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July 12, 2020

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It’s a whole new ballgame for reporters

MANY familiar pregame sights won’t be back when professional baseball and basketball return later this month. Managers won’t exchange lineup cards at home plate and basketball lineup introductions won’t feature players giving high fives.

There also won’t be the ritual of a gaggle of reporters crowding around a manager before the game or waiting for LeBron James or Brad Stevens to emerge for interviews after a National Basketball Association game.

As American team sports prepare to resume, journalists are facing the same reckoning their colleagues who cover politics and entertainment have encountered — coming up with new approaches due to reduced access.

“I consider this the most challenging year ever in terms of sportswriter coverage,” said Bob Glauber, the National Football League writer for Newsday and president of the Pro Football Writers Association.

Professional leagues closed media access to locker rooms and clubhouses in early March. Even when the games restart, access will not be like it was before the coronavirus outbreak.

The NBA is the only league that will allow reporters to ask players questions in the same room, and that will be a very limited group.

The league will allow no more than 12 media members to live full time in the Walt Disney World bubble where all the NBA players will also live and play. The reporters must quarantine for seven days after arriving. Besides covering games, reporters will have access to the postgame media room and practices. They won’t be able to leave the resort or have visitors.

The rest of the season should last about 72 days.

Reporters covering games near Orlando but not residing in the bubble can watch from the stands and will only be allowed to interview players via Zoom. The NBA’s credential advisory states no more than 12 media members will be allowed in this group, which will not attend any press conferences or practices.

Manager, coach and player interviews in Major League Baseball and the National Hockey League will also take place via Zoom.

The NFL won’t allow any face-to-face interviews with players during training camp. Coaches will be available — socially distanced — depending on the team.

Journalists have endured declining levels of access in recent years, especially as leagues and college athletic programs have taken more control of teams’ messaging through their websites and television/radio channels.

Many journalists worry that less access will mean less oversight, especially with players sometimes feuding with teams and leagues about safety issues and making political statements.

“The best, most compelling stories require personal interaction and opportunities to see how the people we cover handle themselves on the job, how they act in the clubhouse or locker room and what they say when the recorder turns off,” said Kerry Crowley, who covers the San Francisco Giants for the Bay Area News Group. “I’m not confident leagues are going to restore writers’ access to where it was before the pandemic and I think publications, individual writers and athletes will suffer because of that.”

Many organizations are assessing whether it’s worth sending reporters to games if locker rooms remain closed.

“Sure, we’ve all got phone numbers and can text players and coaches all we want, but it’s tough to replicate the one-on-one interactions in open locker rooms or on the road,” said Abbey Mastracco, who covered the New Jersey Devils for Gannett’s New Jersey newspapers.

Mastracco was hoping to chronicle the NHL’s return next month, but she was part of a wave of layoffs that hit the news industry over the past three months.

Declining access also comes at a time when the most compelling stories aren’t confined to just the playing field.

“It would be disingenuous for coverage to ignore issues of health and race moving forward,” Crowley said. “I think we’ll find stories become more authentic if we as writers acknowledge that sports doesn’t exist inside a bubble.”

Broadcasters are also sending fewer journalists. Remote announcing has been around for many years but has been taken to a new level out of necessity. ESPN Executive Producer Mark Gross says his network has learned many new things, such as using announcers in two different states to call a South Korean baseball game.

“We’re waiting to see how everything plays out because things change quickly,” Gross said. “Ideally we want to be at a stadium, but the important thing for us is to put together a quality broadcast. Fans aren’t hung up on where the announcers are but who their team is playing and what they think.”

Fox NASCAR races have had only one pit reporter with announcers Mike Joy and Jeff Gordon calling the action from a studio in Charlotte. Fox executive producer Brad Zager said things continue to evolve quickly.

“What we know today isn’t going to be the same plan tomorrow,” he said. “We also know that what works for NASCAR isn’t going to work for every sport. This isn’t a copy and paste solution.”

ESPN’s Karl Ravech, who has called baseball, college football and basketball remotely, hopes remote coverage doesn’t become the norm.

“There is value for sure in being on site,” he said. “That connection between analyst and viewer is enhanced because of the access to players and coaches leading up to the game. The announcer and analyst are able to work together better because they have discussed what they’re going to talk about.”

Regardless of the challenges media face, Glauber thinks interest will be high. “Readers will still come to us for information, because sports have been away for so long.”


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