A whole new world – even in the pressbox

Pandemic changes the way media goes about its job

By Al Lesar

Sitting in a big-time college football pressbox during a pandemic is a lot like sitting in a big-time college football pressbox any other time.
Except there were a lot fewer media types. And no hotdogs. And no pressbox announcer. And no in-person interviews, all Zoom. And that lousy mask.

Tennessee mascot Smokey reminds the media to wear a mask.

Over the course of three decades, I became comfortable with transitioning my workspace to pressboxes in many different parts of the country. No big deal, the game’s the same – only the buffet changes.

Three years ago, I hopped off that merry-go-‘round. It was time. I’d had enough of deadline-crunching challenges every week (by the way, in 38 years I never missed a deadline – not many journalists can say that).

When I had to have an opinion on a game that wasn’t finished, so that I could send my story as soon as the game clock hit 0:00, there could be some pressure involved.

I remember at least three or four really close games in which I had the first five or six paragraphs of my story written three different ways so that when the outcome was finally decided, I could use the one that fit the circumstances the best and pray that I remembered to delete the other two possibilities. I didn’t want to make a goof like that and pray that an attentive but overworked editor would save my keister.

Anyway, through the last three autumns of retirement, I discovered that life goes on outside the football stadium. Now, I can watch a very competitive game that started at 8 p.m. on television and have a tinge of empathy for the poor schlubs who have to get that story in at the buzzer.

Then an opportunity came along to augment some coverage with the University of Tennessee’s home football and basketball games. I’m always looking to grow, so I thought this would be interesting.

A couple weeks ago was my first visit to a pressbox since a bad Notre Dame team lost to Southern Cal by 18 at the Coliseum, in a really scary part of Los Angeles.

I was there in L.A. when an earthquake a few weeks earlier made the pressbox structurally unsound, so we had to sit in the stands on a really cold night I was there when police had to escort writers to their cars well after the crowd had cleared to ensure safety. I was there late one night when the gas station we parked at earlier in the day was locked and chained when we finally returned. Shockingly, a guy came out of nowhere, unlocked the gate and even washed the dew off our windshield. He earned a $20 tip.

Anyway, the Vols’ game against Missouri was my next first challenge a couple weeks ago. Noon start. Beautiful day. Passed the pre-entry health screening with a 96.9-degree temperature check (no wonder I was chilly).

The pandemic forced more than 80,000 tickets to go unsold. With just 21,000-plus attending, traffic was hardly a concern. Tailgates weren’t encouraged.

Most local news outlets – television, radio, newspapers and whoever – normally would be allotted multiple credentials for the pressbox. This season, it’s one per entity in most cases. The News Sentinel was allowed two seats.

With the checkerboard in the background, the media gets game-ready.

Media members – covering the Vols as well as Mizzou – were scattered throughout the large space. The six-foot social distance was readily enforced.

I can hear readers moaning that media folk are spoiled with the hotdogs or other free food available to them.

The Tennessee media was relying on the legendary snack food Moon Pie for sustenance.

Once the writing process has begun, having the pressbox announcer detail the breakdown of every play in the second half – players involved, down, distance, result – is necessary to keep up with the game by multi-tasking.

Fortunately for me, UT had a blowout win. All that needed to be plugged in as the final seconds ticked away were a few cumulative stats and the final score.

Try doing that – as well as filing two more versions of the same story with new quotes and a unique approach – while having glasses fog up at least a couple times every minute.

By the second revision, two hours after the game ended as the hard-core media guys were the only ones left hammering out that one last story, the mask was ripped from my ears and laid next to my computer.
Never was an issue before. Hope it won’t be for long.
It’s a whole new world – even in a pressbox.

Al Lesar, a longtime FWAA member, retired from the South Bend Tribune in 2017, after more than 32 years there. He’s now a freelance writer in the Knoxville area.