How will we get our sports news now?
Sports journalist Jim Kayes was a weekend host for the canned Radio Sport channel - and reckons its demise and cuts to sports reporting nationally can in part be put down to snobbery and neglect.
It was never my plan to cover sport but a busted knee saw it happen.
Through university and then during journalism school it was Liam Jeory I’d admired, the foreign correspondent who reported for TVNZ from hot spots around the world.
With a well-thumbed copy of P.J. O’Rourke’s Holidays in Hell beside my bed, it was the dust of foreign fields I wanted to traipse, not muddy sidelines.
After four years as a general reporter I followed my girlfriend, now my wife, overseas to England, busted my knee playing rugby and, when Tim Pankhurst offered me the role of deputy sports editor at the Waikato Times, it was hard, with crutches in hand and a heavy dose of self-pity weighing me down, to say no.
Saying yes was the best thing I ever did.
During 25 years covering sport, however, it’s been evident on an almost daily basis that snobbery reigns in every newsroom.
Sports reporters aren’t seen as the real deal. We aren’t serious and don’t ask “the hard questions”.
It’s ridiculous. A good journo is a good journo and there are plenty of news journos who couldn’t write the news, colour, features and opinion pieces expected of a sports reporter - daily.
Just as silly is the disdain the bosses have for sport until they need it.
Sport is relegated to the back pages and to the end of a TV bulletin, easily chopped when time and space are tight.
On TV, sport is squeezed in ahead of the weather, which is ironic as both are often more talked about than the depressing stuff that takes precedence.
When New Zealand succeeds in sport, the news editors come calling - taking the best angles and interviews for their part of the bulletin or paper.
Sports reporters have been increasingly tied to their desks (trawling through social media feeds it seems). Sure, editors and accountants can argue that good sports journalism is expensive to produce - it costs a lot of money to send someone overseas to cover the All Blacks - and the financial return through advertising is low compared to other sections of the paper and verticals on the website.
But most advertising departments seem hopelessly equipped to sell to a sports audience.
And the fact is, Kiwis love sport.
As popular as Jacinda Ardern is right now, I doubt the Prime Minister would attract 50,000 to Eden Park as the All Blacks do.
If Parliament TV was pay-to-view like a Joseph Parker or Israel Adesanya fight, no one would fork out $50 to watch.
Yet our media bosses hold sport in such low regard. Fairfax has no sports reporters outside the main cities, Mediaworks cut its weekend sports shows on Radio Live at the end of 2018 and Radio Sport has just been taken off air.
Sadly, there are going to be significant cuts to the New Zealand Herald’s sports department too, leaving what was once one of the best newsrooms in the country so bare that office cricket will be impossible to play.
If we are a country of sports lovers then someone needs to tell the bosses at our media companies.Or perhaps we need to tell the public, because, ultimately, media bosses slash and burn by numbers and though Radio Sport may have done better if it had a nationwide FM frequency, it’s hard to sustain a station when there is no live sport, advertisers are leaving and no one seems to be listening.
I hosted The Weekender on Radio Sport last weekend for the final time.
On Saturday, my interviews included NZOC boss Kereyn Smith, former All Blacks captain Kieran Read, Olympians Tom Walsh and Gemma McCaw and cricketer-turned-commentator Ian Smith.
On Sunday I chatted with golfer Ryan Fox, cricketer Jimmy Neesham, boxer Joseph Parker, Black Ferns captain Kendra Cocksedge and All Blacks great Sir John Kirwan.
On any weekend, I’d be delighted with that. On a weekend when there was no live sport I was extremely proud. During those six hours of radio I got one call from the public. One call. (And that bloke called to give me a website where people in lockdown can play golf at home.)
It’s tempting to blame the bosses for the decline of sports departments but Kiwi apathy has been slowly killing us for a long time.
Part of that is an industry problem.
Sports reporters are - predominantly - middle aged white men who focus on rugby and cricket, with a bit of league and netball grudgingly thrown in. When you add in the increasing influence of analytics in the newsroom, the focus on the big two sports has only been exacerbated. Sports reporters have been actively discouraged from covering minor sports with low readership pickup.
I like to think my shows have been reasonably diverse but when the callers did ring it was to argue about rugby or cricket: men’s rugby and cricket.
So, what now for the future of sports broadcasting?
Few expect Radio Sport to return. Trackside Radio could fill the gap but the TAB has other issues to deal with first.
The big one is Sky Sport. If Sky falls then free-to-air companies like TVNZ may step in to cover some of the big sports - and they may be asked to as a way to offload some of Sky’s costs and keep the company afloat.
But if Sky did fail then a lot of sports will suffer in the process as Sky (like the TAB) plays sugar daddy to many sports.
Reports on Sky’s condition vary but no one is hiding from the fact these are extremely tough times for the broadcaster. It may return to full health as it was before, it may change to become more a producer of content and less of a broadcaster, or it could be bought out - a tasty option for some, given Sky’s share price.
Regardless, many sports, especially the big ones, will bolster their media departments when normality returns and go to their fans directly. Social media allows that.
Lots of minor sports already broadcast via Facebook and with 4.6 million followers on that platform seems, it an easy one for the All Blacks to strut their stuff on too.
Players are already ignoring mainstream media and going directly to their fans, and many of the top athletes have a tally of followers in excess of all of New Zealand’s media combined.
Adensanya has 2.4 million followers on Instagram. Why would he stoop to talking to the New Zealand media when he can get his message out unfiltered on Instagram? Though, to be fair to the man, he does frequently talk to the MSM.
Sonny Bill Williams has 896,000 followers on Twitter and 973,000 on Instagram; Beauden Barrett has 100,600 and 560,000; and Ardie Savea 38,000 and 273,000.
They no longer need me or any other sports journalist to help them say it.
Radio Sport’s demise has been blamed on Covid-19 but that’s a bit too convenient. The earlier decision to low-ball New Zealand Cricket for that sport's commentary rights was a stark indicator that the station was already wobbling.
All the virus did was give NZME an excuse to swing the axe.
They won’t be the last big media company to do so.
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