COVID-19 has caused nearly every sports league and event to be postponed or cancelled, but people in sports media are still finding creative ways to do their jobs
Sarah Jenkins was sitting at General Assembly Pizza when the sports world turned on its head.
It was a Wednesday night in mid-March, nothing out of the ordinary. Jenkins was having dinner with a friend at the Toronto pizza joint when the two of them saw the news: Rudy Gobert, the starting centre for the Utah Jazz basketball team, had tested positive for COVID-19.
Why was Gobert’s diagnosis a bigger deal than anyone else’s? Well, for one thing, it instantly changed the sports landscape. Shams Charania, an NBA reporter at The Athletic, tweeted the news of Gobert’s diagnosis at 9:27 p.m. ET on March 11. Just four minutes later, Charania reported that the NBA was suspending its season indefinitely.
For Jenkins, the news potentially had a more direct, personal effect. Before dinner, her friend had just attended a charity event in Toronto where fans got a chance to interact with the Toronto Raptors.
Just two days earlier, the Raptors had visited Salt Lake City for a game against Gobert and the Jazz. In theory, the virus could have been passed from Gobert to some of the Raptors, and from them, to Jenkins’s friend. For Jenkins, this made the threat of the virus feel more imminent than seeing COVID-19 statistics in the news.
“I just sat there and was like, ‘This is legitimate, this is going to change things,’” Jenkins told the Ryersonian. “Putting a face to it is what makes it the most real.”
Jenkins was right about the virus spurring change. In the days following the NBA’s suspension, leagues and events around the world in sports such as hockey, baseball, college basketball, soccer, tennis, golf and more were postponed or cancelled. Later in the month, the 2020 Summer Olympics was also postponed by one year — the first time the games would not go on as scheduled since the Second World War.
The Raptors, along with event attendees like Jenkins’s friend, were forced into self-isolation for 14 days. No one in the organization tested positive for COVID-19, nor did Jenkins’s friend, but the absence of sports gave Jenkins other problems to worry about.
Jenkins, a 2018 graduate of the RTA sport media program at Ryerson, had been working as a freelance sports content producer for CBC and Sportsnet from early January through mid-March. With sports suddenly gone, journalists like her had to wonder what they were going to do for the foreseeable future.
“It’s one of those things, like, we all thought sports were untouchable,” Jenkins said. “And now, we don’t really know what to do when it’s not there.”
People throughout sports media experienced that effect in different ways.
Eric Koreen, a 2007 graduate of the Ryerson School of Journalism, is the lead Raptors reporter for The Athletic. Koreen has covered the Raptors at various publications since 2008. He says it has been strange, as someone who has reported on a subject with a routine schedule for so long, to experience this totally unprecedented situation.
“I can’t compare my experience to anybody else. I suspect the longer you’ve been doing this, the stranger it feels,” Koreen said. “You get used to the rhythms of a season.”
Kelcey Wright Johnson, a 2013 Ryerson journalism graduate, is another sports media member experiencing the current turmoil. She hosts gameday television broadcasts for the Memphis Grizzlies and is a digital contributor for Grind City Media, a site based out of Memphis, Tenn., that covers multiple sports teams in the area.
Wright Johnson says that even though the news of the NBA’s postponement was unprecedented, it still did not come as that much of a surprise, considering the events in the days and weeks leading up to the news of Gobert’s diagnosis.
She cites how the league had reportedly been planning to play games with no fans. In early March, the NBA also instituted measures for the media to practise “social distancing” by having journalists interview players and coaches from at least six feet away. Each arena set up a room for reporters to conduct interviews with individual players sitting at a table before and after games, rather than the usual locker room scrums.
Wright Johnson, who is staying in Memphis during this period of self-isolation, is only in her first year working with the Grizzlies. She says that more experience might not help her much in a situation as unusual as this one.
“I don’t think necessarily it would make a difference whether I was here for four months or four years,” Wright Johnson said. “When this happened, it’s not like my bosses who have been in the league for 20 years were like, ‘Oh, this is protocol for a global pandemic.’ Like, nobody knows what to do.”
Normally, Koreen covers most Raptors games in person, while Wright Johnson covers most Grizzlies games in person and regularly interviews players in-studio for her podcast. Both journalists say they feel fortunate that their jobs provide flexibility, as they can work from home and find unconventional ways to keep their audiences engaged.
“I certainly think our leadership [at The Athletic] — both editorially and on the business side — has emboldened us to be strange and creative,” Koreen said.
“[Working from home] forces me to really dig into that creative side and figure out what we can do throughout this time,” Wright Johnson said.
Though she will not be releasing any new episodes of her podcast, Just Grizzlies, Wright Johnson continues to make weekly appearances on the Chris Vernon Show, one of Grind City Media’s other podcasts. She has also been talking to players publicly on Instagram live, doing Q-and-A’s with fans on various social media platforms and creating other digital content to keep fans in tune with the team she covers.
Meanwhile, Koreen has partnered with Blake Murphy, another Raptors reporter at The Athletic, to continue their podcast during the league’s hiatus — albeit with different subject matter than the typical weekly Raptors updates. Koreen has also plunged into Raptors lore with articles like “The best players to wear every number for the Raptors” and “A brief history of Raptors-Wizards weirdness.”
For a freelancer like Jenkins, the last few weeks have been strange for a different reason: Not too long ago, she already experienced what it’s like to be forced to switch her work routine and topics she covers. Jenkins was part of the mass layoffs made by Yahoo Sports in December 2019. She had been working there as a producer for about a year at that point.
“I pivoted and learned how to deal with that,” Jenkins said of being laid off, which she calls a “real big heartbreak” for her.
“It kind of prepared me for this pandemic — which sounds insane, but it prepared me in the sense of understanding exactly how to pivot.”
Jenkins says she had essentially been working every day from January to March, between her weekdays producing online videos for Sportsnet and her weekends producing live sports broadcasts for CBC. The hiatus gave her a much-needed break, but she quickly found herself restless.
“Now, I have nothing but days off,” Jenkins said. “I’m twiddling my thumbs, like, ‘OK, what can I do?’ I need to make some content here.”
Jenkins says she is now pitching new ideas to different outlets and even helping CBC prepare for the postponed Olympics — now from home, of course.
So where do sports journalists go from here? Whenever the pandemic ends, packing sports arenas with thousands of fans would appear to be one of the final things to resume. Koreen says he expects that even when sports return, it will take more time before media members like himself are able to do their jobs the same way they did before the pandemic.
“I think we’re going to be a long way from normal for a while,” Koreen said.
Jenkins says it will take at least a year, as all the different sports finish their respective current seasons, before some sense of normalcy returns to the sports world.
“I don’t think anything’s going to feel normal again until these [current] seasons are wiped clean and we’ve started fresh, whenever that might be,” she said.
When sports are finally back, Wright Johnson says she is optimistic that people will come out on the other side with more appreciation for the games they love.
“We take everything for granted,” Wright Johnson said. “Our players and our staff and even our media miss basketball so freaking much. When we go out [and the NBA resumes], it’s going to be [with] a new perspective. That’s what I’m hoping.”