Barely more than a week ago, Twin Cities sports chatter was focused on the Wild’s playoff push, the new-look Wolves, impending Vikings free agency, an encore season for the Twins’ Bomba Squad, a particularly good start to the season for Minnesota United and particularly rough stretches for the Gophers men’s and women’s basketball teams.
“I think a week ago seems like a year ago,” said Phil Mackey, director of content and distribution at SKOR North/Hubbard Broadcasting and an on-air sports radio personality.
Amen to that.
As the world adjusts to coronavirus-related changes at a rapid pace, Mackey and others in the Twin Cities have grappled with this question: When your job is to talk about sports, what do you do when there are suddenly no games?
In talking with a host of people this week, a few themes emerged as answers: Try to understand what your audience wants, always be ready to adjust on the fly and — above all else — stay safe.
Mackey posted a Twitter survey as leagues started postponing their seasons. He wanted to know what listeners wanted to hear: coronavirus talk; reminiscing about local teams; NFL free-agency news; or irreverent non-sports discussions.
He said he figured 30-40% of sports talk listeners on SKOR North would want coronavirus talk; instead, that number was 10% — a good indicator that people are inundated with that news everywhere else and are looking for an escape with sports.
“The balance we’re trying to strike is — hey, we know what’s going on. We’re going to give you updates, like when the governor closes all the bars and restaurants,” Mackey said. “But we’re also going to have a lot of fun evergreen segments and interviews.”
Chad Abbott, the program director at FM sports talk behemoth KFAN, said the station’s mission has been to “serve the community” and trust that its various hosts are deft enough to shift between sports and coronavirus news as warranted.
The Vikings have provided plenty of the former, while on the latter KFAN provides hourly news updates, has had virus experts come on every show and has conducted interviews with local athletes and coaches about how they are handling the sudden change.
“We have some of the most popular personalities, so let them do their thing,” Abbott said. “The only suggestions coming from anyone in management is to provide that sense of norm while being informative and entertaining.”
The challenge could grow as time wears on. That’s on the mind of Fox 9 TV sports anchor and reporter Dawn Mitchell, who said she has been able to fill all of her allotted on-air time — so far.
“This weekend coming up, I don’t know,” she said of extended time slots. “Sports people are windbags, and it’s really eight or nine minutes of content. It might become more of a talky format than a TV newscast, but going forward it will be interesting. It’s a new frontier that way. It just takes a different form.”
Play the hits!
The challenge is different for local rights holders like Fox Sports North. The sports shutdown came with time still left in the Wild and Wolves seasons — and with United having just started and the huge Twins schedule on the horizon. FSN shows the vast majority of those games, leaving a huge hole in its programming.
“It was a bit of a mad scramble last week,” said Mike Dimond, FSN’s senior vice president and general manager, who was on a spring training trip when leagues started shutting down. “The good part is we had to a certain degree built a library of classic games. We’ve run some classic games during lockout years. But then you’re doing one team. You’re not doing them all.”
FSN announced Friday the rebroadcast of several Twins games from the 101-win 2019 season — including a plan to show last year’s opener on Thursday, which would have been this year’s opener.
There are hopes to up the ante with other more vintage broadcasts from various sports and teams, but Dimond noted there are logistical challenges — notably broadcast rights and, perhaps more obscurely, making sure music rights for any songs used during broadcasts are still intact.
“We have to go back through and make sure we’re protecting intellectual property and not violate those things,” Dimond said. “It takes some time with some of those older games, and if not we have to edit them down and get them to a two-hour format. There is quite a bit of work that goes into it from programming and production standpoint.”
WCCO radio (830-AM) has a couple of those older gems — including Game 1 of the 1965 World Series between the Twins and Dodgers set to re-air at noon Saturday.
Sports personalities have altered what they talk about; perhaps even more dramatic is how they do their jobs.
Mitchell still gets ready for her on-camera work the same way she always did. But instead of heading to the office, she does her segments from her Twin Cities home.
“I’m live from my living room,” she said, while another anchor and photographer are in different spots. “It’s been a technological feat. There are very few producers still in the office. We’re trying to figure out the best way to inform people while still being safe. … It’s very weird to be live from my house — in my home but also in other people’s homes.”
Abbott and Mackey said both of their stations are practicing social distancing by having hosts either in separate studios or as far apart as possible in large studios. KFAN no longer has in-studio guests, and everything in the studio is disinfected between shows. Mackey echoed that.
“If you are in a radio studio, think of all the different touch points — buttons, chairs, everything,” he said. “We’re trying to give employees as much peace of mind as possible.”
And so little of this was front-brain as recently as a week or two ago.
“It’s easy to be sports media when breaking news is popping left and right. Anyone can do that when Kirk Cousins signs,” Mackey said. “But when the world stops it gets harder. We see this during MLB All-Star break, and that’s why full-time people take vacation. Take that week and multiply it by several weeks and months. Maybe that’s what we face.”
Perhaps the best perspective, then, comes from Dimond — both in terms of how FSN approaches the challenge of coming up with programing and in the big picture of a global pandemic.
“If you look at it in totality, it’s overwhelming,” Dimond said. “But if you take it day by day and week by week it’s manageable.”