By Sasha Podzorov
ROCHESTER, N.Y. — Standing poised in front of a nine-paneled TV inside the WROC studio in Rochester, Alexa Ross gave a monologue to open the evening sports segment on April 11. The sports department was struggling to find material for the segment, something that rarely happens.
Her monologue marked one month since the NBA’s shocking shutdown, which has caused a chain reaction of closures across all major sports leagues in the United States. For sports media members, this meant facing the largest impact on the industry since 9/11. With Ross’ words echoing in the near-empty studio, her message came through clearly.
“Nobody handles the disruption of their routine well—I certainly didn’t,” Ross said. “I hate to admit it, but I was so angry this thing so many people loved was taken away from them — from fans, from athletes, in a time when distraction is so necessary.”
In Rochester alone, at least 13 sports broadcasters across four local channels have seen the essence of their job taken from them. Despite this scenario present in every television market in the United States and across all sports-dedicated channels, there are still stories to be told.
Before the pandemic derailed sports in Rochester, local reporters were at a pivotal point in the sports calendar: state championships were wrapping up for the winter high school sports, while spring sports like baseball, softball, and lacrosse were set to start. With spring championships now canceled as of April 27, content still needs to be made for sports segments.
“It’s really been a matter of being creative and adjusting to these times,” Matt Trabold, a member of 13 WHAM ABC’s sports team, said. “It’s been a lot of using video we already have. It’s been a lot of interviewing through Zoom.”
Trabold has conducted Zoom interviews with Rochester native and prospective-NBA lottery selection Isaiah Stewart, as well as high school student-athletes for a “Senior Spotlight” series to fill much-needed broadcast slots. The lack of sports action also allows sports reporters across the country to focus on human interest stories more than usual.
In the midst of lacrosse season, Kenny DeJohn, the Digital Media Editor of US Lacrosse Magazine, put out content for all three levels of college lacrosse every week. Now, the magazine has seen a sharp turn from its usual team rankings and game previews.
“A lot of our first reaction was ‘let’s talk to these teams, to these players to see what could have been [this season],’… but it’s been a month since everything ended, so we’re trying to adapt to what else we can talk about now,” DeJohn said via phone call on April 16. “The thing we can fall back on is that these people [in lacrosse] have their own stories to tell, so getting them on the phone for 15 minutes or a half-hour is helpful.”
In an equally important sector of sports media, play-by-play and color commentary broadcasters have seen a fallout from COVID-19. With no games to commentate, broadcasters are losing out on paychecks needed for their means of support.
“Immediately, I was looking at it and saying ‘I just lost around $5,000 of expected income at the very least in the next couple of months,’” Scott Sudikoff, a play-by-play broadcaster who was scheduled to work college lacrosse, baseball, softball and men’s volleyball games for various sports networks this spring, said. “In my case, I’m a freelancer—I’m not an employee who gets paid no matter what. I really depended on working games.”
To garner some income, Sudikoff started a sports consulting business where he takes on clients and reviews and helps produce reels, among other things.
“For my broadcasting job, if I don’t work, I don’t get paid… but what a lot of people don’t know is a lot of broadcasters have other full-time jobs,” Brendan McDaniels, a sports broadcaster who also works in Academic Intervention Services at the Aquinas Institute in Rochester, said. “Unlike some of my colleagues, I have a backup plan. So it’s affecting me but not killing me.”
Still, finding a way to retain broadcasting skills in a sports drought proves to be a challenge. Outside of film study and game review, McDaniels finds ways to practice in everyday life.
“Every so often, just to goof around, I’ll commentate what’s going on in the living room or at the dinner table… or I’ll see something on the internet and commentate it to myself,” he said. “Part of it is for fun and part of it is for comic relief, but part of it is to stay sharp as well because like with anything else, if you don’t practice you’ll lose your touch.”
The reason for these workarounds is serious. Social distancing guidelines were established federally on March 16 to limit the spread of COVID-19, so sporting events with tens of thousands of people in attendance were banned as well. Ariel Epstein, an on-air host on the sports betting network SportsGrid, contracted the coronavirus at a dinner event in early March. For two weeks, she was unable to work while dealing with the virus.
“Throughout the course of the two weeks, it felt like every day was a new day. I had almost every symptom listed on the testing sheet,” Epstein said.
Despite missing out on work, Epstein fell back into stride as SportsGrid made the transition to remote broadcasting during her illness.
“Now that we are pre-recording shows, I am also editing,” she said. “On top of hosting for two hours, the editing process takes another four hours.”
Through the more than six-week-long hiatus of sports, one message has stayed true for all sports media members, no matter how they were affected by COVID-19: to persevere through this uncertain time.
“It’s a matter of staying positive,” Trabold said. “The end [of the sports hiatus], I’m not sure if it’s near, but it will happen. Before too long, there will hopefully be fans in the stands.”
In the interim, sports can still be a uniting force in local communities.
“I need to adjust to this life,” Ross said. “There are still athletes whose stories need to be told and there’s still stories of people doing good things in the sports community… it just won’t be as easy to find them.”