When the pandemic properly took hold across the world in mid-March, the sports industry was just one of the many sectors in society that would suffer widespread disruption. The worldwide lockdown devastated the sports calendar, with countless events either postponed or cancelled altogether. Obviously, this was to be expected – rumours had been swirling since late February that Covid-19 would bring significant consequences, and the threat of cancellation loomed large over competitions such as the Six Nations and the Champions League.
“Suddenly, it seemed their place in the world had disappeared; it’s difficult to report on sport when there’s no sport to report.”
Then, the pandemic ensured that all fixtures and events – save for a certain horse racing festival- were put on hold for the foreseeable future. As players and coaches began negotiating remote training plans and fans pondered what they would do with themselves at weekends, sports media was in dire straits. Suddenly, it seemed their place in the world had disappeared; it’s difficult to report on sport when there’s no sport to report.
However, some journalists were unwilling to go gently into the night. Ger Gilroy, one of Ireland’s foremost sports media personalities, had no intention of sitting around for however long it would take for some semblance of normality to return. Gilroy, managing director of Off The Ball, understood the importance of routine in making it through the initial weeks of the lockdown: “We made the decision very early on that we were going to keep up the exact same schedule that we always had. We thought it was important because it gave all of us a daily focus, but also, it showed to our audience that we weren’t going away.”
“There were plenty of stories at the start about sports being cancelled, so there was a huge surge in traffic and then, a lot of our audience would’ve been commuters, so in April that disappeared. Then in May, June and July, a lot more people were listening to our podcasts, so our audience changed, and our programming changed with it. Initially, that was a bit of a challenge, but people were stuck at home, and people wanted to have a conversation. We also had to develop our product line, to be nakedly commercial about it. Within our show, we cover a lot of sports, and we have a lot of partners for those sports, so purely from a business perspective, we have to offer new products so people will want to come invest in them.”
Indeed, with the uncertainty arising from the pandemic, media organisations have turned their attention towards staying afloat financially. Less sports coverage means less advertising revenue, making it much more difficult to maintain their current roster of reporters, production and editorial staff. The industry has already witnessed redundancies on a significant scale, and Gilroy fears there may be more to come: “A lot of the media have been reliant on the pandemic payments; at some point, the value of those is going to decrease and several media organisations are going to be left very exposed. It’s going to be very interesting to see in 18 months how many media companies will be covering sports in the same way as they did before.”
It’s not just in sports media – most clubs and organisations have felt the full force of the pandemic, and their survival is far from certain. Macclesfield Town FC was the latest high-profile football club in England to wind up operations. Gilroy believes similar challenges lie ahead in Ireland, not just for clubs but entire sports: “I think rugby is facing something of an existential crisis. [World Rugby] had a window of opportunity about 6-8 weeks ago to come up with a global calendar and that didn’t happen. A lot of money was about to flow into rugby through venture capital, which doesn’t have a long history of propping up things, because they’ll want their money back quickly so we’ll see where that goes.
“Football is interesting; unless the Premier League clubs give over a lot of cash to the lower-league clubs, then those teams won’t survive. I think it’ll be interesting to see what happens with the IRFU and the FAI, and to a lesser extent, the GAA. I think the GAA will actually be fine because people will still go and play for their clubs, and those clubs will survive. In fact, despite short-term pain, I think the GAA will actually come out of this a lot better, with a completely reorganised structure to the calendar – something which would have taken a generation to work through otherwise – and it’s what the players wanted, and also what the organisation wanted, in a way. Will that happen with football in Ireland? I don’t know. Some of the League of Ireland clubs will have to go semi-pro, but maybe it’ll be an opportunity to hit reset on that too.”
When the pandemic first hit and all sport was cancelled, most media organisations opted for the warm comfort of nostalgia when trying to drum up some content. RTE showed all of Ireland’s games from the 1990 World Cup, while Sky Sports and the BBC offered classic matches from the Premier League, as well as past Wimbledon finals. Off The Ball picked the brains of football legend and regular contributor Johnny Giles for his thoughts on the best-ever XIs of clubs such as Leeds United, Liverpool and Arsenal. It proved a successful approach with the consumer, but critics dismissed these features as lazy or uninspired.
