Well folks, we did it. This is the last week of classes and I am signing off as a sports columnist — even if just temporarily.
It’s crazy to think I started this job during a pandemic … when no sports were happening. I remember the first Daily Trojan sports editor meeting over Zoom — all of us panicking on how we would actually do our jobs without any sports.
Looking back now, I see how this dilemma forced us out of the sports coverage muscle memory. We couldn’t fall back on the cat and mouse game of recaps and result columns, and we had to push the boundary on our storytelling. We told stories of how athletes were training through this pandemic, how coaches were keeping up team morale and how the events of 2020 forced many into activist roles.
With fans filling stadiums again and almost 100 million Americans vaccinated, the signs are pointing towards a return to normalcy in the sports industry. But, can the media industry return to the pre-pandemic normal with sports teams? I don’t think so.
Nearly all of the articles published by the Daily Trojan sports section were written remotely — save for the few football and basketball games some of us could attend. We reached every coach and player either through prescheduled Zoom conferences or one-on-one phone calls for interviews.
Without commute times or exact practices to rush to, you would think that interview availability would be easy to sort out. But, that wasn’t the case for many of our writers, and from what I’ve gathered from professional sports journalists, the struggle to connect with team members is industry wide.
Journalists have to go through a PR staff to either gain access to virtual press conferences or gain the contact information for teams. Such an exchange is supposed to be a miniscule business relation, but writers now face stonewalling to build a relationship with sources.
Locker Room interviews — as chaotic as they appear on camera — allow athletes and coaches to see the faces writing about their performance. If you hound a team in your column the next day, there’s at least the accountability measure of having to see them that night in the stadium.
It’s a relationship dynamic currently being interrupted by PR teams, and I’m afraid of what will happen if this limited access continues.
Teams want control over their brand, and every interview done by a member of the organization can possibly throw the image carefully crafted. On top of that, athletes tend to have their own large social media following where they can directly break personal news without having to deal with a million journalists wanting the first scoop.
It’s an intimidating dilemma — and I feel the industry holding its breath as the pandemic plays out. Authenticity is what fans want to read, and I’m not sure articles or broadcasts can achieve that without the face-to-face interviews.
The sports market is on the brink of a boom once again, but that success doesn’t always trickle down to the individual journalists hunting for a new angle about their town’s team. I know our own beat writers struggle, and it’s something athletic organizations need to consider if they want to keep healthy relations with the press.
Taylor Mills is a sophomore writing about sports media. She is also a Sports Editor at the Daily Trojan. Her column, “Sideline to Byline,” runs every other Monday.