Athletes Put Pressure on Sport Reporters

Although the relationship between athletes and the media in Toronto can seem like oil and water, it is actually a unique symbiosis.

By Tyler Hehn

This year’s success of Toronto’s professional sports teams has brought attention to the city and has added pressure to the sports reporters covering the city’s teams.

Jason Davidson, a sports editor for TSN SportsCentre, says the attention on the Leafs has grown exponentially with their recent success.

“Here in Toronto it’s crazy! Just the reaction of the Leafs clinching a playoff spot it’s obviously a pretty big deal,” Davidson says.

This attention ignited a hopefulness in fans that have grown accustomed to the futility of being Toronto supporters. Increased attention is increased demand for coverage. Increased coverage means a bigger workload on relative sports media. Bigger workload means journalists need to have an immense and detailed skillset to survive, let alone breakthrough this dense market.

The Leafs, Jays and Raptors are only three teams of a ‘big five’ in Toronto. The Argonauts and TFC (Toronto Football Club) are the other two in the city’s sport media conversation.

This list can also be expanded to include the National Lacrosse League, Canadian Women’s Hockey League, American Hockey League and university/college teams.

Malcolm Kelly, a program coordinator of the sport journalism program at Centennial College, says that the media market in this city is dense, and unlike anywhere else in the country.

“It means they have to be able to write in five different ways; print, digital, radio, television and social media. It means they have to be able to shoot their own video and cut it with social media. They have to be able to tell their own stories on video and audio. They have to be able to host their own programs, both television and radio. They have to be able to do their own standups,” Kelly says “These are all skills that are probably – because of Toronto and what the employers expect from their young employees.”

This city is sculpting a more efficient media. Perfect efficiency is what every organization strives for, sport or otherwise. Perfect efficiency in the media however means smaller numbers of people doing more. For the people aspiring to break into the market in Toronto, this can make things more difficult.

Davidson says it was a wakeup call when CBC had to downsize and cut budgets because he was let go.

“For me that was the first real taste of me being directly affected by the way media can work. It’s definitely a difficult business to break into,” Davidson says.

Fewer media members means that the same people are interacting with the athletes day in and day out. When the NHL was only six teams strong, a similar phenomenon was happening and rivalries were forged.  In the same way a few members of the media are always covering the same players, eventually frustrations erupt and athletes will be unhappy with reporters every now and then if they are around each other enough.

Davidson says it’s not rare for players to get combative with the media.

“I wouldn’t want to be a player on a Toronto sports team, I’ll put it that way,” he chuckled. “You can get lit up pretty hard whether it’s in print or broadcast.”

Kelly hints at the media prodding the athletes for attention, creating an even more antagonistic dynamic.

“I don’t think, for example if you were comparing Toronto to New York, I don’t think there is the need to purposely say something to get people riled up, or to get some attention in such a huge media market like New York,” Kelly says.

This ‘riling up’ is evident most recently with Phil Kessel of the Toronto Maple Leafs. Twice he has addressed the media in how they portray the hockey team. Once about his captain being treated unfairly, and another when he was asked about being ‘uncoachable’. In this particular case, the Leafs were not doing very well and the media were pointing fingers in every direction. Up until the player said something, nobody was being held accountable.

Davidson says it went as far as the media making examples of players. Kessel and the team captain at the time Dion Phaneuf would stick up for each other often, and for that were vilified, and are no longer with the team.

“[Kessel] was pretty combative with the media at times, wasn’t he?” Davidson says “he was pretty standoffish, and honestly I felt bad for the guy.”

Davidson also adds that sometimes things are taken out of context. After all, nobody is perfect, and a communication breakdown can heat up the hotseat more than it is meant to at times.

Kelly says proper accountability is a good solution to calming a situation before it spins out of control, like in Kessel’s case.

“I think (the media is fair), and part of the reason for that is that when you’re in a large city like this, if you weren’t doing it [fairly] you’d hear back from your fellow journalists.” Kelly says,“unlike when I started, long before there was internet or social media, I think that the fans themselves would keep on top of you and make sure that you don’t sway too far into fandom or sway too far into just being mean for being mean’s sake, which can happen.”

Reporters and columnists are a tight-knit group of professionals, and Kelly says that everybody knows everybody. He described the Toronto sports media professionals with the game, six degrees of Kevin Bacon.

“I think honestly that everybody in sports journalism in Canada is no more than two degrees of separation away from everyone else. If you underperform in this market, people will hear about it, so it can follow you for a little while until you can over-perform in this market.”

Although Kelly is referring to a reporter underperforming, it was something Toronto sports media and fans were undecided on with Kessel. He scored 394 points in 446 games with the Leafs, but was also a minus 80. He was an enigma for almost his entire tenure with the organization, and it was difficult to assess whether or not this near-point-a-game player was helping or hindering the team. Because of this issue, many in Toronto scrambled to uncover ways to end this dilemma.

If only there was a way to simultaneously become more objective and carve a path into the media market – Enter advanced statistics.

Advanced statistics are a way to cut through the noise of opinion. It is also an efficient way to break into the Toronto sport reporting market, especially considering how prevalent opinions are in sport coverage. Dominik Luszczyszyn, a writer with The Hockey News, The Athletic and The Leafs Nation, is among the leaders of this advanced stats movement.

“A couple years ago it was a very niche subject, I think nowadays if you’re not paying attention at all [to advanced stats] then you are being left behind,” says Luszczyszyn. “There are still some dinosaurs out there, but the people writing about hockey who want to know about the game, who want to be good at their job, to be experts in their field, they are paying attention to it a lot more.”

He is a numbers guy, and applied his love of numbers to his favourite sport. He combined different stats such as plus/minus, goals etc… into a formula, revealing a super-stat, more accurately representing teams and players. Simple stat lines can be deceiving, so he took to looking deeper. The question of a team or a player underperforming becomes a lot easier to answer.

“You’ll hear it in the past about, plus/minus, hits, blocks like these things are supposed to be indicative of how good a player is and you do some research about these things and you realize that a good plus/minus means that you’re on a good team; hits mean you don’t have the puck and the same thing with lots of blocked shots,” Luszczyszyn says.

The sports market in this area can seem daunting, but it is just new, and it is evolving just as everything does. So while it may seem like a media circus for athletes, fans and everybody, this assumption is mostly correct and also a good thing.

It means we are passionate about our sports. It means we like to do a good job and see our teams do a good job. As the Blue Jays look to hit homeruns, the Raptors look to drain to score goals, Toronto sports media members look to document that success in every form possible, as accurately as possible.

Don’t mistake the confrontation as a lack of passion, we would be better to use it as motivation.

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