BALTIMORE, MD. - APRIL 29: An aerial view from a drone shows the Camden Yards baseball stadium on April 29, 2020 in Baltimore, Maryland. Baseball season has been put on hold due to states enacting stay-at-home orders and banning all non-essential travel to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
(Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

What will the sports writing landscape look like once we move past the COVID-19 era? ESNY’s Rich Coutinho looks ahead.

The COVID-19 crisis has us at a standstill in life and we all miss sports, anticipating the return of watching a great game on a nightly basis. Sitting in a holding pattern, I have had some time to think about the sports writing industry and how it might look once we resume nightly sports in this country.

Every business is going to have some hard decisions to make about personnel but in our industry, I am afraid some companies might use this time to cut staff further and further knowing nobody would question it because most companies are losing money. But this industry was starting to cut staff well before the pandemic hit us and returning to normalcy in the coming weeks will only catalyze cutting expenses which includes sending outstanding talent to the sidelines in the wake of economic stress.

The newspaper industry has been mismanaged for years because the internet ended up complicating their businesses rather than creating an additional revenue source as it has done for a plethora of other industries. I remember years ago I approached a senior manager at a certain NY newspaper with a proposal to use the internet to make tons of revenue. I told him that it was a great way to make money and at the same time give their writers a platform to enhance their personal brands.

I was crystal clear to him telling him he must develop a website with a clear strategy–charge a subscription rate for people to read their papers online since it could likely diminish newspaper sales on the street–and give their sales management 12 months to develop ad sales revenue. It was the same exact plan I executed at many cable networks and still do today. Build your subscriber base which both brings in revenue (albeit a small amount) and builds a loyal reader base. Then once that evolves, you have numbers to offer advertisers in a myriad of ways.

You can offer sponsorships with certain columnists like for example The Phil Pepe Report Sponsored by Toyota or the Dick Young Report sponsored by McDonald’s. Once you provide a loyal reader base advertisers would flock in to buy sponsorships. You can also bring in Direct Response Advertising where advertisers could use your loyal readers as a basis to buy products like exercise equipment, cooking pans, insurance needs, attorney advice or a plethora of other things. I also told him the current advertiser roster at newspapers was so thin mainly comprised of car dealerships and 900 phone lines and an internet portal would attract major advertisers. I showed him examples on websites I sold sponsorships at including where we cornered the movie trailer marketplace.

He laughed me out of the room and at that moment I knew where the industry was heading. They gave their internet content away for free and the horse was out of the barn. As the years went by, TV networks like ESPN built website portals using the very framework I could not get newspaper senior managers to even believe was a realistic one.

And in recent years great writers have lost their position at our local newspapers through no fault of their own. And yesterday we all lost a great one in Kevin Kernan who embodies what the sports fan wants to read. Kevin is very talented and will land on his feet but to me things like this signal where our industry is going. As time goes on, sports writing staff will not be employees–they will be independent contractors which means a few things. They will be paid as vendors-not employees meaning no benefits of any kind and no taxes withheld. That means writers will need to pay for their own travel & expenses and use them to diminish their tax liability by creating a LLC business.

This happened to me early in my career at ABC Radio Sports and was a huge adjustment in my life as things like vacation time and health insurance became my responsibility. I am sure it saved the company tons of money and gave them all the benefits of an employee but allowed them to cut costs associated with having employees. They merely paid a salary and nothing else.

As more and more of this occurs, we will lose some of the greatest writers in the world because the newspaper industry just never understood the benefit of the internet and we are now seeing the results of that incompetence. Even the writers who still have jobs must understand you own your business and diversify it by doing what people like Andy Martino have done. Like a financial portfolio diversify your assets and understand the Ad Sales business. I did just that in the mid-’90s and the Ad Sales part of my portfolio has ALWAYS kept my head above the ground.

This industry will continue to evolve or “devolve” in the case of the newspaper industry. My advice to all is take your personal brand and get it out in the marketplace not so much for your employers—but for advertisers who want to attach to YOUR name. The day of the “Old Sports Reporter” is gone and just as the newspapers had to make decisions, we have some thinking to do as well. And this COVID Era, as bad as it has been, has hopefully given us time to ponder the future. A future that will look very different than yesterday’s sports reporting world. That world is already deep in our rearview mirror.