their coverage and setting up SportsCenter beginning at 5:30 p.m. ET (ahead of the usual 6 p.m. ET start) coverage from Kevin Negandhi and Elle Duncan, which started by addressing this.

The eventual SportsCenter coverage of this was solid, including an interview with on-the-ground ABC News reporter Alex Perez. And the NFL Live coverage before that handled this very well, especially considering that show’s widely different focus. But a key question for many is why it took ESPN so much longer to first acknowledge this on air at all and then go to coverage of it than many other networks.

In a situation like this, the local networks are obviously likely to be be first on the scene, especially so when they’re broadcasting live from the event. And it makes some sense that the cable news networks also got to this ahead of ESPN; they’re very specifically set up to handle breaking news in a way ESPN is not currently. It even made some sense that FS1 got to this more quickly; they had a show on the scene, so they obviously knew things were going wrong, and they had a cable news channel in the same company (ESPN does not).

But ESPN does have a corporate sibling in ABC. And they proved eventually able to get the KMBC feed; it’s curious that they couldn’t do that earlier. The ownership there is slightly different, as KMBC is Hearst-owned and ABC-affiliated, but it’s unclear if that was a specific factor here. At any rate, the KMBC feed was useful, and it was good that ESPN eventually used that extensively while working in NFL Live commentary and the SportsCenter interview with ABC News’ Perez. But it took a long time to get there, and during a good bit of that time, ESPN was playing extremely light-hearted NBA Today coverage while news networks were covering this shooting. And they didn’t even address the situation on their Bottom Line ticker and say NFL Live would cover it.

The challenges with ESPN pretaping many studio shows and that limiting their flexibility to react to breaking news have come up before, including with Antonio Brown’s release in 2019 (handled much faster by FS1’s live shows). The other very notable part of this is that ESPNEWS is no longer the round-the-clock news and highlights channel it was envisioned as at launch in 1996. At some past points, there would have been some edition of SportsCenter airing live there, which could have covered this as it happened, and ESPN could have bumped that up to the main network. That isn’t the case now.

ESPN was not the only network to struggle with this. NFL Network continued to air coverage of past Super Bowls, despite having staff on the ground at the parade who tweeted about what was happening, including reporter James Palmer. (Palmer tweeted that the NFLN crew is safe.) But they did get the news up on their ticker, and they probably couldn’t easily have done on-the-ground coverage right then with the safety concerns. But there’s room for wondering if they should have had some level of live studio coverage they could go to.

But the microscope is bigger when it comes to ESPN. They are the self-proclaimed Worldwide Leader In Sports, with a mission “To serve sports fans any time, anywhere.” They did eventually get to solid coverage of this incident Wednesday. But it took them a long time. And that raises questions about if there are things they can improve on the breaking news side going forward.

About Andrew Bucholtz

Andrew Bucholtz has been covering sports media for Awful Announcing since 2012. He is also a staff writer for The Comeback. His previous work includes time at Yahoo! Sports Canada and Black Press.