Media Access, COVID-19, and You

We are all mind-numbingly aware of the COVID-19 virus (I’m only going to call it C-19 moving onward) and we know what it’s done to the social landscape of the world. Obviously, sports is put into this and has led to leagues shutting down their locker room access and even possibly playing in front of empty arenas (although the AHL already did that).

My opinion is good. While it might be an overreaction, you rather err on the side of caution rather than have to clean up the mess that comes from not taking the right moves in the first place. Playing catch-up is never fun, especially in a wide-spread illness.

But seeing media people hem and haul about the shutting down of locker rooms and access to players and give a vague threat to the leagues bascially saying, “This better be temporary,” makes me tilt my head. As someone who has pieces of laminated paper saying I’m part of the media, I’ve never once thought that locker room access is needed to have a good story. Hell, at the University of North Dakota games; all the interviews for the masses are done in a scrum style with two or three players and head coach Brad Berry. We all get our stories, we all move along. Brad Schlossman is one of the finest writers in hockey and he rarely gets the locker room access some of these reporters in sports get, but he’s still churning out bangers week after week.

Does that help with some stories and such?? Sure. Is it a necessity?? That’s a hard sell for me. Does it equate to better stories?? I’m sure it does. Ken Rosenthal thinks it does (subscription because innovation). To a point, it can be true because access and having a good standing with the players can lead to things down the line and becoming an insider. Also, the point that it’s making the media members look petty because they’re getting singled out and other groups aren’t.

But, when the Colorado Avalanche have a sign reminding media members not to hug players or sit at stalls seems more to me like writers are mad because they can’t be buddy-buddy with some players. There’s not many other entertainment industries that allow people to be as tight-knit as the sports community. It can be considered both awesome and invasive all in one.

If you’re a good reporter, you’ll find a way to get the story without having to make brunch plans with the top-line guys or deal with the stench of equipment by your nose when you sit down in one of their stalls. People’s story writing abilities aren’t tied to all-access approaches in locker room settings. Yes, it makes a story better…but there’s tons of people out there writing quality stuff without having a fraction of the access or really needing it– but they’re still getting respect from people who enjoy the content they put out– access or not.

If worst comes to worst– everyone is connected. If you have a good relationship with a player now and need access to the room without getting access to the room– you should have their number. Text them, call them, email them– if they’re really your buddy, they’ll find a way to make time for you either in-person or virtually. Does it tell the whole story you’re looking for?? No, because it doesn’t have those subtle nuances of a locker room…but it’s still better than no access at all.

And yet, the story the writers are really missing are the impact around the games. The fans who may have taken a vacation to see a game, but will have to wait because the game was shuddered down to fans. The impact this will have on local businesses on top of the impact of non-gameday happens with this panic. The workers inside the venues who are going to be losing money and might already be on a tight budget as it is.

But no, let’s talk about the locker rooms shutting down. Let’s talk about the lack of access being the reason some can’t create a good story. There’s stories to be had out there that don’t require direct player access. You just have to be good enough to find it.

The Demise of the NHL Coverage by ESPN

Here we are, only a scant few days from the start of the Stanley Cup Finals…and ESPN’s top writer (after their giant purge a few weeks ago) has left the company.

On a Facebook post, Craig Custance announced that he is leaving ESPN for reasons he did not disclose at this time. With the firings of Pierre LeBrun, Scott Burnside, Joe McDonald, and the possible exit of John Buccigross when his contract is up in July, the hockey department has been pretty much gutted at the “Worldwide Leader.” While they still have Linda Cohn and Barry Melrose on the TV, as well as Corey Pronman on the dot-com side; the hit that hockey’s coverage has taken is making it look like ESPN will go strictly to wire results for the NHL starting next season.

Now, I’m sure Custance will land on his feet as a hockey writer because he’s a tremendous reporter and he will be very sought after. However, you have to figure that the pro hockey “takes” are dead to ESPN, if it hadn’t been before.

The NHL and ESPN have always had a sort of odd pairing together. Most people like to remember how the NHL was replaced by poker at the beginning of the 2000s, which was the end of the contract the league had with ESPN, but before then– the NHL was soundly put at the forefront, especially when ESPN2 was created. There were games mostly every night on “The Deuce” and there was plenty to be taken from. Sure, there were plenty of Red Wings or Flyers or Penguins games– but you had a smattering of Sharks and Kings games thrown in. Hell, when the NHL was locked out in 1994, ESPN liked the idea of hockey on The Deuce, they got a deal with the IHL to show games on the network– huge for the minor league industry and good for ESPN to keep their hockey fan base happy without the NHL around.

Many fans still feel that ESPN gave the NHL a hard time when it came to coverage, and I could see why they thought that– especially when ESPN took a jilted lover approach to their coverage after the NHL went to the NBC family of networks. That said, I could see ESPN’s reasoning for not giving it coverage because it didn’t value hockey due sagging ratings by fans not tuning into games. After that, ESPN had hockey of the NCAA variety, but only during the Frozen Four and recently, select games on ESPNU.

Even when you look at the coverage that ESPN put out for the World Cup of Hockey, which seemed as if they had one guy in the arena doing the between-the-bench schtick, while the play-by-play staff was calling it from the studio in Bristol. ESPN thought they could make something of the WCH, but in the end– it was same lackluster performance they had put out there from the last time they had pro hockey coverage.

In this day in age, the need for the NHL to have coverage on ESPN is not as desirable as it was a decade ago. People consume sports differently, especially on social media and with the leagues having highlights on-demand. That kills the need for highlight shows or to even be home to watch the game thanks to streaming services and everyone being connected to the internet.

The NHL, and hockey fans for that matter, don’t need ESPN as much as they used to– but the end result is a lot of talented people having to look elsewhere for work because ESPN sees how little traffic it gets and how little revenue they are generating from cutting the cords. That’s the nature of the business these days, sadly.