What I’ve learned: A year on the beat
Where to begin…. I suppose you begin at the beginning. The first thing I want people to know is that there is very little glamour to covering a professional team. In fact, aside from the 3hrs or so the players play in front of 20,000 fans, there is little glamour to being a professional athlete. A live sporting event is essentially the culmination of hundreds of people working their tails off to make something look fun and easy. Just because something looks fun, doesn’t make it so. Everyone is working really hard to make it look easy. “The Media” serves a valuable purpose of adding context and continued interest in the team between game days. It is our job to make the game, sport, coaches and players seem compelling. Looking good is secondary to being compelling. This is a distinction that many do not understand.
A typical day on the beat
Game time is 7:30, or 7 if you are lucky. The 8pm national game starts are hated by almost everyone because it means getting home after 1am. We will get to the national games later.
Arrive around 5pm. The media entrance is a nondescript door where all employees enter the building. We pass through security similar to any arena employee and collect our credential at the window. The excellent communications staff is there to greet you with a smile as they search the pile of badges for yours. Early in the season they might need to get to know your name, but quickly employees start to greet you by name and make you feel welcome. From there, you walk into the underground tunnels that surround the arena and follow it to the left to the media room.
The media room in Wells Fargo is fairly large and it also serves as employee cafeteria. Food is served along with snacks and there is a soda machine for soft drinks. The perimeter of the room is lined with counters outfitted with power and chairs for reporters to set up laptops and wifi is available for connecting back to whatever system we typically use. In 2019, virtually all writers are using some variation of WordPress to write, edit and publish their stories. You may notice some trends, or clusters of writers that tend to sit in the same areas most days. These are typically exactly the names you’d think from the newspapers and websites you are familiar with. The group is smaller than you might think.
A team will provide a PR staff to cater to the needs of and provide guardrails to media members. They serve an important purpose of ensuring that reporters get appropriate access needed to do their jobs while limiting the risk of either having mischaracterizations or loss of competitive advantage. Risk mitigation is a crucial part of the job of a communications team and some teams do it better than others. In Philadelphia, the media has a wide array of experience levels and angles. The PR term does a good job of making sure that all needs, but not all wants, are met.
2 hours before tip – floor access
The team has private access to the arena floor for organized shootaround until 2hrs before tip-off. At that time the curtains open and media is permitted to walk out onto the floor and observe anyone who is shooting individually. Each player tends to have their own routine and preferred time to work. Some work right after shootaround with coaches, others will go out 60 minutes or so before the game.
Each media member has their own routine also, during this brief window. Most will sit down on the Sixers side of the court and talk to each other while watching the early players warm up. I tend to float, get a first look at the opponents and see who might be dangerous. This is less about looking at how a player is playing and just sort of getting your mind focused on the visiting team and starting the process of thinking about matchups.
105 minutes before tip – Brett Brown press conference
One hour 45 minutes before the game, Brett Brown is scheduled to address the media. This happens before every game and typically lasts between 5 and 15 minutes. The Coach will talk and try to address each reporter’s question in a way that gives a quote for their story and also doesn’t reveal too much. It’s a tricky balance and it’s something that is hard to do for 41 home games.
90mins before tip – Visiting Coach scrum
The visiting coach will speak outside of the locker room in the hallway 90 minutes before tip off usually. The scrum lasts anywhere from 30 seconds to 5 minutes or so. The setup is less formal and the questions are less in depth. Usually the visiting coach is saying nice things about the Sixers players and making a couple of points they probably make all the time. Size of this scrum varies wildly depending on if the team has a large traveling media contingent.
75 minutes before tip – locker room access
This is the most misunderstood, awkward and unproductive use of time perhaps. The league mandates “availability” for media in locker rooms for 30 minutes and it’s predictability and structure means that players can easily avoid it. If a player needs to see a trainer, get treatment, ankle tape, anything, they can avoid this time period pretty easily. And let’s face it, these are professional athletes preparing to compete at the very highest level. Their focus is on the game ahead, their assignments and their challenges. It is a stressful time for them. For media, its mostly lingering, perhaps getting a quote or two from a role player or maybe at best (worst) having a disgruntled player come with something to complain about.
For example, Furkan Korkmaz was out of the rotation and pretty clearly out of the teams plans by November last season and he expressed dissatisfaction to reporters. Some reporters ran with the story and others didn’t. I do wish that players were made available under less stressful conditions, but the sheer number of reporters probably dictate these kinds of “availabilities” to optimize their time.
No still photography is allowed inside the locker room, which is good. Bottom line, it can be uncomfortable for both players and reporters (who aren’t sociopaths) alike.
45mins before tip – free time
This is generally when players are finished shooting around and there is nothing left to see on the arena floor. Media will go back to the media room and grab a bite to eat, send some Tweets, talk to each other and maybe write some pre-game notes. This is kind of the dead period but also the best time to socialize and get organized prior to game time.
10mins before tip – National Anthem / Pre-game introductions
Perhaps my favorite part of the night. The crowd has arrived, the lights are down and hopefully Ron Brooks is singing the national anthem. All of the Anthem singers are typically talented and hopefully don’t have any Kate Smith-style history. Ron Brooks remains an inspiration and it never gets old.
During the game, each media member has their own process during a game. It usually involves a laptop, at least one phone, multiple tabs with stats, Twitter, email, etc. There are two primary media areas: one behind the basket and another up at the top of the arena used for hockey press. The lower media section is more prestigious and gives more of the feel of the game but is harder to see the scheme and strategy.
Upper media, or the balcony, gives a top down overview of the spacing and tactics. I think there is value in getting a mixture of both over a season. Biggest downside of balcony is the time it takes to get back downstairs for halftime snacks. Frank, the elevator operator, is a gem and worth the trip upstairs. He has a live feed of the game in the elevator and keeps an eye on the game at all times.
After the Game
As soon as the game ends, the media will gather in the press conference room. Brett Brown typically comes in anywhere from 10-15 minutes to meet the media and answer questions. As soon as he is finished the locker room is opened but also the star players are brought up to the press conference room to answer questions. There is a choice that press must make, get the star “answers” or go in the locker room and try to get a more detailed and more meaningful conversation with a role player. The decision often comes down to how the game went.
After a bad loss, probably best to stick to the stars. After a good win where the ball was shared and everyone contributed? The role players are more likely to open up and have interesting things to say.
60 minutes after the game
The interviews are over, the audio/video is captured. Depending on the outlet, a media member is now doing some combination of uploading, transcribing, writing and submitting to an editor. This process can take from 15 minutes to 2 hours, depending on how notable the game and quotes are. Press are working their hardest at this point, listening back to the audio they captured to find quotes that best illustrate the key takeaways from the game. The best writers will be able to weave the details of the night into the bigger picture of the season. Sometimes there isn’t much to really say about a game, sometimes there are events that illustrate much broader issues or personal stories.
This is the art, this is the science, this is the Beat.