Sports will be different. So will the sports media

Falcons owner Arthur Blank is surrounded by media.
Falcons owner Arthur Blank is surrounded by media.

Credit: ccompton@ajc.com

Credit: ccompton@ajc.com

It’s a truism of sports journalism that readers don’t care what sportswriters endure to do what we do. We get paid to go to games. As jobs go, there are worse. As Red Smith, patron saint of sportswriters, said of his chosen profession: “It beats lifting things.”

This job, like many jobs, has changed over the past three months. As you’ve doubtless noticed, there have been no games. Our access to sports people has largely come through a series of Zoom-like video conferences. We’re getting closer to the time where actual games might again be played. We’re not entirely sure how those will look – will there be fans in the stands? – but we’re pretty sure about this part: The parameters of usual sports journalism will be reset.

The MLS is about to stage a we're-back tournament at Disney World, suddenly the epicenter of sports. Were you inclined to cover that tournament as a reporter, here's what you could do: Go to Disney and sit in the otherwise-empty stands, watch the game and then click on Zoom for postgame briefings. There'll be no press box. There'll be no in-person access to any player or coach over the duration of the event. All you'd gain by being there is being able to say, "I was there."

That might sound like a complaint. It’s not. We’re in a pandemic. COVID-19 is transmitted almost exclusively via personal interaction. You can’t spread the virus via Zoom. The various leagues and teams must do everything in their power to protect the people who will play/coach these games. If that means slicing media exposure to the bone, so be it. (And at the rate college football players are testing positive, I’m not sure we older folks need to be around them, either.)

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Until there’s a vaccine, the days of the open locker room are gone. MLB and the NFL are expected to have open press boxes on game days, but capacity will be slashed, perhaps by more than a half. MLB pregame and postgame interviews figure to be Zoomed. The NFL could bring coaches and a few players into a socially distance press-conference room, but there’ll be no one-on-ones.

The SEC and ACC have announced their respective football media days will be staged virtually – no fancy hotel, no coaches on a big stage, no exit interviews in the hallway. Colleges haven't finalized plans for actual football games, but the pro examples will almost surely apply – fewer people in the press box, Zoom-only postgame opportunities. (Also under discussion: Press-box food, yea or nay? I'd vote nay.)

Colleges are hoping to play football with fans in the stands. At issue is what percentage of stadium capacity, if any, will be allowed. Fifty percent? Thirty? Would press-box capacity fall in line with stadium numbers? If only every fourth seat in Section 240 can be filled, would the same apply in the media pews?

In pre-virus days, TV and radio booths weren’t shining examples of social distancing. What happens now? Will spotters/stats people be allowed? Do the play-by-pay broadcaster and the analyst still sit/stand cheek-by-jowl? Do TV networks switch to the practice – long used in world soccer – of having the game “called” by people staring at a monitor in a studio a thousand miles away?

Larry Munson in a crowded press box in 1996.
Larry Munson in a crowded press box in 1996.

Credit: Kevin Kiester

Credit: Kevin Kiester

Back to us newspapers. What if our representatives can accomplish little more on-site than to watch a press conference on a laptop? Do beat writers still travel, which entails airfare, hotels, meals and Uber? Do columnists? Here’s how much it cost to send this correspondent to New Orleans for the Falcons-Saints game last November -- $764.84. That was for a Delta coach ticket, two nights in a Fairfield and three meals, the most lucrative having been consumed at an IHOP on the Airline Highway.

Being just a blowhard columnist, I don’t get to make AJC monetary decisions above the level of how much to tip at IHOP. I can, however, relay this: At least one pro league is operating on the assumption that its press boxes won’t need to accommodate much in the way of visiting media. That league isn’t expecting beat writers to travel.

Indeed, the NBA anticipates that few writers will seek to cover its three months in Disney, the reason being that any such writer would need to become part of the league’s bubble. That would include staying at a Disney hotel, eating Disney food, being tested every few days and not leaving the bubble until October. (All of which would cost a fortune.)

Almost everything about the past three months has been new. Same here. We've had to ask: What do we put in the sports section with no games to cover? If all goes to plan, we'll soon have games again, at least sort of. We already know, though, we won't be covering them in the way we've grown accustomed.

We say again: This is not a gripe. This is merely an acknowledgement of what’s apt to come. The days of sidling up to someone around the batting cage and saying, “Tell me what’s really going on,” will be put on hold. That’s the part of this business you don’t see in clips of postgame gaggles. It’s the part where a journalist who has cultivated a relationship with a subject gets told something that would never be uttered in anything but a one-on-one setting. The good part, in other words.

For a while, and maybe a long while, we won’t be sidling up to anything except a Zoom screen. I understand the reason for limiting access. I also understand how different it will make this job.

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