“What the hell am I going to write about?” Ben Ladner, Atlanta Hawks beat reporter for Sports Illustrated, told TKS over the phone.
COVID-19 did the unthinkable; it halted sports for the foreseeable future. While much has been said and written about how this affects players, this also affects the sportswriters who cover teams on the professional and collegiate levels.
Ladner was in the middle of the Knicks-Hawks March 11 contest when news spread of the NBA suspending their season after the Gobert fiasco that was unraveling in real-time. Naturally, his focus shifted from a game between two of the Eastern Conference’s worst teams to what was going on in Oklahoma City.
“They’re playing the Knicks and ended up going to double overtime, but I honestly couldn’t tell you what happened to the second half because everyone in the media, we’re just following along on Twitter about what’s going on in Oklahoma City with Gobert and that kind of thing. It was surreal to be working during that whole thing,” Ladner said.
Ben Pope covers the Chicago Blackhawks for the Chicago Sun-Times. COVID-19 already had a looming presence on his writing for that Wednesday night. As the NBA was dealing with the fallout of Gobert, there was still a hockey game being played in Chicago that night.
“From a journalistic standpoint, it was tough because I have to file two stories by 10 PM. All of this happened maybe at like nine o’clock, so it was difficult not to know whether I should be writing up the game as normal or trying to like come up with something about this season,” Pope said.
For most millennial sports fans, this is going to be their version of the OJ Simpson car chase during the NBA finals. The way June 17, 1994, is a date that is forever remembered; March 11 may go down with a similar remembrance. In a matter of hours, the NBA went from potentially playing a game on March 12 — featuring the Brooklyn Nets vs. the Golden State Warriors — without fans, to just outright canceling the game. As many lives stopped during this hiatus from live sporting events, sports journalists were suddenly scrambling for content. Some journalists were also looking for time.
Dan Devine is a writer of The Ringer.com. He’s a journalist, but he’s also a parent. Not only did COVID-19 take away his main topic, but it also took away time he had for writing. Instead of scrambling for content to write, he is taking turns with his wife trying to teach and take care of their five year old and two year old daughters.
“The biggest thing is that it’s now cut it in half,” Devine said over email. “My five year old daughter’s school is closed, and so is my two year old daughter’s daycare, and my wife and I both still have to work, so we’re splitting the week; instead of five days a week to write, I now get Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday morning. The rest of the time, I’m a struggling makeshift kindergarten teacher/daycare provider. I need to be a lot more productive in the time that I do get than I used to be — I cranked out about 6,000 words over the last two days to meet one deadline and get ahead of another.”
The initial days after the dust had settled were filled with reactions to the cancellations from players and coaches alike. But COVID-19 is not going away anytime soon.
Ladner specializes in writing about live games. The Indiana University graduate loves the game and loves to write an analysis of what goes on during the game.
“It’s been tricky for me. 90% of the stuff that I draw on to write about is now gone,” Ladner said.
To compensate for the lack of content that is produced by live sports, Ladner is diving into his offseason plans, which includes a player review series about the Atlanta Hawks.
Pope has written four or five stories over the past three weeks for the Sun-Times, which is far less than he’s used to writing. It has been far more challenging for Pope as he cannot interview players at the moment because the Blackhawks aren’t allowing interviews. Most of his writing has consisted of prospect signings and interesting facts that he’s found during this break in the action.
“I wrote a story about how Malcolm Subban — if he’s not re-signed and I don’t think he will be — could end up having the shortest career in Blackhawks history. It was a random thing that almost certainly I wouldn’t have written if the season had been carrying on as normal, but it seems like people thought that story was kind of interesting,” Pope said.
With no March Madness to be played, Brendan Marks of The Athletic simulated the tournament through a video game. Marks purchased a copy of NCAA 10 the video game, updated the rosters manually to the 2019-2020 version, and went through March Madness.
It is the kind of story that is interesting and relatable to that generation of kids who grew up playing video games. The Franchise mode in NCAA 10 allows players to build a team, and see how they do throughout a season. Marks used that function to predict a Duke-Dayton National Championship – talk about a game between the haves and have nots – with Dayton ultimately prevailing.
“It took four days to put in all the rosters manually. My PS3 cut off due to a power surge, and I had to start all over, but that was one of my best read stories at the athletic overall, not just since the sports world has been shelved. It’s trying to be creative and trying to scrap for ideas when you can have them,” Marks said.
Journalism, as an industry, had already been declining for years, especially at the local level. Now, with COVID-19 putting a halt in sports, you’re seeing a plethora of sports journalists getting laid off even from national outlets like Sports Illustrated. The effects of this virus will be felt in journalism long after the pandemic ends.
To combat the spread of the virus, the MLB, MLS, NBA and NHL still played games, and all leagues restricted access to the media. Instead of being in the locker room, post-game interviews would be conducted in a different area where there would be less risk for everyone.
Closing off locker room access permanently would be dangerous for sports journalism. It is in that locker room setting where relationships between media and players are made, which leads to more personal stories. Potentially having that locker room access restricted is something that the journalists have worried about.
“Part of what makes not only this job fun but what makes people good at it or what makes it unique is that allows each individual person to tell their own stories and have their own angles,” Ladner said. “Especially in professional leagues, more so than college is that you do have access where you can walk up to someone in a locker room and say, ‘Hey, can I ask you a question.’ And it might just be you and them, or you can get one-on-one with a player after practice.”
Marks also had similar sentiments that he expressed about the potential limited locker room access.
“We need to be able to be in the locker rooms. We need to be able to have time to get to know these players, and this presents a built-in opportunity for leagues to say, ‘Well, we’re gonna protect health and safety.’ Again, that is the most important thing, but at the same time, that shouldn’t be abused as an excuse to keep us from doing our jobs. If that makes sense,” Marks said.
David Gardner works as a Staff Writer for Bleacher Report. He recently wrote a story about the San Diego State basketball team, and he conducted the interviews over the phone. Phone interviews are another way to write stories, but you can’t paint the picture fully of who that person is.
“You can certainly still do stories over the phone, but you miss the depth of a person when you’re not able to spend a lot of time with them. The interesting thing is people can put on a face for a day or two, but if you spend a few days around, then you get to see a different side of them, and that’s what you try to go. To try to really reveal the person. And so not having the ability to do that makes it difficult to write an in-depth and probing feature,” Gardner said.
Players, most notably NBA players, are using their equity to build their own media companies. Kevin Durant and LeBron James have done this successfully with ‘The Boardroom’ and ‘Uninterrupted’ respectively.
Devine also offered some optimism. This absence can have fans longing for more stories on their favorite athletes. There’s been a void without live sports which can make fans long for more content once they return. However, It is hard to be optimistic when you see the numerous layoffs happening in the industry.
“The pessimist in me thinks that this might be the death knell for widespread first-hand access to things like practices, shootarounds and locker rooms. I think that players and teams would generally prefer to do their own in-house media production, and would love to limit access in whatever ways they can, to present things the way they’d prefer to present them. I worry that what begins as a way to reduce the number of people in enclosed spaces as a cautionary measure winds up, resulting in fewer media members getting less, and less valuable, access to players and coaches,” Devine said.