TORONTO — A couple dozen sportswriters sat physically distanced at a makeshift work area on the 200 level at Rogers Centre for the Toronto Blue Jays’ first intrasquad game of summer training camp.
Masks were on and wipes and hand sanitizer were stationed at each desk as reporter laptops connected to a Zoom call with shortstop Bo Bichette, who appeared via video from the regular media room two floors below.
Welcome to the sports media new normal for 2020.
Big-league sports are back and everyone involved is adjusting to changes as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. How the developments might affect the quality and depth of stories, however, remains to be seen.
“People who are just simply good at telling stories, they’ll always find an audience,” said sportswriter David Shoalts, who recently retired after a long career at the Globe and Mail. “But I think there will just be less and less room for them.
“And for the reader, that reader will have to work a little harder to search out where the good storytellers are and who’s telling them.”
One of the biggest challenges for media members is that it’s much more difficult to get access to quality story material because the sports scene is so different.
For example, the days of reporters squeezing in pre-game player interviews on the field are over for now.
Sitting down in the manager’s office for an availability before batting practice? A Zoom call will have to suffice for the time being.
Chatting with an athlete in the locker room before or after a game? That won’t be happening any time soon.
In fact, most sportswriters will not even be on site at games this season. A handful of reporters will attend NHL games in the hub cities of Edmonton and Toronto. Same goes for the NBA bubble near Orlando.
Most scribes will have to settle for video or conference calls in a group setting instead of traditional in-person or one-on-one communication.
It may be the best that teams can do given the various hurdles in place, but it still presents a significant challenge for media members in their effort to present as deep a story as possible.
“When you move to digital, you lose that personal relationship,” said Laurel Walzak, an assistant professor at Ryerson University’s RTA School of Media. “You lose the fact that they see you around the field of play. That’s important.
“To be able to be in the field of play, they see you, you’re part of the overall group, you’re able to talk to many people to get the full story.”
Attending events in person allows reporters to gain a full view of the action and cultivate relationships with players, coaching staff, management and everyone from the locker-room attendants to the travelling secretary.
Jeff Pearlman, an author and former Sports Illustrated writer, said some of the best story nuggets can’t be seen on a television broadcast: players jawing at each other during a timeout, the sense of frustration in a locker room, or a manager being near tears in his office after a loss.
“For the job professionally, that’s what you exist for,” Pearlman said from Laguna Niguel, Calif. “Without that, the coverage is just flat. Anyone can get the score. What’s the point of media if you’re just giving the score and a couple of canned quotes? The whole job is to take (a reader) where (they) can’t go.”
When Shoalts first started in the business, he would routinely sit down with athletes and have one-on-one conversations.
“That’s what access is,” he said in a recent interview from the Bolton, Ont., area. “It’s building trust with those sources so they will open up to you. That became more and more difficult over the years because the leagues were restricting access.
“But now that’s doubly so because this whole pandemic thing has restricted (one on one) access to practically nil.”
Teams and leagues have generally done well to adjust on the fly and help facilitate interaction with the media during the pandemic. However, there have been some issues along the way.
The Professional Hockey Writers Association was upset with the NHL’s decision to allow three writers from its website into the “bubble” in hub cities, but not provide the same access opportunity for PHWA members.
PHWA president Frank Seravalli said that if significant news occurred within the bubble setting, such as at a morning skate or team practice, independent reporters would be in the dark.
“We won’t be there to chronicle it,” he said from Philadelphia. “And if the team decided not to share video from practice with us, we might have no idea that it’s happened. Because every piece of content that NHL.com puts out, the league approves it or edits it.
“So if it’s negative or if it’s something that the team doesn’t want out, NHL.com isn’t going to be the way that it (gets) out.”
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said the league will continue to look at the media access situation and expected that things will evolve.
“We’re going to continue to monitor things, understanding your sentiments,” he told reporters before league play resumed. “But at the end of the day, we have a greater responsibility to the people who are required to be in the bubble, and to the communities in which we’re playing in. We’re doing the best we can.”
Seravalli said the PHWA was initially told that space limitations would prevent bubble access for media.
When advised later that NHL.com writers would have exclusive access in some areas for this unprecedented playoff setup, he said the feelings of his 300-plus member association varied between frustrated, disappointed and angry.
“If there truly were space limitations, NHL.com writers wouldn’t be inside,” he said, adding that the PHWA has no formal recourse to fight the decision.
The developments also put the spotlight on the grey area of whether league website writers should be considered working media.
“They typically have been given media credentials and are allowed in all the same places that we are to do our job similarly,” Seravalli said. “The NHL has always liked to think of them as media but now there’s been a quick shift in the dynamic, where the league is now saying that they are league employees and they should be subject to whatever access the league wants to give them because they are employees.”
The hub city approach has prevented many outlets from generating their own content, with cost, location and time commitment some of the prohibitive factors.
All NBA games, for example, are being played at the Disney World complex in Florida. Upon arrival, reporters have to quarantine for a week and the minimum cost of accommodation is US$550 per night.
A total of 10 “general media” members were in the bubble for the resumption of play, an NBA spokesman said.
At the outset, there were no Toronto-based reporters on hand to chronicle the defending champion Raptors although that could change if the team makes a deep playoff run. The Toronto Star is planning to send one writer in late August, the spokesman said.
Shoalts said being on site can provide a significant advantage over those who cover things remotely.
“The essential being of a journalist is you are the reader’s eyes on the scene,” he said. “You are there to soak it all in and give some context to it, and relay to the reader what’s going on.
“Even a limited amount of access in a venue is still better than you sitting at home and watching and writing it off TV.”
Walzak suggests that if reporters can think outside the box — regardless of their location — and show resourcefulness, innovation and resilience, they should be rewarded with solid content.
“There’s so many different types of stories you can tell that people still don’t have information on that are going to be relevant and interesting,” she said from Collingwood, Ont.
“So keep telling them.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 5, 2020.
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Gregory Strong, The Canadian Press