Normally, Steven Sipple’s spent fall Saturdays fighting through throngs of avid fans following a pregame radio show in downtown Lincoln.
Normally, crowds shouting, “Go Big Red!” dominated the half-mile walk to Memorial Stadium and, normally, following a short visit to the field to watch warm ups, Sipple settled into his press box seat to cover Nebraska football.
But 2020 was everything but normal.
“It was an incredible difference,” Sipple said. “You just walk to these games, and there are no fans around … It was sort of eerie.”
Sipple spent the last 20 years covering Nebraska athletics for the Lincoln Journal Star newspaper. In 2021, his columns draw tens of thousands of daily page views for the newspaper.
In 2020, he, along with every sports writer across the country, found himself with an interesting challenge: how to write interesting stories when everyone has the same information.
As the COVID-19 pandemic removed in-person access to players, coaches and practices, members of the Nebraska press corps pioneered new methods to differentiate their coverage, worked with the fluidity of the situation and manifested enthusiasm for their content.
Sipple was not the only one with a challenge. In the 24/7 news cycle, a shifting landscape forced media personnel to adapt along with protocols and find ways to be resilient.
Nicole Griffith comes to Lincoln by way of the University of South Dakota. Since taking a reporting position with 10/11 News in 2019, the news reporter said her days consist of covering Huskers and Nebraska high school sports. With little live sports at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Griffith led the charge for sports coverage in one of the most fanatical sports markets.
Sipple and Griffith said crafting content, which is markedly their own, is the best way to stand out as a sports reporter and journalist. The best way to do so before COVID-19 was through individual side conversations with athletes and coaches, but in 2020, university-controlled Zoom press conferences shut the door on private conversations.
For Sipple, strong connections with individuals inside Nebraska’s athletic department still allowed him some private information but not as much.
“We cannot go to any practices and talk to guys,” Sipple said. “There are no individual interviews with players. It is always a group. There are no individual interviews with coaches on Zoom, so the individual part has been taken out.”
This lack of individual interviews, Sipple said, affected the quality of those interviews. However, he called upon his years of experience to churn out interesting stories.
“I think there is something that is lost without personal contact,” he said. “When you sit down with a coach, there is a lot of body language that you can see, and you get to know them. You get a much, much better feel for them as individuals.”
Griffith agreed that talking to the players in person and having to do Zoom interviews with the rest of the media eliminated “special moments.”
As a newer reporter to Lincoln, Griffith reviewed the video captured by her cameras on-location, listening to all the sound and looking for things that may have gone unnoticed during the interviews or events. She followed players on social media and leveraged connections to former players to create unique newscasts and engage a hungry audience. Initially, she said 10/11 viewers were concerned about a lack of coverage without sports.
But Griffith focused on feature stories of the Nebraska rifle team and a Concordia women’s basketball player with a powerful message. She focused on feature stories of oft-forgotten sections of sports that normally she does not have the time to cover.
As the COVID-19 pandemic limited exposure for the media, organizations, sports leagues and teams also enacted different restrictions and protocols to ensure everyone’s safety. This meant going from the collegiate level with heavy attendance restrictions and mask mandates to Class D high schools in communities without restrictions.
On the local sports beat during the pandemic, Griffith said it was hard knowing the rules for every game and each location’s point of contact for different protocols.
“Small towns are going to have more fans there because they have less restrictions,” Griffith said. “You just kind of tread with caution.”
While covering Nebraska athletics, Sipple recognized inconsistency from school to school. Some universities, he said, used Plexiglas partitions in the press boxes. Others allowed parents of opposing players in addition to its own players’ parents. At Rutgers, the university left the windows of the press box open even though temperatures dipped below freezing by kickoff. For Nebraska football’s game at Ohio State, public address announcers, who introduce the players, call out yardage for each play and serve to excite the crowd, were absent, which Sipple said made it difficult, at times, to follow the action on the gridiron.
On the radio side, local radio host Jake Sorensen of 93.7 The Ticket said his live, on-location broadcasts continued to be a successful venture for the station amid the pandemic.
“We have not done as many remotes as we have in years past,” Sorensen said. “But I would say that from our experience, it was pretty full — at least to what the restrictions at that point indicated it could be. I do not think it really hurt us.”
However, even success came with struggles. Sorensen said they had to find ways to get creative with their content.
“You did not have as many sides of a story to talk about,” he said. “Before, there would be guys at the podium and there would be guys who came out into the hallway to talk. That access does not exist anymore.”
For the radio host, the challenges were not solely content-based, either. Ten years ago, when Sorensen began working at The Ticket, he started on-air and later took on the sole responsibility of the station’s sales in addition to his on-air role. However, it was not those early years, Sorensen said, when he faced the biggest challenge of his professional career.
“2020 was the most challenging, emotional and working year of my life by far,” Sorensen said. “At 29 years old, I have been in this job for 10 years. You would think the early years would be the hard ones, and they were, but those years do not even stack up to 2020.”
UNLimited Sports sampled fans through a random, anonymous consumer survey about changes in local sports coverage since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Around one-third of respondents said they noticed a change.
“It’s about the same,” one respondent wrote. “Sports writers had less content due to there being no spring ball, but I didn’t notice.”
“I think our state does a good job covering sports,” another respondent said. “We do not have a lot going on, so I don’t mind seeing more about our local teams. Especially for our small communities, I think there’s a lot of appreciation for covering high school athletics the way we do.”
On the opposite side, those who noticed a change said they recognized more uniformity in coverage and a lack of “insider access.”
“It’s not their fault,” one respondent said, “but there was a definite shift from the day-to-day reporting to incorporating more stories that could be plucked out of the archives — features you could run anytime.”
Another respondent noted more sports news coming from fan accounts on Twitter and posts on specific subreddits.
“All traditional media coverage became linked with the pandemic,” the respondent said.
Over 80 percent said the change in sports coverage during COVID-19 was not an improvement.