For the first time in over a century, we’ve gone more than 100 days without major American professional sports in this country.
I’m an afternoon drive sports talk host on XTRA 1360 in San Diego — the longest running sports talk station in America’s Finest City. If you love sports, there’s nothing better than getting paid to talk about them for a living. Our days on the airwaves at XTRA are typically spent discussing local sports topics like Padres baseball, our disgust for the Chargers organization (San Diegans love to hate on their former NFL franchise after they moved to L.A. prior to the 2017 season) and San Diego State Aztecs college football and basketball. The latter enjoyed a hallmark 30–2 season and was a legitimate National Title contender before the pandemic shut down March Madness this spring.
If you love sports, there’s nothing better than getting paid to talk about them for a living.
There’s one small problem with my dream job right now — the Coronavirus pandemic has completely halted the sports world like most other parts of our society. Sure, we’ve got golf and NASCAR and Cornhole (yes, Cornhole is a sport) to ramble about. But the stuff that people tune in for, I’m talking about the NBA, Major League Baseball and the NFL, those leagues are currently on hiatus. So what are we doing for three hours each day to fill the time and entertain our audience?
It’s a damn good question and I’ll be honest, I initially wondered how we’d be able to fill the sports void on sports talk radio. I think a lot of our on-air hosts and producers felt simarly. I’m extremely fortunate because I work on a three-person show with Steve Hartman, one of the most accomplished sports talk hosts in the history of the business, and Rich Ohrnberger, a former NFL offensive lineman that offers strong opinions and unrivaled humor. But still…us sports talk hosts are paid to talk about sports, and sports talk listeners are listening because they want to hear us talk about sports, right? Kind of.
In addition to wanting to hear us discuss sports on a daily basis, they just want to hear us discuss anything on a daily basis. When you’re on the radio, you’re in a relationship with your audience. Every day. Every month. Every year. Monday thru Friday. For three hours a day. Our listeners hear our voices as much as they may hear the voices of their spouse or children. Sure they’re tuning in for your take on last night’s Padres game, but they also want to know just as much (if not more) about Steve’s dating life or Rich’s dieting (he’s down at least 40 pounds from his NFL playing days if you’re wondering) and why I hate changing diapers (don’t we all though to be honest)?
So what exactly have the listeners of XTRA 1360 heard on the airwaves for the last few months?
Like what role sports will play in this country’s return to normalcy?
The 2001 World Series between the New York Yankees and the Arizona Diamondbacks, which included President George Bush’s iconic first pitch before Game 3, is widely remembered as one of the key moments to help heal a saddened nation after 9/11. If team sports like the NFL or the NBA return this year, will they provide a similar outlet for the nation to collect itself?
Like what role do fans play in sports?
A roaring crowd is a fundamental part of American sport. Think about the pageantry on a college football Saturday at the Big House or the ‘Shoe. The Black Hole at a Raiders game. Cheeseheads at Lambeau Field. The Bleacher Creatures at Yankee Stadium. The fans are as much a part of sports as the sports themselves. What are live sports without fans in the stands? It appears we’ll be able to answer that question in the days and weeks ahead.
Like how will team sports function in a post-pandemic world?
The health-and-safety protocols of the various pro leagues have been discussed ad naseum. These protocols are so specific that NBA players are literally prohibited from playing doubles table tennis while in the “bubble” when the league restarts in Orlando while Major League Baseball players would be in violation of the rules for using a ride-share app. I mean, come on, will the players take these rules (and many others) seriously? We’ve pondered how realistic it is to test professional athletes for COVID-19 on a daily basis. And what happens when a player tests positive? Even several months after the sports shutdown there are so many questions that still have to be answered related to the “safe” return of team sports.
Like would you return to play if you were a professional athlete?
We sometimes forget, but athletes are people, too. They have wives, girlfriends, children and families. And the pandemic is far from over but players are being asked to take on the inherent risk of potentially contracting COVID-19. What if they have high-risk family members (or what if they’re high risk themselves)? Is the risk of possible contraction worth the reward of the return of pro sports?
Like how has baseball been so tone-deaf?
The pandemic has left tens of thousands of Americans dead and millions more unemployed. The senseless murder of George Floyd at the hands of a former Minneapolis police officer has ignited a large portion of this nation in a quest to end systemic racism and police brutality. Despite these remarkable times, billionaire baseball owners and millionaire players have publicly bickered for months on end, unable to come to an agreement on the return of baseball this summer, not because of the pandemic but because of the economics of the return. Their collective short-sightedness could very well have a long-term impact on America’s former pastime.
Like can sports lead to meaningful change in society?
In the wake of George Floyd’s senseless killing, the sports world (like many others) have called for change. Bubba Wallace, NASCAR’s only African-American driver, played a significant role in the circuit banning the display of the Confederate flag from its events.
At Oklahoma State, star running back Chuba Hubbard took exception with his head coach’s wardrobe choice, posting this ultimatum on social media and demanding change.
The Southeastern Conference, arguably the most powerful and recognizable conference in college athletics, recently threatened to withhold championship events from Mississippi if the state doesn’t remove the Confederate flag from its state’s flag. The SEC, long silent on the issue, is now condeming Mississippi for its state flag.
I’ve been asked a countless number of times over the last few months about how we’re occupying our time on sports talk radio without sports.
Well now you know.
What’s next for us on XTRA 1360? It’s hard to say really. Every day in today’s world can provide so many twists and turns. I do know that we’ll continue to comfort our listeners with the voices they want to hear each and every day. I know this, too — when sports do return, we’ll be there to welcome them back with open arms. ■
If you liked this story, you’ll like my podcast The Journey with Jon Schaeffer, too.