By Bobbie Gay & Ben Murphy
Baltimore Watchdog Staff Writers
Kristen Rodgers’ work schedule is tied to the sports calendar. She’s used to the rhythm. Football in fall. Basketball and hockey in winter and spring. Baseball in spring and summer. But this year, the calendar looked much different.
A normal winter was followed by a spring with no sports thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic. Then everything came back almost at the same time in mid-summer — baseball, basketball, hockey, football training camp.
Her schedule, like that of many other sports journalists, was chaotic.
“We were reporting on sports every single day,” said Rodgers, a sports reporter/anchor for Fox 29 Philadelphia. “There was just so much happening.”
Rodgers said there were weekends when she would have a Phillies and Flyers game on television while keeping track of the Union (Philadelphia’s MLS team) score, before an evening watching the Sixers. The way she reported had to be changed from the way she’d been practicing and perfecting her whole career.
“For a 10 p.m newscast, we have two minutes and 30 seconds. And usually we have our flow of what we do, a VO/SOT for Eagles, maybe we get to some Sixers stuff,” she said. “But all of a sudden it was all highlights, because there was so much going on at that time.”
COVID-19 has made 2020 an unpredictable year. School has gone online. Businesses have closed. Festivals and concerts have been cancelled. And sports weren’t spared, either.
The NBA and NHL were postponed in March, just weeks away from the playoffs, and moved into a “bubble” four months later. The MLB didn’t start playing until mid-July and played just one-third of a normal schedule. The playing of the four major sports all at one time created a never-before-seen spectacle for sports fans. And it created a competition among leagues for television and streaming audiences — not to mention stressful times for sports broadcasters.
Still, many people in the sports media world were glad to have sports back — even if they all came back nearly in unison.
“That’s kids in a candy store, you love that,” said Tom Sredenschek, lead sports director for Fox 29 Philadelphia. “I think we appreciated it so much more because we didn’t have it.”
Sredenschek emphasized that reporters during the sports shutdown were starved for any sports content. He remembers the relief he felt and saw in others when the sports world came back to Philadelphia with the NBA and NHL bubble.
“The fact that those teams came back was so uplifting, not only for the city, it was uplifting for us in coverage,” he said. “It was such a relief from sharing COVID news, with this cancellation and that cancellation.”
Meanwhile, for leagues, it was a fight for viewership. Baseball normally owns the summer. Football owns the fall. Basketball owns the spring. But this summer and fall, ratings were hard to come by.
“What I was seeing is that ratings were impacted,” said Emily Kaplan, an NHL reporter for ESPN. “I think people are used to the typical cadence of a hockey season and late summer is not a good time to be playing with so many other sports playing.”
You could see this same impact with every sport. According to USA Today, The Stanley Cup Final ratings were down from last season. The NFL saw drops in their prime time coverage viewership, especially with Thursday Night Football. The U.S. Open golf tournament had its lowest viewing total in 30 years. And even the Kentucky Derby had a significant drop in viewers after it was rescheduled to September.
Sports fans were given so many options of what to watch. The NBA and NHL were now competing with the NFL, America’s most-watched sport. The MLB had to compete with the NBA and NHL playoffs. Not all sports saw increased competition — NASCAR and soccer, which came back earlier than other major sports, had more changes to gain market share.
“There were two sports off of the mainstream that gained a lot of momentum this year because they were the first to return,” said Sredenschek. “The first was NASCAR, which was the first return to professional sports when they raced in Darlington in May… and then the MLS, to return to their bubble and play team sports. And we were like, ‘this is really happening.’”
The sports schedule may not go back to normal right away — or ever in some cases.
“I don’t think we should expect Stanley Cups to be awarded in July, August, and September any time soon,” Kaplan said.
Added Sredenschek: “I think any of the executives who say it’s going to look normal in 2021, 2022, 2023, you can’t do that. It’s much like the business I’m in now, if you don’t adapt to it, it’s going to leave you behind.”
In terms of the national sports schedule, nothing these days are certain, the NBA and NHL have both made plans, but the question of if things will ever return to normal still remains.