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What are we going to write about?

Freelance writer and Albion fan Nick Szczepanik on how sports desks and websites find content when there is no football.

By Nick Szczepanik • 19 March 2020

By Paul Hazlewood
Football writers are having to think outside the box to come up with interesting content.

Before the days of covered courts at Wimbledon, rain washing out a full day’s play in SW19 used to test the mettle of sports writers. 

With no action on the grass, some were sent to the four corners of the All-England club to write so-called ‘colour’ pieces on how spectators passed their time while sheltering from the downpours in the food courts and retail outlets. Most of them chiefly expressed their outrage to a hapless hack at the prices of strawberries and cream, as I recall. 

Other writers interviewed the management about the lack of anything for paying customers to do when it rained, or held inquests with Lawn Tennis Association officials into the lamentable performances of the plucky Brits who had all crashed out on the first day.

If you were very lucky (or unlucky), Cliff Richard would get up in the Royal Box for an impromptu sing-song, or some eccentric would produce a tin whistle from his raincoat pocket and ‘entertain’ the dwindling crowds.

But there was something to fill the pages for a day, at least.

If it rained for a second successive day, of course, you were stuck. You’d used up all the decent and half-decent ideas on the first rainy day. Now there was just that exclusive interview you’d been promised with the man who lettered the players’ name boards to fall back on.

Since the Coronavirus wiped out last weekend’s programme in the Premier League and EPL, the UK football press is now looking at the equivalent of a rainy day at Wimbledon – and not just one, or two, but every day until who knows when.

At this end of the football shutdown, things are not quite so bad. There was the UEFA summit on Tuesday to report, and there will be the Premier League meeting on Thursday. But once they are in the rear-view mirror, what then?

Newspapers have their coping mechanisms, of course. Last weekend’s Sunday Times sports section, for example, had a new columnist, Wayne Rooney, to unveil and they went big on it. So big, in fact, that they used up two-thirds of a page with a mugshot. 

Making pictures bigger is a classic way of covering up for an absence of hard content, and in this case it meant that Rooney’s words could be used to fill a double-page spread elsewhere. With the help of another huge photo. And an interview with Rooney by Football Correspondent Jonathan Northcroft.

The non-Rooney content included a survey of the football landscape including a report of the thoughts of Albion deputy chairman Paul Barber on Football Focus (thumbs up for a ‘nuanced view’) and West Ham CEO Karren Brady in her Sun column (thumbs-down for her desire to void the 2019-20 season). And there were even some interviews with punters on the Anfield stadium tour, which felt like the direct football equivalent of those vox pops with frustrated Wimbledon ticket-holders in the queue for strawberries.

Sunday papers are always allowed a look back on the previous week, and David Walsh was able to consider the Cheltenham Festival in his back page column. But most of rest of the section exuded a sense of making the best of a bad job.

Rugby man Stephen Jones reported on a local union match in Maidenhead. Well, 16 minutes of it before he had to take the home fly-half (his son) to hospital with a suspected fracture and dislocation. And one of this column’s favourite football writers, John Aizlewood, found himself covering the All-England Open badminton championships in Birmingham, an event which would not normally rate even a couple of lines in a ‘sport in brief’ column. The Monday morning papers had discovered the event too.

Alan McKinlay, assistant sports editor at The Mirror, insists that desperation has not set in on sports desks just yet. “At the moment there are committee meetings in sport’s governing bodies to report and ‘What happens next?’ guides to write, so we’re not getting hysterical, although it’s true that this is just the first week,” he said. 

“But after that there will be a lot of room for features, with the possibility of expanding things like our ‘On This Day’ column into something bigger. There is definitely still an appetite to read about sport, if only to relieve the tedium.

“As far as life on the sports desk goes, we are all working from home now, with communications that little bit slower through Skype and other platforms. And I’ve noticed that our writers are even keener than usual to come up with ideas, because of course everyone is looking out for their jobs.”

At least if the ideas do run out, there is more to read about in a newspaper than sport.  However, a sport-only websites has no such safety net, and US-based sites such as Bleacher Report or The Athletic cannot even fall back on its core American sports, with College and NBA basketball postponed indefinitely and the Major League Baseball season, due to begin on March 26, put back. 

