Supporting a team that finishes near the bottom of the standings each year is extremely frustrating. It’s no fun rooting for a perennial loser.
But what’s it like covering a team that’s really struggling? Beat writers spend nearly every day of the season with their assigned team, so how exactly is a beat writer impacted when their respective team keeps losing?
HoopsHype asked the following veteran beat writers: Marc Berman (New York Knicks beat, the New York Post), Jon Krawczynski (Minnesota Timberwolves beat, The Athletic), Vince Ellis (Detroit Pistons beat, the Detroit Free Press), Fred Katz (Washington Wizards beat, The Athletic) and Keith Pompey (Philadelphia 76ers beat, The Philadelphia Inquirer).
HOW LOSING AFFECTS THEIR COVERAGE
“When you cover a really bad team – a 50-loss team or a 60-loss team – there’s only so many ways you can write that they’re bad and they lost the game,” Jon Krawczynski said. “It really does challenge you to find unique angles on a day-to-day basis.”
“Someone explained this to me a long time ago: You aren’t rooting for a team, you’re rooting for a story,” Vince Ellis said. “And it’s hard to come up with story ideas when you’re covering a perennial loser.”
When a team enters a season with zero expectations of winning, that kind of losing season isn’t as bad as when a team was projected to do well and then fails to live up to the heightened expectations. Fred Katz pointed out that it’s important to adjust your coverage and overarching voice to fit that season’s circumstances.
“Your voice has to change, but no matter what, you’re still covering 15 people,” Katz said. “A team doesn’t necessarily need to be winning to find interesting stuff. Bradley Beal is an awesome player and he’s always interesting. It might not get the national play that it would get when I was covering Russell Westbrook during his MVP season, but in terms of just interest, if you’re passionate about your job, your beat and the subject you write about, I think you can always find stuff.”
During a successful campaign, everyone is happy and candid about what’s working. During a losing campaign, people are often frustrated and closed off. A good beat writer can uncover what’s happening behind closed doors.
“When the team is winning, you’re basically painting a picture of what’s right in front of you,” Krawczynski said. “When the team is losing a lot, it’s up to you to really dig and leverage your relationships and your reporting skills to find out the real reasons why things aren’t going well or why certain decisions were made in terms of trading a player or firing a coach.”
Because a beat writer spends virtually every day around their team, they’re likely going to hear a lot of explanations from a wide variety of people when the squad is struggling.
“When things are going wrong, there are going to be a lot of people who are giving their version of what’s happening and there are generally problems with every viewpoint or things that are being left out,” Krawczynski said. “A coach may say, ‘It’s the players’ fault and they aren’t doing what I want.’ A player may say, ‘It’s the coach’s fault; he doesn’t have the right system.’ Everyone is going to be pointing fingers. While fans are typically looking for us to validate whatever they think is wrong with the current situation, what we’re actually trying to do is find that middle ground that’s as close to accurate as possible and then present that. We’re just trying to get the truth.”
In addition to doing more investigative reporting, some beat writers are given the green-light to pursue unique stories that may not have seen the light of day if the team was winning.
“I think it gives you a little bit more freedom to get weird,” Katz said. “I, personally, get really excited about weird statistical trends. My big thing – and you hear musicians talk about this with their music – is that you write the songs that you like and if other people like those songs, then great. But when you start writing songs for other people, you kind of lose the heart of it.”
Sometimes, a beat writer’s coverage will change toward the end of a losing year. As Marc Berman noted, some outlets cut game stories in half or scrap them altogether in the final weeks of a season. Instead, there’s more of a focus on pieces about the future of the franchise (such as features on young prospects or breakdowns of possible offseason moves).
When the Philadelphia 76ers were tanking, it became clear that fans didn’t want to read about each regular-season loss. Instead, as Keith Pompey notes, they were eating up draft content and Summer League articles because they were looking ahead for future contributors (AKA Trusting the Process).
“Back then, Sixers fans got so excited for the Lottery and the NBA Draft was huge,” Pompey said. “It was ridiculous; my numbers used to be off the charts when I was writing about Summer League games. It was completely different. Last year, when they made the playoffs, it was almost like, ‘Okay, what do we do now?’ as far as covering the team. It was new to everyone.”
There’s often more national visibility for beat writers who are covering contending teams (particularly those in large markets). Some care about this more than others.
“I guess covering a winning team is good for things that some people care about like visibility, more eyeballs on the stuff you’re writing about and things like that,” Ellis said. “I don’t dislike visibility or people consuming my stuff, but that’s really not a concern of mine. My assignment is to cover the team that I cover, and I don’t care about how much visibility I get or the team gets.”
HOW LOSING IMPACTS PLAYER INTERACTIONS
“It’s not fun to walk up to somebody and ask them, in a public platform, why they aren’t doing well in their job,” Katz said with a laugh. “That’s never a fun thing.”
That’s essentially what beat writers must do after losses, though. This part of the job is difficult, as the players are often frustrated and guarded. Some players take out their anger on the journalist, while others shut down and give one-word answers.
“When a team is losing, it’s generally really quiet in the locker room,” Krawczynski said.
