Sports journalists may be gearing up to report on the 2020 college football season from the best seat in the house: their couch. After inching closer to the television screen and wrapping up play-by-play coverage, they might head to their home office to catch a postgame press conference hosted over Zoom.
Or maybe they are among the lucky few who have been granted press credentials and given the opportunity to squeeze into their own socially distant corner of the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum press box with no more than 20 other people, squinting down at the field and catching the red glare of the empty stands that beam back at them.
Or football might not even happen.
These are some of the many scenarios that reporters such as Dan Weber of USCFootball.com, a website offshoot of 247Sports that provides news and content directly related to the Trojan football team, are anticipating as they wait for an announcement from the USC Athletic Department that will come … eventually.
As a veteran football beat writer and former college sports administrator at Northern Kentucky and Xavier universities, Weber is worried not so much about the ability of journalists to report on the games themselves but rather about recreating the game day energy that makes USC football especially stimulating.
“You could cover the game from home, and you’d almost have the same access,” Weber said. “I think the one thing you would miss … is, what is it like in terms of the fans and the access, and what does it sound like and what does it feel like, and you can’t quite get that on television.”
Fifty-seven days before teams were hoping to invite competing schools onto their campus or pack up for a road game, the Pac-12 CEO group approved a conference-only format for football. The Trojans are slated to participate in a 10-game schedule, kicking off the strange season with a familiar and rousing matchup against UCLA.
Following the announcement, USC Athletic Director Mike Bohn released a joint statement with UCLA Athletic Director Martin Jarmond on Twitter expressing their tentative satisfaction with the Pac-12’s confirmation. One point in particularly good graces was the flexibility of the new schedule, allowing the crosstown matchup to be moved from Sept. 26 to Oct. 31 or Dec. 12 should earlier conditions not bode well for the health and safety of athletes and staff.
So are football beat writers racing to register press credentials and already driving to the Rose Bowl to find a good parking spot? No, and they shouldn’t, said Ryan Kartje, the USC beat writer for the Los Angeles Times.
“It’s tough because I’m not sure that [USC] really knows,” Kartje said. “It’s such a fluid situation, but I have spoken with [Sports Information Director] Tim Tessalone a little bit just kind of hypothetically on what the media situation might look like. I’m still pretty hesitant that it will even matter, because I don’t think there will be a football season.”
In an email to the Daily Trojan, Tessalone wrote that schools’ sports information directors and the media, including the Football Writers Association of America, will accommodate local and state public health guidelines and apply these plans to all fall sports.
“Basically, the goal of SIDs everywhere is to provide the highest quality work environment and proper access to the media, as well as a similar experience whether the media is able to attend games in person, or because of personal health issues, space/access limitations, budget concerns or other reasons, they must do so from elsewhere,” Tessalone wrote.
There is already much speculation as to what this kind of work environment might look like if it is in person. Kartje and Weber both acknowledged that the press box sitting mightily above the gridiron already doesn’t provide much elbow room as it is, and to imagine the capacity being limited to no more than a quarter — ultimately limiting who and what outlets get to report — brings up other discouraging but ultimately critical questions: Are the stadium managers going to let them into the elevator up to the press box one at a time? Does each reporter stand in their own socially equidistant circle? Are photographers and videographers going to be let on the field to document the action? All remains to be seen.
Even with gamedays shaping up to be a distinct divorce from the typical USC football experience, sports journalists have already lamented the lack of coverage that everyone from the casual to the uber-fan enjoys heading into a game.
In another dimension, Weber said he would put his high school football coaching knowledge to work on providing readers with ghost notes from practices, along with a five-to-seven minute analysis of impressions, implications and updates that cover the already limited 20 practice minutes reporters were allowed to observe. So far, the press has only had access to one practice back in March before campus shut down.
