Behind the Scenes of Sports, COVID Edition

By Grace Heidinger

            It has been almost eight months since the world was hit by the coronavirus. For the sport’s world, that meant no live games, tournaments, or championships during this time. However, since then, the pause on sports has been lifted, but the industry is still facing challenges as a result of the global pandemic.

            Starting from the ground up, students who are studying to pursue a career in the sports media industry are struggling to get their feet wet through experience. Between the lack of live events and the increased COVID regulations, internship and other experience-related opportunities are limited.

            This career field needs experience and the COVID restrictions do not allow for that to happen. Kailey Lane, a junior at Duquesne University studying Sports Information and Media, is one of the many students facing these various challenges.

“I hope to go into broadcasting and right now it’s extremely hard to find live sports events that are taking interns to gain the valuable experience I need to eventually land a job with a sports team,” she said.

On campus, Lane is involved with the Duquesne Student Radio and is the journalism chair for the Sports Marketing Association. Her time on campus is ticking down, which means so is the time to get hands on experience through her campus involvement.

“When recording for the Duquesne Student Radio, only one person can record at a time so I can’t get the experience of working with others in the booth,” she said.

As for her position with the Sports Marketing Association, her main role is to write stories that are then published in a bi-weekly newsletter. Again, because of the COVID restrictions, Lane cannot interview people in person which effects the flow of the interview and the content she is looking for.

“Not being able to meet people in person makes it all the more difficult to get the content I need without the in person feel and personal connection of normal interviews,” she said.

Lane’s love for sports, especially hockey, is noticed outside of the classroom too, as she has been a Boston Bruins season ticket holder for three years. From the fan’s perspective, the energy of a live, in person hockey game and the overall atmosphere in the arena is greatly missed.

“Nothing can compare to the feeling when you’re at your home arena, rooting for your home team, and the crowd erupts at the sight of a goal,” she said.

Professionals in the industry have similar feelings towards the challenges and uncertainty surrounding sports as Lane does. As a sport anchor for KDKA-TV Pittsburgh, Bob Pompeani was directly affected by COVID regulations because media cannot go into locker rooms to do interviews, which makes it harder to get stories.

“At the beginning of this, we went 4.5 months without any competitive sports, so we had to get creative, which is why we started Living Room Sports, which just won a national award,” he said.

During this time, watching games live quickly turned into watching them from behind a screen. While Pompeani has been able to still go into the studio every day, it took some adjusting to get used to this “new normal.”

“We cover games now only from watching television. Very few people are allowed in press boxes, so we watch just like you watch at home, although we have to log every play, as we do call-in shows, which requires answering questions, and you never know what type of questions you’re going to get,” he said.

After 4.5 months of no events or no sports, fans are starting to see sports back on television and are even starting to fill the seats in some stadiums. While the NFL is in mid-season, the NHL is preparing for what is to come for the upcoming season. The NHL successfully crowned a champion with no coronavirus cases and more importantly, no positive tests. But what does this mean for next season?

“Next season WILL include fans, because the NHL needs gate revenue more so than any other sport, so I suspect there will be limited crowds to start, but they will increase as time goes on,” Pompeani said.

Staying optimistic, Pompeani has high hopes for next season because of the NHL’s outstanding planning in conjunction with their players this past season to keep everybody involved safe, while still being able to enjoy hockey.

“I believe sports as well as society will get back to normal sooner rather than later,” he said.

The global pandemic has forced other reporters in the industry to adjust to this new normal, both on and off the field. Multimedia journalist for the Buffalo Bills and Buffalo Sabres, Maddy Glab is finally back working at the Bills Stadium after working at home for five months. When the pandemic started, Glab made the decision to work primarily with the Bills because the Sabres missed the NHL bubble.

“When this hit, it was the off season for the Bills, so we weren’t directly impacted when the virus hit because they didn’t have to put a pause on a season,” she said.

Glab attended the NFL combine at the end of February and within a few weeks, everything shut down. While people might assume there would be less work when working from home, this is not the case for her. Social media got stronger with more people at home which called for more written content, photos, and videos for social media posts.

 “It was important to put content out to people on social media to distract people, keep them occupied, and to put a smile on their faces,” she said.

