Vicki Michaelis joined the Grady College faculty in 2012 after working 21 years as a sports journalist. She is pictured above during a women in leadership panel in March 2019. (Photo: Sarah E. Freeman)

What happens when sports are canceled?

Editor’s note: this feature originally appeared on the UGA Today website.

Vicki Michaelis, John Huland Carmical Chair in Sports Journalism & Society in Grady College, spent more than 20 years as a sports journalist, the last 12 as the lead Olympics reporter for USA Today.

Since 2012 she has taught at the University of Georgia and she leads Grady’s innovative sports media certificate program. With sporting events all over the world shut down because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the implications stretch far beyond the playing fields. Without sports an essential part of our culture has been shut down. And the economic impact of the multibillion-dollar industry is only now just being felt.

We spoke with her about how sports leagues led the way in responding to the virus; what the shutdown means to sports leagues, broadcasters, athletes and fans; what sports might be like when they come back; and much more.

It’s hard to overstate the importance of all these sporting events being canceled, isn’t it?

If you look back in history, sporting events have been canceled. And the events that precipitated that, those events are life-changing, even world-changing things, whether it’s war or natural disasters or other tragedies. But in those times, you usually didn’t see all sports canceled. You can go back to World War II and President Franklin Delano Roosevelt asked baseball to keep playing.

So, when you look at all sports – literally every single sporting event canceled—I think you see the level we’ve risen to. It’s unprecedented.

A good argument could be made that sports led the way to the awakening to how serious this was. On March 11, Rudy Gobert of the Utah Jazz was diagnosed with COVID-19 and the NBA postponed its season, the NHL followed and all sports seemed to fall like dominoes.

That’s a great reading. It didn’t seem real until we knew someone who had it. It humanized it in a way that not even Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson could. They were in Australia. But here Gobert was literally on the court ready to play a game for our entertainment. The NBA, by doing what it did, woke everyone up to the importance of thinking about this differently and approaching it differently.

What is the impact of the calendar being wiped out—from a media standpoint?

The economic impact is going to be deep and broad, no question. You are looking at major broadcasters who won’t be making any money on advertising. How will they pay their bills? And they make a lot of money off events like the Masters and March Madness. Readership is drawn to their websites because of the coverage of these events, so they are losing audience.

What might conversations be like in those board rooms as executives try to figure out what to do next?

I assume that they are approaching things with cautious optimism. Some of these things you just aren’t going to get back. The Final Four you’re not going to get back. The Kentucky Derby will probably have to go up against college football. Good luck with that.

What this is going to make people realize, if they don’t already know, is how we use sports to come together. Live sports is one of the last remaining places where you can watch something in real time and have the same experience as another person in another place. As human beings, we need that common experience. When sports come back, I expect the audience will be more fervent and more loyal than ever.

Sports history is as old as history itself. The Olympics, which were postponed, have been canceled before. The 1964 Tokyo Olympics was moved from 1940 because of the Second World War, for example.

Exactly. Think about how many stories you can do around that. My students are working on some new projects. There is a new U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Museum opening this year. We already were working with the people who produce the museum’s digital site. We had decided to do something about the 1980 U.S. Summer Olympics team, which did not compete because of the boycott.

We have two things we tell our students that make a story: Why now? And why should we care?

Our “why now” and “why should we care” of the 1980 project been boosted in an incredible way. An exploration of what the 1980 coaches and athletes experienced can help us understand what some of these current Olympic and Paralympic athletes and coaches might be going through.

How are you addressing some of these issues as UGA classes return online?

The one thing we are going to emphasize to the students—and we do this throughout the sports media certificate program—is that 85 percent of sports stories happen off the field. We obviously teach them how to cover events and finish stories on deadline, but we also teach them how to find stories away from that. This is a teachable moment. “Remember what we’ve told you. Let’s start brainstorming stories that are there to be told.”

When you look through the rosters of the UGA spring sports, I guarantee you that every person on those rosters has a great story to tell: what they were hoping for this season, how their lives have been affected, what their training looks like, what their outlook looks like.

They all have compelling stories and that’s what we are here to do. Those kinds of stories can help people relate to these athletes and put it in perspective—the challenges they may be going through in their lives. That’s why we love sports. That inspires us.

Once all this is over, could sports be one of the things that brings us back to normal?

I think it’s served that role in the past. When you think about post-9/11, some of the first baseball games that were held, especially in New York, did that. Take that time and multiply it by 100.

Date: April 2, 2020
Author:  Eric Rangus (MA '94),  eric.rangus@uga.edu