Members of the production crew who bring Lightning and Rays games to your TVs via Fox Sports are rarely seen or heard.
Now, with no games being played due to the coronavirus pandemic, many of the freelance workers feel that they are being ignored and abandoned by their employers at the Sinclair Broadcast Group.
The major networks and several regional sports networks have paid their camera operators, on-air talent, replay operators, game producers and others — who, as freelancers, are paid on a per-game basis with no health insurance or other benefits — for at least some of their missed work.
But Sinclair, which bought the Fox regional networks last year for $9.6 billion, has offered only a $2,500 loan — interest-free, but on an aggressive repayment schedule of $250 for each of the first 10 games worked when sports do resume.
“Obviously, everybody is having a problem during this crisis, but it seems like the companies that we work for are not really being helpful when other sports entities ... have all got some sort of assistance plan where they’re paying their freelancers for lost work," said Greg Bryant, who handles replays for Lightning and Rays games.
“And the only thing Sinclair is offering is this kind of interesting loan concept that basically makes the freelancer an indentured servant almost when sports do come back around."
Other crew members in different roles also shared their frustration with the Tampa Bay Times but were reluctant to have their names used for fear of retribution.
“If you really want to know what I think," one said, “I’d get fired just like every single one of us on the crew."
Some are concerned about making upcoming insurance, car and rent payments without pay coming in — having already cut expenses, like, ironically, cable TV.
Others cite the lack of communication from Sinclair as almost as troubling as the lack of financial support. One noted that he gets emails every other day from CBS, for whom he worked one game last year, and three total in the last month from Sinclair, for whom who works regularly.
Reading reports of Sinclair’s profits and how its top executive gets paid $7.5 million annually, and seeing new advertising being sold for the airing of old games, adds to crew members’ frustration.
“A lot of us are unhappy about it," said Chris Doran, a cameraman for Rays and Lightning games.
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With local rights to 42 teams and producing 5,000 events annually, Sinclair is doing the best it can for the production crews, spokesman Ronn Torossian told the Associated Press, and could consider other options once more is known about when games will resume.
“We determined that this initiative was what our company could offer at this time," Torossian said. “Right now these games and seasons remain postponed, unlike, say, March Madness, which was canceled. We are operating under the assumption that all of the postponed games will ultimately be played.
"Of course, the situation is fluid, and we are constantly assessing and re-assessing ways to further assist freelancers as we are able.”
But several of the local crew members say it is obvious that seasons will be shortened — if played at all — which directly reduces their income.
“We’ve already accepted that we’ve already started to lose money because I don’t think that they’re going to play a whole season," said Doran, whose wife, Nicole, has a secure job as a nurse. “We’re okay for now (financially), but if this went to November or who knows how long, then you should call me again for a different answer."
Roughly 30-35 people are involved in the production of a typical Rays or Lightning home game at assorted pay scales based on role. But several of those interviewed said the average pay is around $500 per game, with the low end at around $350.
So to get the $2,500 now, a crew member making $500 would have to agree to work for only half their usual fee for the first several weeks after games resume, which some say would extend the impact of the shutdown.
“I don’t know if anyone is taking the Sinclair loan because of the terms — it’s just not that effective,” Bryant said. “No one’s looking for a handout, we’re just looking for a hand up.”
Others said they appreciate Sinclair’s initiative and are taking the loan.
“I look at it as any amount is better than no amount," said Rich Hollenberg, the Rays’ pre- and postgame host, who is also getting paid by ESPN for college basketball games he called. “They have a business to run, and they’re new to this business, as well, and if it’s across the board $2,500, then who am I to complain about that particular number?
“... I’m grateful to receive any kind of help. Is it a lot when you compare it to what I would be making? No. It’s a drop in the bucket, to be quite honest with you. But at the same time, it’s better than not receiving anything."
Crew members have been idled since mid-March, having been paid for the first two scheduled Lightning games that weren’t played (March 12 and 14) and one extra day.
But they already have missed out on the final four regular-season games and the start of the playoffs, plus nine Rays home games through Wednesday, with no resumption of play — or pay — in sight.
“It’s really, the word that’s kind of been tossed around is ‘disheartening,'" said Bryant. “And rather disrespectful. We’re just another piece of equipment in a sense to Sinclair, when in fact we bust our butts and we are the people who make their product.”
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