When the Tampa Bay Buccaneers won the Super Bowl earlier this year, the local reporters who covered the team interviewed star quarterback Tom Brady and his giddy teammates.
In fact, it was only recently — well after Brady’s improbable move to Tampa Bay produced a championship — that those who cover the Bucs were able to stand face-to-face with the legendary quarterback.
That’s because COVID-19 changed the way sports reporters cover sports. In-person interviews disappeared. One-on-one sitdowns became virtually nonexistent. Locker room scrums have been replaced by Zoom calls. And in-depth interviews? Forget it.
Unfortunately, those changes have severely hampered the way sports journalists do their jobs and, even more unfortunately, the changes might become permanent.
Before becoming Poynter’s senior media writer in 2019, I was a sportswriter and columnist for more than 30 years. So this topic is near and dear to me: Covering sports has changed dramatically since COVID-19.
Prior to March 2020, sports journalists did much of their best work in locker rooms. I cannot tell you how many interviews I did pulling wads of athletic tape off the bottom of my shoes while straddling sweaty equipment and damp towels to get a few insightful quotes from a winning pitcher, a losing goalie or the kicker who just won (or blew) the game in the final seconds.
But those scenes have been replaced by Zoom calls. And while reporters can still ask questions, it’s clearly not the same. Talking to athletes on Zoom along with a dozen other reporters is entirely different than talking to an athlete one-on-one and in person.
Philadelphia Inquirer sports columnist Mike Sielski wrote about this topic in his latest column, writing, “Now the country is opening up. COVID cases are dropping. Mask mandates are disappearing. So this is a request, almost a plea, for the major sports institutions in this country — the NFL, the NCAA, the NBA, MLB, the NHL, MLS, all of them — to restore as much independent-media access to their executives and coaches and athletes as possible. The closer that these leagues and franchises get to the way things once were, the better for everybody.”
So why is it so important for reporters to be face-to-face with athletes?
Rick Stroud, who has covered the Bucs and the NFL for more than three decades for the Tampa Bay Times, told me, “Like any business, reporting is about building relationships. Through those relationships, you build trust. And trust leads to information.”
Bottom line: You can’t do on Zoom what you can do in person.
Minneapolis Star Tribune sports columnist Chip Scoggins told me, “You feel detached without locker room access, like something is missing and you’re only getting part of the true picture with everything being done by Zoom. So much of what goes into covering a particular team as a conduit to fans — whether as a beat writer or columnist — is enhanced by personal interactions with the subjects you’re writing about. I miss digging out stories that happen organically from having casual one-on-one conversations with athletes or coaches in the locker room about their sport or their personal lives.”
While having access is great for sports journalists, many teams likely prefer limiting the amount of access that the media has because it helps them control the message.
“As much as teams and sports organizations may love the ability to control access and availability of their players, coaches and front office personnel, in the end I’m not sure it serves anyone, much less the readers,” Stroud said. “We cover sports, but there needs to be context to the stories we write. That’s almost impossible to cultivate with one or two questions on a Zoom call while the world is listening. Like all of us, the people we report on are much more guarded in their thoughts, feelings and information when a camera is in their face.
Stroud continued, “Worse yet, for the players who arrived in 2020, we’ve never formally met them.”
For example, Stroud, one of the most experienced football writers in the country, never had the chance to interview Brady in person until after the season. Instead of working the locker room for good stories, Stroud was stuck inside his Tampa home talking to players over the phone or his computer.
“When only one entity is controlling the message, it becomes extremely self-serving and one-sided,” Stroud said. “It’s also a little dehumanizing. Fans need to see these athletes as men and women, husbands and wives, brothers and sisters with families and obstacles and adversity that is relatable to all of us. That’s the connective fabric to the fans. It’s what increases interest and appetite. Good or bad, insight is what readers seek. Ultimately, that’s good for the teams and athletes we cover. But it begins with cultivating those relationships, in person, one-on-one.”
Ultimately, it might even be hurting the sports. Sielski wrote that, yes, wanting to go back into locker rooms is a “self-serving plea” and that he wants a return to the way things used to be. Echoing Stroud’s sentiments, Sielski wrote that the relationship between journalists and athletes is what produces good stories.
But Sielski also pointed out how interest in sports is down since COVID-19. There might be several reasons why, but it’s fair to ask if limited access is playing a role.
He wrote, “Saturation coverage of sports — the personalities, the statistics, the stories, the trends, the controversies — drives interest in sports. And as much as teams would love to keep independent media out of locker rooms and practice facilities, as much as owners and executives and coaches want to maintain control over their messaging and narratives, they themselves can’t deliver enough of that content to satiate the public’s appetite for it.”
There’s a chance that covering sports will never go back to what it once was. Teams might push to keep reporters out of locker rooms and use COVID-19 and health concerns as an excuse. Really, however, it likely will be because it makes their lives easier, and allows them to control the message. After all, with the way things are now, public relations departments for teams determine who speaks to the media as opposed to opening up their locker rooms to journalists.
And if teams are going to insist that interviews continue to be conducted over Zoom, many news outlets could decide it’s cheaper to not send journalists on the road to cover games. Instead, they could just let them cover games off TV from their homes, while moving to the dining room table to conduct postgame interviews.
Can sportswriters make it work? Probably. But a dining room table isn’t a locker room. And a locker room is where all the good stories are.
Tom Jones is Poynter’s senior media writer for Poynter.org. He was previously part of the Tampa Bay Times family during three stints over some 30 years, and has also worked for the Tampa Tribune and the Minneapolis Star-Tribune.