By Chris Kwiecinski

The first session of the 2021 APSE Summer Convention began with event organizers trying to solve a problem that has become all too similar for sportswriters and editors over the past year and a half: Zoom issues.

Microphone issues were figured out and virtual participants were connected to the conference room’s audience, the five-person panel discussed the media’s return to full-person access, which looms large as sports media ponders what’s next.

Even though COVID-19 pandemic restrictions have lessened, the virus still remains at the height of conversations and has lead to the biggest takeaway from the panel, which is to ponder where sports need to go next?

“When it comes to access, we want to look at where we’re going,” APSE First Vice President Gary Potosky said while moderating the panel, which included Detroit News sports editor Gerry Ahern; USA Today Sports managing editor Roxanna Scott; Nashville Predators CEO Sean Henry; Professional Basketball Writers Association president Josh Robbins of The Athletic; and NBA senior vice president of communications Tim Frank, via Zoom.

Here are some key takeaways from APSE 2021’s opening panel.

The biggest one: How access currently looks.

Where does the media stand?

Access in press boxes and across media members shut down in March 2020 and returned in an extremely limited sense in the fall of 2020.

In the months since, as vaccines became widely available, that access has become better in the eyes of newsroom leaders. 

Ahern noted how pressbox capacity for college football games is back to around 75 to 80 percent capacity but progress still remains to be made on the sidelines.

Podium access, where a few athletes are made available in person, has become more normal for college sports, as well as professional leagues like the NFL. That podium access still varies from team to team and from school to school. 

There is currently no access to locker rooms in professional sports settings.

There are some success stories in professional sports. Major League Baseball has opened on-field access to all vaccinated media members. That allowed the Detroit News to cover a Detroit Tigers’ no-hitter with exclusive coverage from the field as opposed to a Zoom press conference, Ahern said.

However, he noted the Delta Variant is the X-factor in sports journalism.

Henry said media members have asked when the locker rooms will open, but he said the COVID-19 Delta Variant has complicated lessening restrictions any further. 

Who does it hurt the most?

While the lack of in-person access and one-on-one interviews affects all sports storytelling, Robbins said it particularly affects younger reporters.

The lack of in-person access has hurt the younger reporter’s ability to source properly. Robbins also noted that affects reporters who have transitioned to a new job, as well.

Giving readers the same kind of thorough beat coverage through Zoom interviews is impossible,” he said.

“Something we in sports journalism must remember is that while we work for our individual news outlets, we also work for our readers,” Robbins said. “Our readers deserve the best journalism we can possibly produce, and that’s why access needs to return to prior levels. That’s also part of why it’s in the professional and collegiate sports leagues’ best interests to provide that access.”

Some press conferences are broadcasted publicly on social media, where everyone can hear the question on Zoom and everyone can take the response from national media outlets to bloggers.

Still, the ability to reach many has served leagues, teams and schools well.

Senior vice president for NBA communications Tim Frank did note teams like the ability to reach many through Zoom, and that virtual press conferences need to be a piece of how leagues have media availabilities presently.

But Frank said the NBA understands the league can’t make Zoom press conferences the primary way media availabilities are done. He said there isn’t a movement to limit access, but the question remains how can it return safely.

What are some solutions?

Roxanna Scott, the managing editor for USA Today Sports, made it clear: Journalists need to be present at sporting events to tell the story correctly.

When it comes to the access at hand, Scott said the best practice is to show up. “I’m in favor of a tiered credentialing system that rewards and recognizes outlets that invest resources in sending reporters to cover teams on a consistent basis,” she said. “With limited newsroom budgets, we’re being asked to make difficult decisions on where we send our reporters. As editors, we want to see that flying in to cover a team provides a level of access in which we’re able to tell compelling and unique stories.”

Although it isn’t the same as full in-person access, there are success stories that should give sports journalists confidence in how access is improving in different areas and sports. 

Even though the Delta Variant is complicating progress, this can serve as a time where editors can think outside of the box.

Ahern proposed an Olympic-style mixed zone model for postgame media sessions. Allowing athletes to come through a specific area where reporters can interview them at a safe distance.

Henry, from the sports executive point of view, said sportswriters and editors need to focus on COVID-19 vaccination rates. As vaccinations increase, that will allow media access to return where sports media wants it to be.

This is especially true in areas of the country with low vaccination rates, where commentary on how helpful and safe the vaccines are is needed more than ever.

Robbins said one thing news outlets can do right away is to frame the need for in-person access differently. He said sports reporters should point out how the lack of in-person access is a detriment to the reader, instead of talking about how it’s a detriment to the reporter’s job.

The best way to do that is to tell the truth, he said. Sports media cannot tell stories at a high level when it’s only given virtual media availabilities.

Photo of Gary Potosky, Sean Henry and Gerry Ahern: Chip Murdock / For APSE