It’s a tag with which Gilroy takes umbrage. He believes that revisiting sport’s past serves a greater purpose than merely production banal content: “I’m a little bit defensive about the people who say that all nostalgia is lazy, because it’s not – it’s about properly examining and analysing the past to explain what’s happening right now. It’s actually history; it gets labelled ‘nostalgia’ because it’s easy to dismiss it as just ‘some old bollocks.’ Ultimately if things are presented and structured properly and context is given, it can be anything from revisionist history – coming at something with all the knowledge of what happened afterwards – or it could be an excavation of names and events that are still relevant for whatever reason.
“I think Gaelic football in the 00s is particularly interesting because it’s the foundational moment of the seething rage which fires up the Dubs for the decade afterwards, and there’s the Kerry-Tyrone saga developing. At the time, you think it’s a whole load of stuff that’s just happening. But those sorts of things are great to debate because they’re still fresh enough in the mind so there’s a good understanding of it. Some of it is pure nostalgia – the Italia ‘90 stuff after Jack Charlton died was pure nostalgia – and I get that nostalgia is something that blunts people’s perception of the now. But looking at Manchester United beating Juventus in ‘98 helps to inform everything that happened with United after that. So I think we shouldn’t dismiss looking back as automatically lazy; if anything, we should be doing more of it.”
“Even with the growing emphasis on instant news and social media engagement, there is still room and opportunity for sports reporters to perform that most basic function of journalism: to tell a story.”
Despite all the redundancies and the general uncertainty around the industry, there are reasons to be optimistic about a potential career as a sports journalist. Landmark pieces, such as the “Where is George Gibney?” podcast from the BBC and Second Captains, or “Champagne Football” by Sunday Times duo Mark Tighe and Paul Rowan, have demonstrated that even with the growing emphasis on instant news and social media engagement, there is still room and opportunity for sports reporters to perform that most basic function of journalism: to tell a story.
Gilroy asserts that the advent of the Internet has changed the industry for the better: “Beforehand, if you owned a media organisation, you were practically printing your own money; you couldn’t spend it quick enough. Then the Internet came and blew everything up, and since then, we’ve been trying to come to grips with what the future looks like. If you believe you can do work that’s as good or even better than what’s on the market, go for it, but the last few of those who believed sport was a cushy number, the last of those are just leaving the system now. The salad days of people being lazy and knocking out a few pieces a week, those days are gone, and that can only be a good thing, right? I don’t know, maybe those days were the best days, and we’re just Tony Soprano, coming in at the end.”
Maybe the future isn’t that bright after all, but barring an utter catastrophe, there is a future, and although it may take time, there will be a return to familiarity. With that return, one is anxious to rediscover the simple pleasures and profound joys of watching live sport. Gilroy is eager to finally get back into the stands to experience the drama firsthand: “I stumbled across a minor Gaelic football game the other day and I was watching it. The standard wasn’t very good; there was no score for 10 minutes either side of half-time. One of the mentors was getting shite talk from the corner-forward and I was agog at the level of abuse he was getting from this player. Under normal circumstances, I would just walk on, but I was dying to see what happens next.”
“Granted, sport’s return may seem steady and permanent, but sports writers won’t be fooled – if they know anything, it’s that you shouldn’t call the game when there’s so long left to play.”
So what does happen next? It’s a question that people are asking around the world. With the future looking increasingly frightening, teams and clubs are beginning to crawl out of pandemic-induced hibernation as some form of playing season begins to take shape. They’re all too conscious that if case numbers reach critical levels, their way of life will be derailed once again after all that progress. Granted, sport’s return may seem steady and permanent, but sports writers won’t be fooled – if they know anything, it’s that you shouldn’t call the game when there’s so long left to play.