Thu. Mar 4th, 2021

The Athletes Don’t Need Us Anymore

“If any players have something to say, they will not need traditional media to do it.”

In 2021, athletes across the sports landscape have put the Rosenthals, Wojnarowskis, and Shefters on notice. If they have something to announce, they now can skip reporters and go right to the fans. Trevor Bauer, JJ Watt, and Justin Turner are just examples of a growing trend that might be better for sports in the long run, but not for sports media.

When JJ Watt requested and was granted his release on February 12 from the Houston Texans neither he nor the team called a press conference. Instead, he posted a video on Instagram and Twitter, and reporters found themselves in the same position as fans when learning information.

“I think we’ve opened pandora’s box of direct-to-consumer communication for all of us in society,” said Tom Richardson, SVP of Strategy at Mercury Intermedia & digital media professor in Columbia University’s Sports Management Graduate Program. “The idea of influential people speaking ‘directly to their fans’ is now an established part of the media ecosystem.”

Bauer’s free agency was a guessing game for a while.  Bob Nightengale of USA Today reported that Bauer was leaning towards the New York Mets.  Then, it wasn’t a reporter who proved that report wrong. Trevor Bauer signed with the Dodgers and made a video to announce it.

“It’s just people on the TV screen,” ESPN Radio’s Freddie Coleman told me on my Sports with Friends podcast this week. “It feels as if you’re in ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ and I can’t open a pod door base. When it comes to post-game, we haven’t gotten any less from players in these situations. Plenty of times, you see that players are freer because of technology than it used to be.”

Perhaps seeing the buzz that Bauer created, Dodgers infielder Justin Turner revealed that he had re-signed with the club on social media. Before a press release, he worked with Vayner Sports to create this image.

During the 2020 season, all baseball reporters were prohibited from the clubhouse. All interviews took place virtually.  Daily manager interviews, player interviews, and even feature interviews were done by getting a link from a media relations person, signing on, and making sure you weren’t stuck on a cat filter.

I’ve noticed a lack of really in-depth profile pieces from some of the sports’ great journalists. They simply don’t have access.

Seattle Mariners broadcaster Shannon Drayer bases her information on relationships. On a pre-pandemic Mariners road trip, she could be seen in the clubhouse, in a dugout, or somewhere else on the field talking to players. Those conversations aren’t always formal interviews. Building that trust with players is essential to her role.  Since Covid, she is relegated to Zoom like the rest of us.

The saddest example of how the changing times’ are impacting the media was in July 2020.  The 60-game baseball season was underway, and despite the restrictions, the beat writers for the Phillies, Mets, Nationals, Red Sox, and Yankees, were all traveling to the road ballparks either by car or train.

I asked one writer, “in a pandemic, you are getting on an Amtrak train to go stay in a hotel, to go on Zoom? Does that make logical sense?”

The response that person gave was, “if we don’t show our editors that being there adds to our coverage, we won’t be sent on trips even when life returns to some semblance of normal.”

I have often said that NBA players are sieves when it comes to info. With all deference to the Wojs and Shams Charania, most NBA news comes from players who love to talk to anyone who will listen. NBA players have the greatest social media presence. If any players have something to say, they will not need traditional media to do it.

Watt did nothing wrong. Neither did Bauer or Turner. I fear that editors and program directors will see these trends, and media folks will see fewer opportunities.

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