When the Tampa Bay Buccaneers gained the Tremendous Bowl earlier this yr, the native reporters who lined the group interviewed star quarterback Tom Brady and his giddy teammates.
The truth is, it was solely just lately — properly after Brady’s inconceivable transfer to Tampa Bay produced a championship — that those that cowl the Bucs have been capable of stand face-to-face with the legendary quarterback.
That’s as a result of COVID-19 modified the best way sports activities reporters cowl sports activities. In-person interviews disappeared. One-on-one sitdowns turned nearly nonexistent. Locker room scrums have been changed by Zoom calls. And in-depth interviews? Overlook it.
Sadly, these adjustments have severely hampered the best way sports activities journalists do their jobs and, much more sadly, the adjustments may develop into everlasting.
Earlier than changing into Poynter’s senior media author in 2019, I used to be a sportswriter and columnist for greater than 30 years. So this matter is close to and pricey to me: Overlaying sports activities has modified dramatically since COVID-19.
Previous to March 2020, sports activities journalists did a lot of their greatest work in locker rooms. I can not inform you what number of interviews I did pulling wads of athletic tape off the underside of my sneakers whereas straddling sweaty gear and damp towels to get a number of insightful quotes from a successful pitcher, a dropping goalie or the kicker who simply gained (or blew) the sport within the remaining seconds.
However these scenes have been changed by Zoom calls. And whereas reporters can nonetheless ask questions, it’s clearly not the identical. Speaking to athletes on Zoom together with a dozen different reporters is completely totally different than speaking to an athlete one-on-one and in individual.
Philadelphia Inquirer sports activities columnist Mike Sielski wrote about this matter in his latest column, writing, “Now the nation is opening up. COVID instances are dropping. Masks mandates are disappearing. So this can be a request, nearly a plea, for the key sports activities establishments on this nation — the NFL, the NCAA, the NBA, MLB, the NHL, MLS, all of them — to revive as a lot independent-media entry to their executives and coaches and athletes as potential. The nearer that these leagues and franchises get to the best way issues as soon as have been, the higher for everyone.”
So why is it so necessary for reporters to be face-to-face with athletes?
Rick Stroud, who has lined the Bucs and the NFL for greater than three a long time for the Tampa Bay Occasions, informed me, “Like all enterprise, reporting is about constructing relationships. Via these relationships, you construct belief. And belief results in data.”
Backside line: You’ll be able to’t do on Zoom what you are able to do in individual.
Minneapolis Star Tribune sports activities columnist Chip Scoggins informed me, “You’re feeling indifferent with out locker room entry, like one thing is lacking and also you’re solely getting a part of the true image with the whole lot being achieved by Zoom. A lot of what goes into protecting a selected group as a conduit to followers — whether or not as a beat author or columnist — is enhanced by private interactions with the themes you’re writing about. I miss digging out tales that occur organically from having informal one-on-one conversations with athletes or coaches within the locker room about their sport or their private lives.”
Whereas having entry is nice for sports activities journalists, many groups possible want limiting the quantity of entry that the media has as a result of it helps them management the message.
“As a lot as groups and sports activities organizations could love the power to manage entry and availability of their gamers, coaches and entrance workplace personnel, ultimately I’m unsure it serves anybody, a lot much less the readers,” Stroud mentioned. “We cowl sports activities, however there must be context to the tales we write. That’s nearly not possible to domesticate with one or two questions on a Zoom name whereas the world is listening. Like all of us, the folks we report on are far more guarded of their ideas, emotions and data when a digicam is of their face.
Stroud continued, “Worse but, for the gamers who arrived in 2020, we’ve by no means formally met them.”
For instance, Stroud, one of the vital skilled soccer writers within the nation, by no means had the possibility to interview Brady in individual till after the season. As an alternative of working the locker room for good tales, Stroud was caught inside his Tampa house speaking to gamers over the cellphone or his laptop.
“When just one entity is controlling the message, it turns into extraordinarily self-serving and one-sided,” Stroud mentioned. “It’s additionally a little bit dehumanizing. Followers have to see these athletes as women and men, husbands and wives, brothers and sisters with households and obstacles and adversity that’s relatable to all of us. That’s the connective cloth to the followers. It’s what will increase curiosity and urge for food. Good or dangerous, perception is what readers search. Finally, that’s good for the groups and athletes we cowl. Nevertheless it begins with cultivating these relationships, in individual, one-on-one.”
Finally, it’d even be hurting the sports activities. Sielski wrote that, sure, wanting to return into locker rooms is a “self-serving plea” and that he needs a return to the best way issues was. Echoing Stroud’s sentiments, Sielski wrote that the connection between journalists and athletes is what produces good tales.
However Sielski additionally identified how curiosity in sports activities is down since COVID-19. There could be a number of the explanation why, but it surely’s honest to ask if restricted entry is taking part in a task.
He wrote, “Saturation protection of sports activities — the personalities, the statistics, the tales, the developments, the controversies — drives curiosity in sports activities. And as a lot as groups would like to hold impartial media out of locker rooms and observe services, as a lot as house owners and executives and coaches wish to preserve management over their messaging and narratives, they themselves can’t ship sufficient of that content material to satiate the general public’s urge for food for it.”
There’s an opportunity that protecting sports activities won’t ever return to what it as soon as was. Groups may push to maintain reporters out of locker rooms and use COVID-19 and well being issues as an excuse. Actually, nonetheless, it possible can be as a result of it makes their lives simpler, and permits them to manage the message. In any case, with the best way issues at the moment are, public relations departments for groups decide who speaks to the media versus opening up their locker rooms to journalists.
And if groups are going to insist that interviews proceed to be performed over Zoom, many information retailers may determine it’s cheaper to not ship journalists on the highway to cowl video games. As an alternative, they may simply allow them to cowl video games off TV from their properties, whereas shifting to the eating room desk to conduct postgame interviews.
Can sportswriters make it work? In all probability. However a eating room desk isn’t a locker room. And a locker room is the place all the nice tales are.
Tom Jones is Poynter’s senior media author for Poynter.org. He was beforehand a part of the Tampa Bay Occasions household throughout three stints over some 30 years, and has additionally labored for the Tampa Tribune and the Minneapolis Star-Tribune.