The Athletic emailed subscribers earlier this week, explaining that if any were thinking of reaching for the ‘unsubscribe’ button now that the sports it covers are not happening, “our writers will get as creative as possible to find interesting angles and ideas.

“Internally, we’ve started a #lets-get-weird Slack channel for our 500-plus employees to contribute inventive ideas to keep you engaged, amused, informed and, of course, part of the daily conversation on our site.”

Some would say that things have already got weird when Gary Lineker is tweeting links to sand marble rallying.  But soon we are all going to become experts on sports – any sports – that are still going, and to turn our focus on any level of football that we can find, until it starts to attract crowds of frustrated fans that make it subject to government bans.

Any level? Yes indeed. Last Saturday, The Sun’s award-winning photographer Dickie Pelham, who has snapped Olympic finals, heavyweight title fights and World Cups, went to Hackney Marshes in search of some real grassroots football. 

“I put the idea up and I thought I was going to get shot down in flames, but they loved it,” Dickie told www.brightonandhovealbion.com. “In the morning there were just kids’ games but when we found there was a team called ‘Korona’ playing, we couldn’t fail.”

So in the slot in The Sun on Sunday where readers would normally have expected to read about Aston Villa v Chelsea or Albion v Arsenal was the story of Spa Park Athletic’s 5-0 victory over Korona Athletic at the top of the Essex Veterans’ division 4 (West). Staff writer Rob Maul wrote the report, complete with full match stats and team graphic.

“It was easy for me but Rob had his work cut out doing the stats and getting all the info,” Dickie said.  “We joked that Opta will have to take over if this goes on. We think we might ‘adopt’ Spa Park and interview some of their players because they’ve reached their league cup final, and one of them used to play for QPR.

“As for what happens next, some darts is still on and the ABA boxing, and The Sun has asked me to pick my best pictures from various Olympics, so that will fill pages and help to sell some more copies of my book too.”

Staff and contract writers such as Dickie and Rob do not have to worry about their paycheques, of course. But freelance reporters and the agencies that supply match reports have seen their income disappear overnight.  The Football Writers’ Association, the august body that votes for the annual Footballer of the Year award, has set up a working party to help out freelancers, although they cannot magic any extra football up out of nowhere.

And with less actual sport to fill the paper, and thus fewer sports pages, casual and freelance sub-editors – the men and women who cut the stories to length, check them for accuracy, fit them into the pages and write the headlines - will be surplus to requirements too.

Not that their skills restrict them entirely to sport. On the morning following the death of Princess Diana, the managing editor of The Times sent a demand for every department to send their two best subs to work on a special pull-out section.

By the time the section had gone to print, most were ready to drop with exhaustion, except the two from sport, who reported back to the sports desk that they had had a fairly easy session compared to the usual frenetic day of compiling and checking results and reports from a full weekend of sport.

But can the present absence of any top-class football give us any pointers for what to do when it returns? Dave Kidd of The Sun thinks so and calls for a calm re-appraisal rather than a headlong rush back into a maelstrom of football.

He began by referencing a sketch from That Mitchell and Webb Look in which David Mitchell “thunders around Loftus Road performing a spoof Sky TV football trailer in an increasingly loud and manic tone.

“The fallout from the coronavirus crisis has laid bare football’s prioritising of quantity over quality,” he writes. “It has taken this indefinite lockdown for those governing the sport to fully realise the overkill they’d inflicted on audiences.

“So, can the current season finish? If so, how will it affect next season? What about cup competitions?  Well, if the calendar wasn’t horribly bloated then those problems would not be so tough to reconcile.

“It would be sensible for sporting bodies to adopt a ‘foot on the ball’ approach. Do not call off future events too soon, do not make hasty plans to reschedule this season, or next. Just calm the **** down.

“Talk of football returning in May or June is certainly optimistic. But the solution is not flogging footballers further on resumption. Whenever these nightmarish times abate, clubs must learn that less is more – even if it means a drop in TV revenue.”

He is right, of course. Even if, right now, most of us just want football back. Any football at all.

The silver lining? Nobody is arguing about VAR anymore.

 

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