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?
By Grace Heidinger
Social distancing and self-quarantine have become the new normal for people across the world as a result of the Coronavirus outbreak. Surrounded by uncertainty, people are filled with mixed emotions about what the future holds for all aspects of life, including sports. Once COVID-19 began to rapidly spread across the country, it was only a matter of time that the sports world was going to experience symptoms of the virus, too. Due to the global pandemic, the sports world has been on pause more than a month and people are wondering what the future holds for sports.
Sports are a big part of the culture in the city of Buffalo, even if the Buffalo sports teams are not always winning. Former Buffalo Beaut Hayley Williams does not forget her Buffalo roots after moving to Russia to continue her hockey career. She recently decided to start coaching online hockey training through Zoom for girls in Buffalo.
Williams meets with players live online Monday through Friday and if a player was unable to make the session because of school or other obligations, they receive a recording so they can follow along later in the day.
“It is very rewarding for me to still work with these players even in these tough times,” she said.
While Williams works a lot on stickhandling, mobility, stability and strength, she doesn’t stop there. In addition to her online coaching, she also designed offseason training programs for hockey plays and for her own offseason training.
“All in all, I’m staying very busy and involved in hockey, even if I can’t go to the rink,” she said.
Through training programs, athletes are still able to train during this time in preparation for the next time they will be able to put a jersey on and play a game. But for some high schoolers, the last time they put on their jersey or played a game on their home field would be their final time. High school senior Ariana Nieves had her final year of high school sports and senior year at Buffalo Seminary cut short due to the virus.
“It has definitely affected my senior year as a whole because I am not able to have that bond with my teammates, have a senior night, or final practices with my team,” she said.
Nieves was a member of the basketball and lacrosse team at Buffalo Seminary. Her final high school lacrosse season was completely cancelled, but her basketball team advanced to the state championship for the first time in history- and they could not even compete in it.
“These things are what you look forward to all four years of high school, and to have it taken away from you so suddenly is hard, especially when you don’t get another shot at it,” she said.
While some people ended their sports career in high school, some continued to play in college. Sam Bulow is a member of the Women’s Lacrosse team at Buffalo State and was less than halfway through the season when the NCAA and Athletic Directors in the SUNYAC league cancelled the remainder of the season.
“It is a moment that I’ll never forget as a couple of my teammates and myself went into our coach’s office after what was our last practice, and anxiously waited for our Athletic Director to give the verdict of the season,” Burlow said.
The virus also affected Burlow’s workout habits as the student athletic center and gyms closed shortly after the decision was made to cancel their season. What were mandatory lift sessions and cardio training turned into backyard training for Burlow.
“While I keep up with my stick skills in my backyard every day, my weight training is not as strong because of lack of equipment,” she said.
The verdict to cancel the season is still not easy for Burlow and her teammates to process.
“At the end of the day I know it was the right thing to do, but it does not make it easy when I look at a calendar and realize that we should have a game this day,” she said.
What was hard news for student athletes to face, was an even harder decision for athletic directors to make. Bishop Timon St. Jude High School athletic director, Joe Licata, is still hard at work despite the current absence of spring sports. Licata, along with other athletic directors from the Monsignor Martin League in Buffalo, N.Y., have weekly meetings via Zoom to discuss different options for the season if students were to return to school.
“The main thing is to give our seniors one last send off so we are going to try to do whatever we can to make that happen,” he said.
Licata is also the football coach and gym teacher at Bishop Timon, so he has been sending at-home workouts to his students and athletes to stay active.
“Staying physically fit and active during this time will keep everyone sane,” he said.
On top of being involved at Timon, Licata has his own football program that runs in the offseason to train football players, which was also affected. He was in the middle of a 10-week program with two weeks left when he had to postpone the session, but he plans to make it up to the athletes at some point in the future.
“Yes, it’s frustrating but people’s health is more important. Sports do give an outlet for people, so if we can get back to some normalcy, hopefully we can get back to sports,” he said.
While high school and college sports have been affected by the Coronavirus, so have all aspects of major- and minor-league sports. Neal McMullen, the director of corporate sales for Pegula Sports and Entertainment, which oversees corporate partnerships for the Buffalo Bills and Buffalo Sabres, is lucky enough to continue working during this time. But that is not the case for others in the organization.
“Unfortunately, our department had to furlough eight people due to the current pandemic and in total, 104 people were recently furloughed in our entire organization,” McMullen said.
His daily routine transitioned from working in an office to now working from home with his family of six, which was an adjustment. Due to the fact that McMullen cannot be in the office, he spends his days on phone calls and then catches up on emails in the evening, or on the weekends.
“It’s tough to stay focused with all the different activities going on in my house, but despite the big adjustment, my routine is starting to feel normal,” he said.
Unlike other major league sports, as of right now, business in the NFL has not been affected. However, the offices and training facilities are completely closed to everyone.
