Associated Press sports writer Larry Lage couldn’t stop thinking about freelancers who needed help financially because of layoffs affecting the sports media due to the cancellation of sports during COVID-19.
“I went to bed and was thinking about sports journalists who were paid by assignment,” Lage said. “I thought of them the next morning and I literally started to tear up, and I thought, to myself, you know what I’m going to try to do something.”
After COVID-19 began spreading in the U.S., Lage said many freelancers went without payments because they are paid by assignment and there were no assignments due to many sports leagues cancelling.
The NBA announced on March 11 that they would suspend the rest of the season after Utah Jazz player Rudy Gobert tested positive for the virus. Then, the NCAA cancelled the March Madness tournament on March 12, and the NHL and MLS suspended their seasons on March 12 as well. This left most sports writers or media members with almost nothing to talk about. And it pushed some out of a job, which is why Lage started the fundraiser.
He said the fundraiser got national attention, multiple stories were written about his fundraiser on the Detroit Free Press and many other news websites. In the end, he received a total of $30,000 in donations. He said that most received around $50 to $100 and he gave money to a little over 100 people.
He said the donations were gratefully accepted.
Around 36,000 employees at news organizations in the U.S. have been laid off, furloughed, or had their pay reduced since COVID arrived according to the New York Times.
“The core of what you write about happens during the season,” former Detroit Free Press sports writer Vince Ellis said. “And you don’t know when the core of what you write about is going to return.”
The Athletic said in a memo on June 5 that it laid off 8% of its staff and imposed a 10% pay cut for all of its employees. Gannett, which owns the Detroit Free Press where Ellis used to work, implemented an order for employees to take five days a month without pay in April, May, and June.
Sean Baligian experienced a layoff from his job for Michigan Media Network on March 27. Because he works more than one job in media, the layoff didn’t affect him like others in the business. He was still employed as a radio host for WJR.
Baligian had to resort to talking about other things as a podcaster and radio host for WJR. As like all the others interviewed, Baligian looked on the positive side on what he has been able to do in this time that he may never have done before.
“I was able to branch out and do some of the daily shows,” Baligian said. “It’s different, but at the same time it is fun, and it’s been an eventful four months.”
Dan Miller, Sports Director for Fox2, said covering sports when there weren’t any was challenge, but he said his staff were creative and always found content.
“We still have a job to do,” Miller said. “We just had to do it differently.”
He said his staff found feel good stories on social media instead of the usual sports stories.
And now some of those traditional sports stories are returning, the MLS started July 8, the MLB on July 23, the NBA on July 30, and the NHL on August 1.
Chris Burke, a writer for The Athletic, said he is accepting changes to the way he does his job, including limitations of the access to the locker rooms and facilities for his reporting. He said it has been a positive experience working for The Athletic during this time, as much as it can be during a pandemic.
“They [The Athletic] have been open about safety precautions and what their goals are going forward,” Burke said.
Burke also said his job is a lot more remote, he is home 100% of the time now conducting phone and ZOOM interviews, rather than being out of the house more than half the time. He also wants to be cautious about traveling anywhere out of state because of the pandemic.
Some journalists like Phil Friend, a digital sports reporter for the Lansing State Journal, is also watching those professional sports carefully. If they can get through a successful season, other sports have hope of restarting as well.
However, for Friend, if college football doesn’t restart, it’ll feel like March and April all over again.
“I don’t know what I’ll do if college football is cancelled,” Friend said. “I’ll probably be writing more COVID-19 stories.”
The NBA’s attempt at minimizing the risk of positive tests is a bubble they have set up in Orlando, the bubble is a term used to illustrate that the NBA is quarantining itself from the rest of society. The NHL also implemented one in Edmonton and Toronto in order to restart their league.
Baligian said if those bubbles don’t work or college football and the NFL cancel their seasons, the outcome could be disastrous.
“For those whose livelihood really is contingent upon covering particular sports, if those sports aren’t being played, then there is no reason to pay those people.” Baligian said. “The likelihood of another round of layoffs happening is very high.”