It was in the fall of 2004. Lon Kruger was in his first year coaching UNLV’s basketball team. I was the beat reporter for the Las Vegas Review-Journal.
After the first game of the season, I instinctively made my way up the tunnel at the Thomas & Mack Center which leads to the home team’s locker room. It was a place I had regularly visited, from Jerry Tarkanian, to Rollie Massimino, to Tim Grgurich, to Bill Bayno, to Max Good, to Charlie Spoonhour.
I was stopped and told curtly, “No media allowed.”
“What do you mean, not allowed?” I asked.
“Locker room’s closed,” was the usher’s response.
And so began the new era in covering sports in Las Vegas. Getting your own story, working the room, using your relationships with players and coaches were no longer attainable. Instead, everyone was gathered in the press room and Kruger and selected players would sit at a table in front of a microphone and answer questions.
And everyone got the same story.
Fast forward to today. As pro sports attempt to resume or begin their seasons, getting your own story will be next to impossible. Instead, reporters will log into a Zoom conference, hear the coach, a couple of players and that’ll be that. Everyone will have the same quotes, the same takes, the same wisecracks. No pregame scrums with the head coach. No postgame gatherings in front of lockers. No working the clubhouse for baseball writers and broadcasters.
Is that what fans really want? Unfortunately, that’s what you’re going to get in this age of the coronavirus pandemic— a homogenized, pasteurized version of what took place on the ice, on the court or on the field.
Which begs the question: Why should a media outlet spend a ton of money to send a reporter to a bubble in Orlando or a hub in Toronto for potentially three-plus months? I’m guessing the answer will be, save for some select organizations that can afford the heavy lifting of a five-figure outlay, most newspapers, radio and TV stations and websites are likely going to take a pass.
Why? Because their reporters are going to get the same story from their den or office as they will in the bubble. No scoops. No insider features. Yeah, your reporter will give the readers a “Day in the Life in the Edmonton Hub” feature story on a day between games and everyone will say, “Oh, that’s kinda interesting.”
I’m not sure a managing editor will find it to be that interesting when spending $60,000 to $70,000 for that story. And at a time where newspapers are being slowly strangled to death by a lack of advertising and shrinking circulation, justifying spending big money to embed a single reporter at a bubble doesn’t make much sense.
What we’re going to see are the teams themselves controlling the message through their websites and their “insiders.” You may not get to hear anything exclusive from LeBron James in the Los Angeles Times but he may be dishing some scoops in a video on the Lakers’ website. Or better still, he is launching his own media channel where he can control the message.
When Floyd Mayweather Jr. was dominating in boxing, he would go on social media platforms and announce his next fight. He was his own promoter and could control his own message. More and more athletes want that control and they’re going to find ways in which to do it.
At some point, there will be a vaccine to combat COVID-19 and we’ll attempt to get back to the way things were. But I’m guessing some of these safety protocols being put in place now are going to remain, perhaps indefinitely.
Open locker rooms? Probably not. Group news conferences in separate sterile areas? Maybe standard operating procedure. Unique feature stories on athletes? Not likely as they’ll beat the reporters to the punch with their own platform producing it themselves.
Some of you could care less. But remember what a reporter’s role is — to chronicle events for posterity and also serve as a conduit to the teams for their readers or viewers. In other words, the fans. You guys.
And for sharp gamblers, this could impact them too. I remember when bettors would camp out at McCarran International Airport, wait for flights to arrive from various parts of the country, then ask the janitors who cleans the planes to give them the leftover newspapers in the hopes of gleaning a nugget or two of information on an injury or something from that local paper which could give them an edge when it came time to make a decision on how to wager on a game.
Today, of course, we use the internet for that purpose. But the mindset is the same. Get information that can perhaps give you an edge. But when everyone on both sides of the counter is getting the same info, that edge becomes harder to find.
The last face-to-face interaction I had with a pro athlete was on March 13. The NHL had hit the pause button on its season. The Vegas Golden Knights had returned from St. Paul, Minn., where their scheduled game the night before against the Minnesota Wild had been canceled. They were at their practice facility to grab their personal belongings and disperse. Coach Peter DeBoer and two or three players were brought into the conference room and talk to the assembled media.
They were all basically saying the same thing: They didn’t know what the short-term impact would be; they hoped to be back on the ice soon; they were bummed that the pause was coming at a time when the team was playing so well and appeared to have found itself with its new coach; that maybe the pause might be a good thing in that it could help some of their injured players return in time for whenever the season resumed.
Goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury was the last player to speak. Someone asked him his thoughts about the situation and Fleury’s response was, “It sucks.”
He proceeded to walk from the podium and flipped the light switch off, causing the room to go dark for a couple of seconds before he turned the lights back on.
It was a typical Fleury prank, but within it came a bit of truth. Metaphorically speaking, he was letting the journalists who cover his team know that things are never going to be the same again. And that’s probably the case for sports everywhere. I’m afraid Fleury may be right.