Social media has, for a significant while, been an effective tool for sportspersons to communicate with their fans directly and without any barriers. Gone are the days when supporters had to be content with a drip feed of interviews over the length of a player’s career and a tell-all autobiography at the end of it. Now, all one needs to do is to scroll through the social media handles of Virat Kohli, Serena Williams, LeBron James et al to know in real time what his or her favourite athlete is doing. Sites like The Players’ Tribune, founded in 2014 by baseball icon Derek Jeter after his retirement from the New York Yankees, work with athletes to tell their own stories. Athletes’ scepticism and the total control the star can exercise over the message have combined to mostly render the athlete media-frayed. For the sporting stars themselves, a thriving online presence has become essential to complement their on-field/on-court exploits.
During the COVID-19 lockdown, when live sport around the world came to a grinding halt, this slow but discernible change underwent another mutation. Journalists, who were already edgy about their utility in a world where sportspersons were directly speaking to their fans, watched with disbelief as athletes interviewed each other. The press, which often thinks of itself as the gate-keeper, saw its party being gatecrashed. As if to rub it in, Harsha Bhogle, that charmingly erudite IIM graduate-turned-sports commentator who thankfully remained a one-off, called it “a great challenge” for reporters. “Players are doing what journos do and they have greater access and obvious camaraderie,” he tweeted. “Journos can either accept this situation, play second fiddle and live off quotes, or raise their game significantly.” It was unwanted pressure for the pioneers of “he said, she said” journalism.
In mid-May, Virat Kohli was the guest on Sunil Chhetri’s Instagram live chat show Eleven on Ten. The camaraderie on display and kind of answers the two elicited from each other were eye-catching. It was friendly and gregarious, completely in contrast to the average journalist’s interaction with a star. Kohli narrated an incident from his younger days in Delhi when his father was asked to do “a little extra” (possibly pay a bribe) to confirm his selection in the team. Kohli senior refused to do so and Kohli junior didn’t get selected. “I cried a lot; I was broken,” Kohli said. “But that incident taught me a lot. I realised that I had to be extraordinary to become successful, and that I had to achieve this purely through my own effort and hard work. My father showed me the right way, through action and not merely words.” It was a story that had never come out previously, at least to our knowledge. It then became the sledgehammer that fans used to beat the already maligned cricket governing bodies in Delhi. How we journalists wished one of us had broken that story. That credit went to Chhetri, India’s best footballer, who was in no need of a second career option. COVID-19 had turned us into mere spectators and it was a glimpse of how sports journalism will look if athletes decide that reporters are dispensable.
Rafael Nadal made his debut in an Instagram live show with Roger Federer and Andy Murray. – Photo Courtesy: Instagram / @RafaelNadal
April and May are generally months during which Rafael Nadal is seen sinking his teeth into the European clay season. It would invariably culminate with the title at the French Open. This year, the Spaniard was instead making his debut in an Instagram Live show with Roger Federer and Andy Murray. So technologically challenged he was that he struggled to even get Federer and Murray into the chat room. Murray even took a playful dig by saying: “This is brilliant… He can win 52 French Opens, but not work Instagram!” Then started the banter, about Nadal playing as a lefty when he was naturally right-handed, his and Federer’s struggles while juggling school and tennis when they were young and Murray mischievously nudging Nadal to become a father soon. Then came the journalism. Federer provided an update about his repaired knee and the progress he had made, something reporters were dying to know but had no way of ascertaining. Nadal then revealed that he hadn’t hit a tennis ball for nearly six weeks, forcing Federer to joke that the Spaniard would have forgotten how to play tennis. We all know what happened at the French Open. Then Murray excitedly shared information about his recovery from his right hip injury. Reporters were quick to turn the whole thing into a news feature. But at the end of it all they can be forgiven if they were left wondering who was in control. Do athletes need the media or does the media need the athlete?
Ravichandran Ashwin’s eclectically titled shows on YouTube were a big draw. From Ricky Ponting to Sunil Gavaskar to Anil Kumble to Sanju Samson, there were guests from every generation. – Photo Courtesy: YouTube / Ashwin
YouTube is a different beast. If Instagram is T20, YouTube is Test cricket. You can wait patiently for characters to feel at ease and the plot to thicken without any distractions. Here, Ravichandran Ashwin’s eclectically titled shows were a big draw. From Sunil Gavaskar to Anil Kumble to Sanju Samson, there were guests from every generation. Even radio jockeys and yesteryear actors were featured. A thinking cricketer himself, Ashwin slipped into the role of an interviewer effortlessly, leaving journalists to feed off quotes — remember Bhogle — yet again. A lot of the questioning was serious too. The press, which often to its own detriment exhibits an exaggerated sense of self importance, and nonchalantly dismissed earlier efforts on Instagram as entertainment dressed up as journalism, was forced to sit up and take notice. So it didn’t come as a surprise that it was during one of those chats with his Delhi Capitals coach Ricky Ponting that the first signs of thaw between Ashwin and the former Aussie captain over ‘Mankading’ emerged. In an ideal world, the back and forth between two sportspersons with opposing views would have played out with reporters acting as carriers. But not anymore. Governments of the day may talk about eliminating middlemen but sportspersons have long shown how it is done, and with clinical precision.
Baseline Ventures, a sports marketing and entertainment company, joined the dots much before anybody did and developed a business opportunity. It represents India cricketers Jemimah Rodrigues and Smriti Mandhana and Olympics silver medallist P. V. Sindhu. The trio combined for the first episode of Double Trouble, where the social media-savvy Jemimah, and Smriti, interviewed Sindhu. It was natural and casual and made the line between the interviewer and interviewee disappear. If journalists and their subjects treated each other like drinking buddies, it would have called into question their ethics. Here, there was no such inhibition, with the people involved behaving like friends and not acquaintances. Sindhu, otherwise guarded in front of the press, surprised everyone with her candour and relaxed demeanour. It was a breath of fresh air…for the public, not us. Rohit Sharma and Sania Mirza were featured, too. We learnt how Rohit practised hitting wide yorkers from Lasith Malinga over the point fielder for sixers and how Sania dealt with the different yardsticks the world applied to men and women. The media watched, transcribed and wrote, just like facts that are regurgitated during most examinations.