One of the first slices of life to be affected by the coronavirus pandemic were professional, semi-professional, and college sports. Lucas Aulbach is a sports reporter for the Louisville Courier-Journal and has been at the CJ for four years, getting his start in March 2016. He is the University of Louisville men’s basketball reporter. He worked at WKU’s College Heights Herald newspaper from August 2010 to May 2014 doing mostly sports and some news. His first job out of college was assistant sports editor of the Kentucky New Era in Hopkinsville KY from Feb. 2015 to March 2016, where he wrote stories, took photos and designed the print sports section. Last May he was assigned to the CJ’s breaking news desk, and then in October shifted to the U of L basketball beat. This is an edited transcript of our conversation about what it has been like as a sports reporter during the COVID-19 pandemic.
This conversation has been edited for readability.
How has the feel of the newsroom changed since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic? What does the day to day look like?
The newsroom is a different world. First, we’re all working from home – I went to cover the ACC Tournament on a Wednesday two weeks ago and when I got back on Friday after the whole thing had been canceled the office was off limits. I haven’t seen my coworkers in nearly three weeks. We’re all working from home now, staying in touch using Microsoft’s Teams messaging program. The breaking news team (which I’ve been moved back to, since the Louisville basketball beat is, uh, not busy these days) starts the day with a 7:30 video conference where we talk about what’s happening today and then we all host another on that afternoon at 1:30, before editors get together to plan the newspaper via video conferencing at 2. A lot of this is stuff we’d do in-person if we were at the office, it’s just a change of how we stay in touch.
How are you and your colleagues dealing with the lack of potential stories? Do you all have any strategies you’re trying out to drum up story ideas?
The whole “no sports” thing is a challenge – although I will say, a situation like this creates stories. We can talk about athletes who were impacted – Louisville had five seniors who are missing out on an NCAA Tournament and a coach who had built this team for one run this spring. What are their next steps? A Louisville football player’s father died as a result of the virus yesterday – has that impacted the way people around the program are viewing the threat? How much money did Louisville miss out on in the canceled NCAA Tournament? But one big challenge has been not getting these interviews in person. It’s a little harder to get a real connection with someone over the phone. At least in my case they’re a lot more likely to give you an inspired quote when you can have that face-to-face conversation. I’ve been moved basically full-time to the breaking news team along with our usual Louisville football writer. Our Southern Indiana high school sports reporter has shifted to our general Southern Indiana reporter, and our sports editor has taken the lead on some of that coverage as well. We’ve cut the number of pages we devote in print to sports, and our remaining writers have found stuff to write about – between U of L and UK, all the high schools in the city and state, the postponed Kentucky Derby, Louisville alums in the NFL who have made headlines along with NBA guys like Donovan Mitchell, there are stories out there.
This being your first year covering the UL basketball team, I’m sure it was a huge disappointment to learn that the tournament was being cancelled. Can you describe what it was like when you heard that news (where you were, what your initial reactions were…)?
I was disappointed when they canceled the ACC and NCAA Tournaments, but after the days leading up to the decision, I was also relieved. . But when I was in the arena in Greensboro at the ACC Tournament that Wednesday night when the NBA season was suspended mid-game and that video of Fred Hoiberg coughing on the sideline at the Big 10 Tournament started making the rounds, I was scared. Seriously. I didn’t want to be in an arena with 15,000 people when there was a pandemic happening. ACC officials held a press conference at 10:30 Thursday morning to announce that the tournament would go on as planned, but it became pretty clear pretty quickly that that wasn’t going to happen. They canceled the whole thing about an hour and a half later. When the NCAA decision came later that afternoon it wasn’t much of a surprise.
How have your readers reacted to the lack of sports news? Have you heard at all from members of the community?
Honestly, people have been pretty cool about the lack of sports coverage. I haven’t heard one complaint, which surprised me. I think people are so preoccupied with all the other changes in their lives that they don’t have time to complain about the sports pages – which is truly the upset of the century.
What about your daily routine? How has that changed?
My daily routine’s been completely overhauled. On the basketball beat my schedule revolved around the team’s schedule – I could basically sleep as late as I wanted because I’d need to be awake for 7 p.m. games and the several hours of writing that followed them. Once all this broke, though, and Louisville’s postseason was canceled, I was moved back to the breaking news team – there basically are no stories right now that aren’t about coronavirus, so given my experience that’s where they needed me the most. I’m logged on by 7 a.m. nowadays and work until 3:30 p.m., or as late as they need me to if news breaks. It’s less time on the phone with coaches and recruits and more time on the phone with others who are leading the coronavirus response.
I know your job is to cover the basketball team, but I also know you’re a huge fan. From a fan’s perspective, how have you been dealing with the lack of sports on TV and new headlines to read?
Any other time in my life if you would have told me I’d be working at home for all of March I would have celebrated – you mean I get to watch March Madness all day while I’m on the clock? So, not having my favorite sporting event of the year on TV hurts. I also just like, don’t know what to do with myself at night. From about 7 to 11 a lot of nights my TV is tuned to whatever big game is on. Even if I’m not watching, I’ll be keeping up with it while I’m making tomorrow’s lunch or writing or whatever. Like I said, I’ve been busy keeping up with other headlines, but I miss sports.
Do you think we’ve learned anything about the important role sports play in our communities?
I think sports are an escape that a lot of people could use in a time like this. There are a ton of discouraging headlines out there right now, and not a lot of ways to get away from them. They couldn’t hold the NCAA Tournament and were right to cancel it, but man, I can only imagine how having an event like that which people could watch and forget about some of the day’s problems could help. Louisville rallies around its basketball teams, and not having them around during a time like is an impact we’re all feeling.