“It’s tougher to get thoughtful, illuminating answers during losing streaks,” Ellis added. “It can be a lot tougher when a team is struggling. After a game, it’s almost impossible. But after practices, when they’ve had some time to cool down from the latest loss, they can be more thoughtful.”
When the interviewee knows the beat writer well, they’re more likely to open up and try to give usable quotes, even if they aren’t in the best mood. Remember, beat writers spend more time with the team than just about anyone outside of the organization, so they often get to know these players, coaches and executives well.
“That’s where the relationships come in handy because there’s trust,” Katz said. “You have more leeway too. You can ask certain questions and they’ll know, ‘I know Fred, he’s a fine guy and he’s not out to get me or get a [out-of-context] soundbite.’ That’s when the relationships come in, when they’re losing. It’s why the No. 1 most important thing to do as a beat writer is to have relationships with everybody you cover.”
Certain losing locker rooms are worse than others. As previously mentioned, the higher the pre-season expectations, the more disappointed and dejected that team will be if they end up losing the majority of nights. For example, look at last year’s 17-win Knicks versus this year’s squad.
“Once it became evident that wins and losses didn’t matter because they were tanking, I’ve never been a locker room more happy to lose than last season,” Berman said. “Unless they got destroyed, it was pleasant after losses. And one of the great things about David Fizdale last season is that he was always upbeat and always talking about the future.
“The atmosphere this year, early on, is definitely more somber. First of all, there are a lot more veteran players on the team who want to win. Fizdale isn’t talking about the future, he’s not talking about cap space. After some of these bad losses, he’s really dejected.”
Interestingly, some players give their best interviews when times are tough.
“The irony is that sometimes you get the best quotes in a losing locker room,” Berman said. “The team may get blown out, but then the players are very candid and willing to look in the mirror and criticize themselves and the team. Sometimes, after a victory, you just hear a lot of clichés. But in general, when a team is losing over and over, the locker room is tougher to cover.”
Sometimes, when a team starts rebuilding, it can lead to more access for journalists. For example, several years ago, one team went from being a perennial contender to a bottom-feeder after losing their star player. Suddenly, the team’s PR department gave journalists more access than ever before and went out of their way to help the media. This obviously doesn’t happen with every organization, but there are some instances where a team’s sudden struggles actually make the journalist’s job easier.
“I’m sure there are specific scenarios where a team gets bad and they say, ‘We need more good publicity. We need people to see how good of a guy Player X is, so that we can get more people to tune in or come to games or buy jerseys.’ But that’s definitely not a rule of thumb,” Katz said. “Who is the toughest team to cover in the league? The Knicks, and they’ve won one playoff series in the last two decades and they’re banning journalists from the arena! And the Warriors win our Professional Basketball Writers Association award [for best media relations] pretty much every year and they just went to the NBA Finals five years in a row. It’s totally dependent on the organization and how they view things.”
“I think this season, if the losing continues, they’ll want less publicity,” Berman said of the Knicks. “They would rather us write less than more during these times.”
HOW THEIR AUDIENCE HANDLES THE STRUGGLES
In sports-talk radio, it’s often said that it’s great for business when the local teams are losing. Suddenly, the station gets more calls because the passionate fans are upset and want to vent. Also, the hosts can fill segment after segment by criticizing the struggling teams, which leads to even more callers.
However, this doesn’t apply to beat writers.
“The Pistons being good or on a winning streak is better for me numbers-wise than a team that’s losing and playing poorly,” Ellis said. “As a matter of fact, my numbers are bad this year. My content hasn’t changed and I still think I do a pretty good job with the content, but it’s just that the audience isn’t there. There are some angry fans who are mad and want to blame somebody. They want to find a boogeyman for why their team isn’t good. That engagement is there on Twitter and talk radio, but overall, fewer people are reading my articles.
“The passionate fans are going to care either way, but the casual fans tune out when the team is losing. And for the casual fans, the NFL is easier to keep track of and less of a time commitment because it’s only one game a week. There are a lot of casual fans who check out when the Pistons are losing. That’s what our metrics say too.”
Berman has noticed the same thing. This would be the Knicks’ seventh-straight season missing the playoffs and New Yorkers are tired of watching their favorite team struggle.
“No, the losing is not a good story for us right now – not anymore with the Knicks,” Berman said. “It is not selling papers, it is not encouraging more clicks. When the losing has gone on for seven-straight seasons, it’s old and tired.”
In fact, Berman has been on the Knicks beat for 20 years and he’s never seen the fan base like this.
“The fans are beat up, to the point that I’ve noticed in recent months that a super-negative story is going to be ripped on Twitter by a lot of the Knicks fans,” Berman said. “I know with Twitter it’s tough to gauge if that’s the general thinking of the public, but they are so desperate for a winning team and a positive story that they’ll criticize a writer for going too negative. I’ve never experienced that – never – on this beat until very recently, and that just shows that Knicks fans are so beaten down that they just can’t read constant negativity. If there’s any little glimmer of hope, that’s what they want to read.”
At the end of the day, fans get tired when the narrative is the same year after year.
