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Broadcast crews struggling after sports go dark

Greg Calvin believed his job as an audio technician could survive most economic downturns because people will keep watching sports while the networks that air the games still receive advertising revenue.

But that was before the coronavirus pandemic, which has shut down all sports and put Calvin and his fellow technicians out of work and on unemployment.

“I don’t see a time in the near future where they are going to put 45,000 fans in a stadium,” said Calvin, who has been an audio technician in New York since 1989.

The new coronavirus has caused a global pandemic that has sickened at least 1.68 million and killed over 101,000 worldwide, halted sports and forced restrictions on the movement of millions of people in an effort to stop the virus from spreading further and overwhelming health care systems.

The rapid postponement or cancellation of most sports meant those who were booked for events through the spring and summer now have an open calendar. Besides audio technicians, those affected include camera operators, stage managers and producers.

Some networks have paid crews for cancelled games. CBS and Turner paid staffers for lost NCAA Tournament games while NBC paid for all canceled events. ESPN and Fox Sports are paying most of their technical people through the middle of April.

While most technicians at national networks feel like they can weather short-term cancellations, those who work for local or regional networks are feeling the biggest pinch.

AT&T SportsNet, Yes Network and SNY are paying crews for missed baseball home games, but that doesn’t cover those who work on broadcasts for visiting teams.

Sinclair Broadcast Group, the nation's largest holder of regional sports networks, has only paid crew members through March 15. April is traditionally the biggest month for regional networks with the baseball season getting underway and overlapping with the end of the NHL and NBA regular seasons.

Those regional networks hold the local rights to 42 professional teams — 16 NBA, 14 MLB and 12 NHL. Sinclair has also partnered with the Chicago Cubs for the Marquee Sports Network, which launched in February.

Their policy has drawn heavy criticism, especially from the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees. The union represents those who work in stage, motion picture and television production, including sports.

“I think it’s a bad look to throw your hands up and say good luck. We’ve seen all the other networks chipping in,” said Charlie Cushing, an audio technician from Minneapolis.

Sinclair purchased 21 Fox regional sports networks last August for $9.6 billion from The Walt Disney Company. The sale was part of the Justice Department's terms for Disney's purchase of 21st Century Fox's assets.

Sinclair is offering interest-free $2,500 loans to nearly 1,000 of the freelancers who are eligible. Those who take the loans will have up to $250 deducted for each event they work once sports resume.

Sinclair spokesman Ronn Torossian said the program has been used by hundreds of freelancers, which they’ve been happy to see.

Sinclair would have aired at least three times as many games in April compared to other networks. The company has not outlined what its plan would be for technicians if games are officially canceled and some of their rights fees could be recouped due to clauses that exist in most broadcast contracts.

“We determined that this initiative was what our company could offer at this time. There is no comparison to the sheer volume of games we produce — approximately 5,000 professional and other events over the course of the year – versus national networks that produce a fraction of that number,” Torossian said. “Further, right now these games and seasons remain postponed, unlike, say, March Madness, which was canceled. We are operating under the assumption that all of the postponed games will ultimately be played.

“Of course, the situation is fluid and we are constantly assessing and re-assessing ways to further assist freelancers as we are able.”

Leslie Fitzsimmons, the vice president of IATSE's Local in Milwaukee, said in a statement that “they refuse to believe this is the best it can do.”

“Sinclair reported an 80-plus% year-over-year increase (fourth quarter 2018 to 2019). Sinclair’s CEO made $7.5 million last year. We’ve lost all our income. We need help," Fitzsimmons said. "Not only that, we are losing out on our health contributions, which puts our ability to maintain coverage at risk. It’s a double whammy.”

Regional networks currently are mostly filling their time by rebroadcasting games that many affected crew members worked on. However, crew members do not earn residuals when those are re-aired.

Cushing said seeing those games on television while everyone is struggling has been tough to watch.

“They are now rerunning all the work we’ve done. They no longer have to pay a crew. They are saving money on production costs but still getting subscription fees,” he said. “It could be argued they are making more money than producing games and still getting good ratings.”

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Follow Joe Reedy on Twitter at https://twiter.com/joereedy

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