Saturday afternoons at talkSport, the UK’s biggest commercial sports radio station, have a time-worn rhythm of news and previews, all geared towards that afternoon’s football. But last weekend was different.
Instead of team news and transfer rumours, the station’s millions of listeners were treated to an injection of chaotic punk music, courtesy of former England defender Stuart Pearce. The previous day, the Premier League and Football League suspended the football season until at least April 3 in response to the coronavirus pandemic.
For talkSport, which derives the majority of its content from phone-ins, interviews and live commentaries all geared around the sporting action, it presented a dilemma: how can you run a sports media channel when there’s no sport?
“It’s a completely unique set of circumstances,” says Sam Ellard, who works as a producer on talkSport 2. “I remember coming in on Monday morning, and you sit at your desk and you’re like… OK, no football to look back on, and nothing to look ahead to.”
There is still some sports news of course, but as more and more events opt for postponement or cancellation that looks set to dry up – once the fate of the football season has been settled, there will be little room for speculation on that front. “Normally when there’s no football we can do hours on the transfer window,” says Georgie Bingham, who presents Weekend Sports Breakfast on Saturdays and Sundays. But with no clear indication of when domestic seasons across the world will be completed, it’s unclear when or if players will be able to move clubs, let alone who might be going where. “That’s the weirdest thing,” she says.
To fill the space, producers are getting creative. Ellard starts each day flicking through the papers, looking for things that might be able to be turned into fun features or talking points – regardless of whether they’re related to sport or not. A story in the Daily Mail about the cricket commentator David Lloyd being stuck self-isolating on his birthday led to a lively phone-in about the worst birthdays people have ever had. “Everything we try and do is about having fun,” says Ellard. “In times like this, a lot of people are off work, and if you’re coming to talkSport it’s about fun.” Earlier this week, the station held a detailed discussion about the best advice for playing the video game Football Manager – news you can use for the millions of us stuck in our homes for the foreseeable future.
The same pattern is repeating itself across sports media channels. On BT Sport, normally packed with Premier League football and Premiership rugby games, the schedule is packed with reruns of competitive eating tournaments and footage from the 2019 Classic Tetris World Championships.
On Sky Sports News, out of their depth sports reporters are discussing concepts like herd immunity in the speculative tones normally reserved for transfer deadline day – ’Coronavirus has been spotted outside Chelsea’s training ground!’ On Tuesday night, instead of live action from the Champions League, the world’s premier club football competition, I found myself watching a decade old replay of Blackpool against Cardiff (not bad, a 3-2 thriller).
Nostalgia has been a useful crutch. The Athletic, the subscription only sports website that’s shaken up the English football media over the last nine months, has launched a series of articles called ‘Rebooted,’ which are revisiting the 1998/99 football season and reporting and writing about it as if it were happening right now. “I feel very strongly that people come to apps like ours to escape the news, and our job is to try and make them smile and forget about their troubles for a bit,” says Alex Kay-Jelski, editor in chief of The Athletic’s UK edition. “You can’t just read about the coronavirus all day, because you’ll feel miserable.”
The football shutdown, which has now been extended until the end of April, has given writers the chance to focus on some long-term projects that were pushed to one side in the weekly grind of press conferences and match reports. “You want to focus on using that time differently to produce some special pieces,” says Kay-Jelski. The same is true at talkSport, where Bingham and her producer sat down to come up with a long list of issues that transcend the current season: how to fix FIFA, how to fix UEFA and so on.
On the radio, there will be a greater reliance on conducting interviews over the phone instead of bringing guests into the studio, which can make building up the rapport required for talk radio more challenging. At the moment, the presenters are still going into the studio – while maintaining a safe distance from any other employees – but they should be able to broadcast from home if required. There is one silver lining that’s making producer’s lives slightly easier, as Bingham points out. “Everyone is in isolation so everyone’s bored, so I don’t think getting guests will be a problem,” she says.
For the broadcasters, who rely on expensive subscriptions to fund their gargantuan television rights deals, there could be bigger problems on the horizon. Both Sky Sports and BT Sport are allowing customers to temporarily pause their subscription if they don’t want to pay while there’s no live sport being shown.
At the time of writing, it looks likely that the clubs will find a way to finish the domestic season – the postponement of Euro 2021 makes room for that to happen. But those subscriptions are what fund much of football’s excess – the gargantuan player wages, the big money signings – particularly in the absence of ticket money from fans attending games. If the shutdown continues beyond the summer, sport could face an even greater crisis.
Amit Katwala is WIRED’s culture editor. He tweets from @amitkatwala
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