When is it okay to start talking about the financial cost of a game not played? Steven Watkins, a reporter for the Cincinnati Business Courier, was reporting on the Bengals/Bills game live when Damar Hamlin was struck in the chest and halted the NFL. Watkins shares with Janaé Bradford how he reacted as a journalist who covers the business of sports at a local business journal.
Watkins has decades of experience covering the business side of sports and shares tips with aspiring sports journalists on how they can fill a much-needed role in the industry by not shying away from the financials.
JANAE BRADFORD: Hello everyone, my name is Janae Bradford and I am a graduate assistant here at the Reynolds Center for Business Journalism. Two days into the New Year football fans received a deep reality check of how of dangerous the game can be. On Monday Night Football’s matchup between the Buffalo Bills and the Cincinnati Bengals, Bills safety Damar Hamlin collapsed going into cardiac arrest after taking a hit to the chest. Even people who aren’t sports fans felt the concern throughout the NFL community, bringing Hamlin’s health to the national stage. Just like any other game, medical staff are on standby ready to act. And the media had to respond efficiently, while giving updates as things are going on. Steven Watkins, a reporter for the Cincinnati Business Courier was watching the game live and walked me through how he reacted as a journalist to the incident.
STEVEN WATKINS: You know, it just struck me that this is going to be the biggest story in the city. And as you mentioned, probably in the country here for the next day or so at least. And so we need to do a story. So I wrote something pretty quickly, you know, within half an hour or so. So we would have something up on our website just explaining, here’s what happened, what we knew at the time, the Bengals game has been canceled. We don’t know anymore about what will happen with that. So people who were watching the game or not watching the game would know here’s what’s going on.
BRADFORD: With everything being so unexpected, the NFL had a job to do on a tight deadline. It’s playoff season, and they had to come up with a decision on how to continue moving the season forward. The Courier was tasked with following the NFL’s thought process, and what that game in particular met for those teams.
WATKINS: A lot of our coverage after the initial couple stories about Damar Hamlin’s condition, and here’s where things stand for him. Within about a day and a half, I would say, it started to turn to well, what’s going to happen with this game. First, the NFL said it’s not going to be played this week, which became pretty clear. By Tuesday, the game was originally scheduled and started on Monday night, it was clear they weren’t going to be able to play Tuesday. And unless they could somehow play Wednesday, and that would have been really pushing it, there was no way they were going to have time to play and then both teams were playing again the following Sunday. So… and the Bills, many of them had already gone back to Buffalo. So the NFL said we’re not going to be able to play it this week. We don’t know when or if we will play it. So that became a story for us.
BRADFORD: The Bengals’ medical staff was praised for their urgency to help Hamlin. A health angle can fit into a business story, because it’s about how a team responded to an assignment and how they did it under pressure. Injuries are part of the game and the hit was clean, but the staff was on top of treatment once they sensed serious trouble. The NFL knows they must stay ready so they don’t have to get ready to handle health scares.
WATKINS: I don’t know that there will be any real change in procedure because the NFL already does have really good procedures in place. Which ultimately really helped and possibly saved Damar Hamlin’s life, you know, they have people there on the scene. They have ambulances right there on the field. They had an AED on the field that was available, which is kind of something in addition to CPR that they administer with a machine. So things like that are in place.
BRADFORD: When a highly anticipated playoff game gets canceled, there are multiple costs emotionally, physically, mentally and financially.
WATKINS: The Bengals ended up reimbursing fans who bought tickets because they really didn’t, you know, they paid to watch a game and they saw about 10 minutes of what should have been a 60-minute game so they are getting reimbursed. There are things like TV broadcast contracts and things like that. So we’ll see how all that plays out.
BRADFORD: As a veteran journalist Watkins became curious about how severe the costs were for the league and the franchises.
WATKINS: And one of the things I’ve been looking into is whether the Bengals either have insurance that covers a situation like this because that’s a lot of lost potential revenue. I’ve had somebody tell me they thought it was probably roughly around $10 million in revenue for a sold-out home game. And you know, they’re reimbursing all that money. So they’re out all that. Now, it’s possible the NFL has something. This is kind of unprecedented so it’s hard to really know and the NFL and the Bengals so far are not saying, but it’s possible the NFL has a fund that they reimburse teams that are out that kind of revenue. Or it’s possible, there’s insurance that might cover this type of thing, a loss game that’s out of your control. And it’s also possible that it’s just, hey, you gotta, you got to live with $10 million less in revenue.