When Glab’s focus shifted towards the Bills, her main task was holding interviews with the players and coaches… but through Zoom. Missing out on the face to face interaction with the players, Glab also misses out on social cues, which makes any interview more difficult and less personal.

“During a regular year, there would be an open locker room to interviews players face to face but this year, starting with the NFL Draft and Free Agency, all of my interviews are via Zoom,” she said.

Glab’s first season with the Bills was spent adapting to the new Buffalo atmosphere and now this season, she is adapting to all the new COVID regulations. Currently in her second year, Glab feels that she can’t really get to know any of the players or staff because of the lack of in-person meetings and interviews.

“It almost feels like the first year because you can’t build strong relationships, but don’t get me wrong, I am still glad that there is a Bills season,” she said.

As host of the Bills postgame show, Bills Tonight, Glab gathers all the necessary game content for the show by watching the game from the control room in the stadium, not on the field like she would be normally. 

“It’s definitely more difficult because I don’t get that live look in or even a view from the press box where many other reports are watching the game from,” she said.

At the end of the day, Glab and other employees of the Buffalo Bills understand how much work the NFL has done to make the season happen. The NFL has been very strict under COVID protocols and this goes for everybody in the building, not just the players.

“There is a mutual trust, respect and understanding for each other and in order to make this happen, everybody knows how important it is to be safe about it,” she said.

When in the stadium, social distancing and masks are required. To enforce this, employees wear contact tracers so whenever someone comes within six feet of another person, it beeps. And to prevent the spread, everybody gets tested everyday where the testing acts almost as a security blanket for everybody working in the stadium,

            “We believe in the players, coaches, and their goal in mind so it is easy to live safe and make sacrifices because we know what’s at stake,” she said.

            Already seeing positive tests spread from one NFL team to the next makes the upcoming NHL season an even bigger uncertainty. Pete Rogers, Equipment Manager for the Nashville Predators, travelled with the team to Edmonton and lived in the NHL bubble for 2.5 weeks until the Predators got eliminated. Working in this new atmosphere was new for Rogers, players and other staff that was able to travel with the team.

            “Players were split up into small groups for practices, they had to do their own laundry, cleaners were constantly sanitizing in between skating sessions and outside of the rink, everything was done in the confines of the hotel,” he said.

            Edmonton was home to 12 NHL teams who were spread out between three hotels and at the rink, between six locker rooms. Their days started at 6 A.M. by filling out a health questionnaire survey, followed by a COVID test which grew to be their everyday routine. All meals took place within the confines of the hotel, either at the hotel restaurants or at the Tim Hortons, Italian, or taco food trucks that surrounded the hotel. The only time a team would leave the bubble would be to practice at a practice rink, which happened every nongame day.

            “There were so many moving parts to deal with, especially with both the practice and regular game schedules, but the NHL had everything organized for everybody in the bubble,” he said. 

            Even though the days were long, this experience is something that everybody who lived in the bubble will never forget. For Rogers, the best part of this experience was talking to former players, coaches, and equipment managers from other teams. 

            “It was completely normal to see players from other teams throughout the hotel, in fact I think I saw James Neal in the elevator or the lobby 5-6 times,” he said.

            In hockey, when the season ends, a switch gets shut off and everybody goes into summer mode. Within 3-4 days of getting home from Edmonton, the players had all of their equipment packed up and were on their way back home. Some players started skating about three weeks after returning from the bubble, which for Rogers means going to their practice facility four days a week.

            “In preparing for next season, whatever that may bring, I work out of my office at the practice facility and for now, work entails sending jerseys out to our new players,” he said.

            One thing that a fan, multimedia journalist, sports anchor, and equipment manager all have in common is wondering what’s going to happen with the upcoming NHL Season. With COVID cases starting to rise again, Rogers doesn’t see how they can start the season without a bubble.

            “On the NHL’s end, this is a difficult task to put together, especially with the border closed. While the bubble worked for the playoffs and teams getting eliminated as the weeks went on, I don’t know if it’s possible to do a huge bubble for all 31 teams,” he said.

            At the end of the day, viruses come and go, but so do sports seasons. The challenge of finding a balance between keeping everybody healthy, while still providing entertainment through sports creates this uncertainty. And so, many questions still remain… will there be another bubble? Will fans be filling the seats in arenas? When will the season start?

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