Sam Wakefield, Communications Director

With sports just beginning to return and previously furlough-hit sports desks also returning, our Communications Director Samuel Wakefield outlines how Covid-19 has resulted in even closer collaboration between communications professionals and sports journalists.

As the most impactful world news event since World War Two, the Covid-19 pandemic has seen journalists pushed to the fore once again to provide a constant stream of news, updates and revelations.

With a truly global story comes a news cycle that never sleeps and an overwhelming workload for news journalists across the world.

But what of the fate which befell their colleagues on the sports desk? Sports journalists saw a near 100% cancellation of their beat and were forced into a new way of reporting on it.

Live sport is constantly moving forward; onto the next match, the next Test, the next race; but Covid-19 left sport floating in purgatory, frozen in time.

So how did sports media and the sports which they cover respond to their world being turned upside down by the pandemic?

“It’s about re-learning journalism,” a member of the BBC Sport team told me recently.

“Without live sport, what does everyone do?”

Indeed, this has been the case for sports communications professionals as well – how can we continue to support sports journalism and, with that, our brands and rights holders with our industry on hiatus?

Interest in sport stories hasn’t declined, and sports communicators can help fill that gap as we’ve found promoting the ABB Formula E Race at Home Challenge – an online version of the electric racing series.

After eight rounds over two months, we’ve racked up 1400 pieces of coverage – conversation around Formula E that wouldn’t have existed without tackling the lockdown head on and providing a stream of news and interviews to content-hungry journalists.

The ECB’s Head of Communications Danny Reuben has led the way on this, ensuring the cricket press pack were given a steady stream of stories courtesy of hosting two Zoom press conferences each week with England stars.

Reuben received plenty of public praise and goodwill from cricket’s journalists, including a tweet from the Sports Journalists Association – which is never a bad thing to have as a public relations professional. But more importantly, he has ensured that cricket maintained its visibility in newspapers and online.

And this accessibility hasn’t only been limited to the cricketing press with The Athletic’s Richard Sutcliffe interviewing England captain Joe Root about his Sheffield United fandom and potentially reaching a broader audience less familiar with the Yorkshireman.

This may be one of cricket’s first forays into The Athletic, the US sports challenger now home to some of the best football writers in the UK, although it matches the website’s general inclination towards ‘different’ stories.

Ed Malyon, Managing Director of UK Operations at The Athletic, admitted that some leagues were easier to cover than others – the NFL’s online Draft being one of the most impressive examples of a professional league moving something online and making it ‘work’ despite the restrictions.

And moving online has worked – with more than 80 journalists dialling into our opening online press conference for Formula E’s esports competition and the use of online meeting platforms must now be considered when discussing ideas for clients and campaigns even as the pandemic eases.

Brighton and Hove Albion are worthy of highlighting after holding weekly online press conferences of their own during lockdown allowing them to become, as The Associated Press’ Rob Harris tweeted, “the voice of the Premier League.”

With the sensitive subject on when the Premier League should restart, if at all, Brighton not only catered to a hungry media and received a larger share of voice than usual, but also led headlines globally with their corporate position on this issue.

Will this strategic access continue now the the Premier League has returned to our screen? I hope so. Football has always been far too nervous of engaging with media and its time for that to change – the England men’s team had great success with this change of approach at the previous World Cup.

The lack of the traditional match-by-match news also meant it hasn’t just been the likes of challenger brands such as The Athletic dipping their toe into different sports or leagues.

The Bundesliga’s return saw The Sun produce an eight-page pull-out on the German League – something unthinkable a few months ago and the deep analysis of the league more akin to a ‘football hipsters’ blog rather than a traditional red top.

And whether it is chess in The Guardian or UFC given top billing on the Daily Mirror’s sport online homepage – the smaller sports have been given a chance to tell their own stories, especially online.

But what of the sport pages in print? The lockdown had an impact on print sales with football pages one of the major sellers of newspapers so it will be interesting to monitor if there is a resurgence given the Premier League has now returned.

But the return of football has also seen sports desks stretched and we can do our part to help in communications to help. Creating personal relationships, getting the pitch right, speaking to the right journalist and supporting with newsworthy content can help take the pressure off. One-size fits all speculative press releases will hopefully be consigned to the dustbin.

At CSM we have invested a lot of time and energy, quite rightly, to build real relationships with journalists outside of pitching stories which allowed us to reap the benefits during the difficult periods.

While there may be some doom and gloom around the state of the sports journalism industry post Covid-19, another positive that could come from it is a thawing in relationships between sports governance and sports media.

Associated Press’ Harris tweeted his surprise that ‘Premier League chief executive Richard Masters has now spoken to the media publicly twice in a couple of weeks.’ While this may have been a comment made with tongue in cheek, the need to get the correct message out during a hugely confusing time clearly hit home in the corridors of power.

And with sponsors not getting as much exposure on television, interviews with mass media has become even more paramount to help sate demands from clubs for mass media exposure.

At CSM, our work with brands such as Sure and Dove Men+Care has secured some great coverage using athletes such as Chelsea’s Tammy Abraham in national newspapers talking about their lockdown habits and how to move more at home.

What will the sports’ press look like once we have all of sport back up and running? I wouldn’t bet against it bouncing back. After all, with the decline of print sales came the advent of Twitter and the digital subscription sales model.

With the pandemic forcing sport to open its doors to media, and the media to open its eyes to new sports and stories, this could be the opportunity to enter a new stage of creativity and co-operativity between media and sport communicators.

And, as a big believer in collaboration which delivers both for the media as well as the client, I hope this will be a moment to look back and see the unparalleled difficulty of the pandemic as a positive learning experience for journalists, communications professionals and for brands. At times like this, we should remind ourselves that we’re all in it together.