“The NFL is very proactive, and they know they need to have a plan in place for a number of possible scenarios in the fall as no one knows what kind of situation we could be looking come the fall,” he said.
Due to the unforeseen circumstances, the NFL Draft could not happen in person, but they successfully pulled it off virtually while setting a record when over 8 million people watched it. With the uncertainty surrounding the season in the fall, live entertainment for fans could be much different than anything anyone has ever experienced.
“People are starving to get their mind off the realities of everyday life, and entertainment is the best way to do that,” McMullen said.
While there is still potential for the NFL season to take place in the fall, the start of the Minor League Baseball season is still delayed due to the virus. The stands at Sahlen Field, home to the Buffalo Bisons, were empty on April 17, the originally scheduled home opener- and remain empty through the postponed season thus far. Mike Buczkowski, President of Rich Baseball Operations, fears that there won’t be a season.
“The unique thing about the Bisons is that we have to wait for the government to say it’s okay to gather, but we also have to wait for the MLB to determine what they’re going to do,” Buczkowski said.
A challenge that Buczkowski is facing with the Bisons, like all other sports teams, is working through all the different scenarios with other states as each state is in a different situation with the virus. The problem arises that every state has to allow sporting events for the season to happen.
“You can’t have a league if one state has different rules and guidelines where that one team can’t play,” he said.
The MLB might play in empty stadiums and stream games on TV, but that does not work for the minor leagues.
“It’s hard on everybody because our business is all about the people coming to the ballpark, the fans miss baseball, and we miss the fans,” he said.
All sports are going to have to learn and adapt to the new norms once the business can reopen. Leagues are going to have to put different things in place that they did not have before the virus.
“Despite having plan A through Z ready, there is no clear cut plan on what is going to happen, but we will learn as we go to figure out what’s going to be the best and safest for everyone,” Buczkowski said.
Where the Minor League Baseball season was unable to start, the NHL regular season was coming to an end and the Stanley Cup Playoffs were approaching when the virus hit. The Buffalo Sabres were in Montreal preparing for a 7 p.m. game against the Canadiens when the team’s General Manager, Jason Botterill, informed them that the game that evening and the rest of the season was delayed until further notice.
The team followed their normal morning routine, but they were not allowed to hold their morning skate at the Bell Centre, home of the Montreal Canadiens. Botterill told them to act as if there was going to be a game that night so the players continued to stretch and enjoyed their pregame meal.
“At around 3 o’clock they were told there would not be a game played that night, and the next hurdle to jump was to get a plane to fly into Montreal and fly the team back home to Buffalo,” said Head Equipment Manager Robert “Rip” Simonick.
Throughout these challenging times, Simonick still stays in contact with the players. But he misses the in-person interactions with the players at the rink on game days and shaking their hands after a win. The passion for all sports throughout the team is something special Simonick and the players bond over.
“What’s on the first page in the sports section is what these kids live and die for, and what we talk about in the locker room. I’m sure the most recent conversation would have been about Tom Brady going to Tampa,” Simonick said.
After being with the Sabres for 50 years, this is the most consecutive games Simonick has not participated in, even through other viruses and strikes.
After being with the team for so long, not being able to go to the arena makes the days long for him. Despite the uncertain status of the NHL season, he knows he has to be ready.
“We have all the sticks, pucks and gloves ready to go so if the light switch comes on, we will be there,” he said.
Going about everyday life without sports is hard for all organizations, people who work for these sports teams, the fans, but for the professional players, too. For Buffalo Sabre Jake McCabe, hearing the news that the rest of the NHL season was postponed was still shocking to hear, even though he saw it coming.
“Once the NBA cancelled, I figured we were next and everything happened very quickly once they made the decision,” he said.
Like all athletes, the virus forced McCabe to come up with and adapt to a new workout routine to stay active while away from the game. Although McCabe’s at-home gym looks slightly different from the workout room at the KeyBank Center, he is adjusting to his spin bike and other exercise equipment he has access to.
“I’ve also been going on a lot of runs because it’s also allowing me to get outside along with getting a workout in,” he said.
Although he misses going to the rink, hanging out with teammates and competing out on the ice, being away from the rink does have a perk for McCabe and his family. On April 20, McCabe and his wife, Gabriella, welcomed their new baby girl, Georgia.
“The silver lining through all of this is I’ve been able to spend every second with my little girl and it’s the best thing in the world,” McCabe said.
People don’t realize how important sports are to their everyday lives until they are without them. Throughout this time, organizations are working on potential plans for the future when they are able to return to normal while still providing entertainment for fans. Teams are using social media to their advantage to keep the fans engaged and playing games or memorable moments from previous seasons.
“We are doing the best we can for what we have to work with and in hopes that everything gets under control, we can get fans back in arenas and current sports games back on TV,” Simonick said.
Photos courtesy of Grace Heidinger