“You’ll still be able to talk to selected players and selected coaches after practice, but it won’t be the same as actually seeing it or being there or being able to change hands there and get your direct impressions from what you’re actually seeing,” Weber said. “I don’t know how that’ll play out but it won’t be the same as what it’s been.”
Despite the in-person uncertainty, Ryan Abraham, founder of USCFootball.com, said he appreciates the University’s increased access and communication as decisions are made.
Additionally, Abraham was able to adjust some of the site’s content output because coaches, staff and players were more available to interview during the most restrictive of the quarantine period.
“You’re still trying to create content, and they’ve made coaches and players available for more long-form stuff,” Abraham said. “I’ve done some live YouTube videos with coaches for, say, 45 minutes apiece… It’s been nice to maybe get the players and coaches in a different environment where instead of, like, three minutes after practice you get them for 45 minutes. You get a real better feel for what’s going on in their lives.”
With a smaller outlet like USCFootball.com, one additional respite from the pandemic-induced sports paucity has been breaking news. From the announcement of different L.A.-based recruits that has USC sitting at No. 7 in the nation for overall 2021 team rankings to the six new assistant coach hires that will round out the Trojans’ arsenal, fans seem to be chomping at the bit for news that looks favorably for USC after the past couple of years, even if it isn’t an announcement about head coach Clay Helton’s status.
But for Kartje, beyond news of the University ending its disassociation with former USC football legend Reggie Bush and the creation of the United Black Student-Athletes Association to combat racial inequity in the Athletic Department, he is careful in predicting whether the news cycle will flourish or hit the wall completely without the guarantee of a live sports schedule.
“We’re kind of at the mercy of whatever USC decides they want to let us do in some regard — not in every regard, but it makes it a lot tougher to actually tell these stories and, you know, to really serve in sort of a watchdog role,” Kartje said. “That element is pretty much impossible.”
For journalists like Kartje and others at large publications, staffers could soon see major ramifications for their daily functions as outlets move on in the possible absence of college football. Kartje could see the Times moving him to report on the NBA or even to join the news desk as the paper tries to keep up with the slew of coronavirus-related developments.
“I have to imagine, you know, especially in the situation that journalism in the economy is — it’s a time that it’s important to show that you’re important, especially when you’re a sports writer and the sport isn’t actually playing, so that is definitely a concern,” Kartje said. “I’d imagine other people in my situation have similar concerns.”
Finding new leads is the hinge of a reporter’s work, which Abraham describes as a “content tree,” where one interview might give rise to four or five different stories. Given the limited review of practices contrasting with the increased time to talk with coaches and players, a story that might’ve been a predictive analysis of offensive coordinator Graham Harrell’s Air Raid offense might turn into a deconstruction of remarks that junior safety Talanoa Hufanga made about the cohesion of the Trojan defense.
The other side to creating content is reader engagement, which Weber has gleaned has stayed constant if not improved because of USC’s uncanny ability to attract media attention. Kartje is more cautious to make this claim but recognizes a lasting effect in how national news surrounding the Black Lives Matter movement and the NCAA’s adapting policies on athlete name, image and likeness will change sports journalism.
“You can just see it with conversations about other things about NIL, about, you know, in terms of systematic racism and college athletes kind of taking a role in that,” Kartje said. “So I do think some doors may open in terms of society, how we look at athletes and their role in the full system as far as journalism goes.”
Kartje, along with Abraham and Weber, anticipate that if fans can’t attend games, if the classic Notre Dame-USC rivalry isn’t renewed at the Coliseum this fall and if the stadium goes completely quiet, sports journalism will probably never be the same in the coronavirus’ wake.
“At this point I’m just hoping journalism makes it through the pandemic still intact,” Kartje said. “But I think out of this will, you know, maybe we emerged as a more skeptical media, who is sort of on the lookout a little bit more and maybe, maybe that’s a good thing — I hope. I’m trying to be optimistic when it comes to that stuff in terms of journalism.”
Note: This article was written prior to the postponement of Pac-12 sports through 2020.