BRADFORD: Journalists must look at the economic angle of the story. But Hamlin’s incident has layers, one of them being a human layer, something that evokes emotion. So the Courier had to be very cautious about how they reported updates without being unethical.
WATKINS: And interesting about, you know, as you said, it’s not the priority, you know, the first thought isn’t, well, ‘How much is this gonna cost me?’ It’s ‘We hope Damar Hamlin is okay.’ And there was a lot of thought on our part, I’m sure a lot of media’s part, about when do you get into stories about lost revenue versus how is Mr. Hamlin doing? I mean, at this point, we know, you know, he’s been released. I mean, he’s still got rehab to do and all that sort of thing but he’s certainly out of the woods in terms of, you know, is he going to survive or not. But the first couple days, we certainly didn’t know that. And so there is a point in time where you think it’s not really going to be appropriate right now to write about finances. But within a couple of days, it certainly seemed to be, you know, where that came up.
BRADFORD: Writing complex stories, or writing stories about topics that don’t pique people’s interest immediately can be challenging. Reporters are also learning as they go when writing these stories, so it always helps the reporters to put themselves in the shoes of the reader to determine the best way to deliver information.
WATKINS: I’ve had people talk about writing for your readers, not for your sources. And that’s, to me, always a good thing to remember is, you know, if I’m interviewing a bank CEO about their bank, they’re probably going to use a lot of complex terms. And if I write those complex terms, that person will say, ‘Oh, he’s really smart, he was able to use those terms right.’ I guess they might say that, I don’t know. But, most readers aren’t going to probably say that, they’re going to say, I don’t know what any of that means so I’m moving on to the next story and they won’t read it, they won’t understand it. So it’s a really good point, I always try to make sure I’ve boiled down almost anything into terms that people can understand and descriptions they can understand.
BRADFORD: Watkins has been in the field for decades, and going from print to digital news was a jump. But it helped him in real time seeing how fast the sports business industry was growing.
WATKINS: I think back in the early 90s when I started covering it, there wasn’t a real lot of attention paid to the business side of sports back then it was pretty basic. You know, there would be talking about attendance, some talk about revenue. That was about it, though, I mean, contracts, payroll and things like that. But yeah, I think there just wasn’t as much attention paid back then to a lot of aspects. And as time has gone on and more people cover it probably the advent of the Internet caused more people who happen to be kind of on the fringes of knowing a little bit about finances of sports got their voices heard a little more and it’s kind of become a pretty big deal. And as you know, just over time more money comes into the game TV contracts and things like that get bigger and bigger. You know, back in the 90s. ESPN was around but there weren’t a lot of other cable sports. There was not NFL Sunday Ticket. There just wasn’t anywhere near as many games on TV at any given time.
BRADFORD: Business news will be relevant as long as sports exists. And Watkins advises sports journalists to not steer away from that aspect of the industry. It’s also important to know that networking and talking to other journalists only makes everyone better.
WATKINS: Make a lot of contacts. I think that’s always helpful. So whether it’s going to industry conventions, there are different seminars on sports business and things like that. Anytime you can go to any of those, you can just kind of make a lot of connections. You know, certainly with people in that industry, but also a lot of times with media people, there’ll be media people covering those kinds of things. And you can say, ‘Hey, I’m interested in this, are you guys hiring anybody? Or is there a way I can kind of get into this part of the business?’ A lot of times when you have a niche like that, it’s not all that full, you know. A lot of people want to cover the games, and that’s great. But you know, the business side of it, there’s a big need for it. And there are not a lot of people that say ‘Boy, I really want to cover sports business.’
BRADFORD: That was Steven Watkins from the Cincinnati Business Courier sharing his career journey and how it prepared him to cover one of the biggest sports stories of the year. You can follow Watkins’ sports business coverage at bizjournals.com/cincinnati. Thank you all for tuning in. From Phoenix. I’m Janae Bradford with the Reynolds Center.