From Russia, with tips for sports reporting during COVID-19

byСофья Лопаева
Apr 20, 2020 in COVID-19 Reporting
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This article is part of our reporting series on COVID-19. For more COVID-19 resources, click here.

When the first case of COVID-19 was reported in Wuhan, China in late 2019, no one could have anticipated it would lead to the postponement of the planet’s biggest sporting event — this summer’s Olympic Games. 

Today, the pandemic is dominating headlines all over the world. Journalists are working in overdrive, stepping up to meet the challenge. With sports events canceled everywhere, the field of sports journalism in particular finds itself in a most unusual and uneasy position.

How is sports media coping with its new reality during this pandemic?

[Read more: COVID-19: Uncharted territory for freelance photojournalists]

Sports journalism is at its core event-driven. Stories are driven by live events and competitions. “Our world is very special. It has a very strict schedule and plans — and absolutely unpredictable events,” Evgeny Zuenko, editor-in-chief of МК Sport, told IJNet. “Nobody knows who is going to win an upcoming match; miracles and surprises can happen. But, you know your schedule years in advance. In September, the Champions League starts, the National Hockey League gets going in October and the Europa League finals in May. Every two years we get either the FIFA World Cup or European Football Championship.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has decimated the sports calendar. Almost all national and international sports events have been canceled or postponed. Never before in history has there been such a disruption, Zuenko noted. Even when the U.S. and more than 60 other countries boycotted the Olympics in 1980, and four years later when the Soviet Union and 13 other Communist nations boycotted the 1984 Olympic games, the events carried on. American sports journalists have compared the current situation to 9/11’s impact on the sports world.

Match TV, Russia’s only TV sports channel free to the public, has seen its ratings slump, according to the Russian business daily Vedomosti

Meanwhile, Dmitry Navosha, the CEO of Tribuna Digital and co-founder of Sports.ru, said that viewership has suffered, but the drop has been insignificant. “Yes, there are no more sporting events, but people's interest in sports and athletes is still there,” Navosha told IJNet. “People also can’t spend all day only reading news and statistics about the coronavirus; they feel the need for other updates even more.” 

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Zuenko said the decline for MK Sport has also been manageable so far. "We expected to lose around 10% of readership, but news around the cancellation of the Olympics still helped us maintain our audience.”

With none of the typical stories to cover, sports journalists have found new ways to be creative.

So, what does a sports reporter cover in the absence of sports? Here are some ideas.

(1) Incorporate reporting on the pandemic

For example, add a “COVID-19” tab alongside the “hockey”, “football”, “basketball” tabs on your website. There, you can upload news around cancellations of games and events, stories about sports personalities with the virus and their families, coverage of athletes' philanthropy, interviews about self-isolation, statistics, and so on.

(2) Turn to history

Take a look back at impactful events of the past, like the top ten soccer goals scored, or the 15 greatest moments in basketball history. Recount the 2009 biathlon doping scandal, or write about what soccer was like during the cholera outbreak.

(3) Become an analyst 

Review the season, make predictions and evaluate financial implications. Investigate who gains the most from the Russian Premier League being suspended, for example, or how the pandemic will change the world of sports.

(4) Conduct lots of interviews

In the form of short messages with an athlete in self-isolation, or a full-scale, in-depth interview – having your subject review, reflect and open up.

(5) Explore new forms of storytelling 

Update your newsroom’s YouTube channel, or start a new podcast — for example, about the founders of the Spartak football club.

(6) Look into other sports, in other countries

Write about soccer culture in Belarus, or about esports. For instance, a video game tournament featuring high-profile athletes, or a Russian online basketball championship.

(7) Entertain 

With games and movies. Put together a quiz on soccer terms, or ask an athlete for book suggestions during quarantine.

Where is this all headed?

Media analysts say it is too soon to assess the long-term impact of the COVID-19 crisis on sports journalism. Some sports editors are showing optimism, however. “Match TV has a lot of its own shows and exclusive content, so we hope that the situation will improve,” a Match TV representative said

Navosha echoed the optimism, that the situation is under control. “Of course, both an unprecedented sports shutdown and economic issues in the country will hit hard. But, our media projects have a loyal audience and we are very resistant to this kind of situation,” said Navosha. “We launched Sports.ru during the crisis of 1998, so the ability to keep the balance and even grow through hard times is a part of our DNA.” 

Still, it’s difficult to predict when the sports lockdown will end. Forecasting ad revenue and the sustainability of advertisers also adds uncertainty to newsrooms’ editorial plans.

Some members of the journalism community are more pessimistic, expecting a total collapse of sports media in Russia if the current lockdown is extended. “The foundation of all our business plans, of our content monetization models, was the fact that 2020 was the year of two major events: the European Football Championship and the Olympic Games,” said Zuenko. “It’s crucial for sports media: in even-numbered years we earn much more than in odd-numbered years, because a great number of advertisers — at least in Russia — show up just in time for the Olympics and the major soccer tournaments. Today, we have to rewrite all these plans.”

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the life of a sports journalist has changed significantly. It started with restricting access to locker rooms, and has continued into the complete silence of the sports world, catching both players and fans by surprise. 

There is no precedent, nor is there a guide for how to work under these circumstances. Sports reporters have had to adapt, fundamentally adjusting the nature of their coverage. They’ve worked quickly to devise new, creative approaches to their craft, to cover a world with no sports games or events — not even an Olympics or European Football Championship — this is their new reality. 


Main image CC-licensed by Unsplash via Vince Fleming.