“When I took over this beat in 2008-09, people were tired that the Pistons were going to the Eastern Conference Finals every year (but couldn’t win it all more than once). They said it was ‘stale’ and interest was starting to wane,” Ellis said. “Unless the team is winning championships, some fans get tired when it’s the same players and the same situation over and over – whether they’re at the bottom of the standings or falling short in the playoffs.”
Krawczynski witnessed this firsthand during the Timberwolves’ 13-year playoff drought, as the losing caused fans to check out and feel hopeless about the team’s direction.
“When a team has been losing for a long time, for several seasons, and there are no real expectations because of it, there’s an apathy that sets in and fans really just check out on the team,” Krawczynski said. “There will always be a group of diehards who are living and dying with the team and getting emotional about things. But there can be an overall malaise that sets in and I think that’s what teams really want to avoid the most. When fans are really upset and making those angry fan calls, at least that means they care. When that apathy sets in, they don’t buy tickets or don’t turn on the TV.”
When things are going poorly, frustrated fans sometimes want to see the beat writer use their platform to go after the head coach or general manager. Each of the beat writers had experienced this. What these readers don’t understand is that the beat writer is an objective journalist and not a fellow fan.
DYSFUNCTION SOMETIMES LEADS TO GREAT CONTENT
When a team keeps finishing near the bottom of the standings, there’s often behind-the-scenes drama, which gives beat writers some interesting stories to chase.
“Sometimes, I find the controversy that occurs during losing to be more interesting than winning,” Ellis said. “The Pistons’ mutiny in 2011 is a great example of the kind of controversy and dysfunction that can come with covering a bad team. That kind of stuff doesn’t happen when you’re covering a good team!”
For those who don’t remember, the mutiny that Ellis mentioned occurred in 2011. Half of the Pistons’ roster (including Richard Hamilton, Tayshaun Prince, Tracy McGrady and Ben Wallace among others) refused to show up for a morning shootaround to send the message that they wanted head coach John Kuester to be fired. Ellis’ coverage of the mutiny received national attention, as he appeared on numerous television and radio shows that week. But that wasn’t even the most controversy-laden season he’s covered while on the Pistons beat.
“That 2008-09 season with Allen Iverson is probably still the most memorable season that I’ve covered – seeing Iverson refuse to acknowledge the fact that he was a diminished player and seeing that a player who is a sure-fire, first-ballot Hall of Famer can still wreck a locker room,” Ellis said. “To this day, out of my 12 seasons, that was the most fascinating season and I had a front-row seat for that dysfunction. If Joe Dumars doesn’t trade Chauncey Billups for Iverson, that season probably isn’t anywhere near as memorable for me.”
Depending on the circumstances, a losing season can generate just as many interesting stories as a winning squad (if not more). For example, Krawczynski covered Jimmy Butler’s trade request and subsequent exit from Minnesota, which gave him plenty to write about that season.
“When there’s major drama, that is where it really requires a lot of reporting experience, a lot of relationship-building, a lot of source work and essentially investigative journalism,” Krawczynski said. “We’re presenting a clear and accurate picture of what’s going on when times are tough. We’re wading through all of the BS that’s thrown our way and thrown the fans’ way to get to the bottom of things. It’s not pleasant and it’s not easy to do, but I think that’s where the really good reporters separate themselves from the mediocre ones.”
But just because a team is losing doesn’t necessarily mean there’s dysfunction. Some struggling teams are more interesting than others. Berman points out that there’s not much drama to cover when it comes to the 2019-20 Knicks, especially compared to how things were just a few years ago.
“When they’re losing amid controversy, there’s more interest,” Berman said. “When Phil Jackson was running the show, for more than three years he was always putting out one brush fire after another. Phil was always controversial. Now, there’s not really any of that. The only drama is if the Knicks continue to lose badly, David Fizdale’s seat will become hotter and hotter – and, yes, fans do like to read about [coaching changes].”
During the Trust-The-Process years, there wasn’t too much controversy surrounding those teams (aside from the tanking itself). All of the young guys in the locker room knew not to worry about losses – the goal was improving each day – and they were all happy to be there. Many of their players just weren’t NBA-caliber.
“During my first year on the beat, the Sixers were playing Indiana and I used to always get to the arena early to watch guys warm up,” Pompey said. “When Indiana’s [end-of-bench] players were warming up, they were making 80 percent of their shots (if not more). I looked at someone and said, ‘Wow, so this is a real NBA team?’ And the guy looked back at me and said, ‘Yeah, I don’t know what the hell you’re covering,’ and started laughing. It was bizarre; the Sixers just didn’t have it, man. Their guys just weren’t that good. That was one thing that really stood out to me – how much better these players who didn’t even play were than the Sixers’ [starters].”
Despite the fact that the Sixers didn’t have a realistic shot of winning on most nights and won just 47 of a possible 246 games in a three-season stretch from 2013 to 2016, Pompey kept fans informed about everything going on with the franchise. That’s what a beat writer does.
“Your job as a beat writer is always to tell the stories,” Katz says, “regardless of what’s going on.”