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This article also appears in our March 20 print issue under the headline “Game Over.”
For Pam Chvotkin, the month of March means one thing: sports. It’s when the men’s and women’s NCAA basketball championships begin. Opening Day for baseball nears, and the playoff pictures for the NBA and NHL start to get clearer. A significant sports event is on TV almost every day.
As an independent contractor working in sports television production, this time of year is typically Chvotkin’s busiest. Entering the month, she had booked her work schedule through August, including work as a production coordinator at the Final Four with CBS Sports Network and booth coordinator for ESPN’s Sunday night MLB games beginning next month. But by the time Chvotkin returned to D.C. from New York on March 13 after attending the Big East men’s basketball tournament, nothing would be the same. Not this year.
Precautions taken due to the global COVID-19 pandemic have halted sporting events. The NCAA canceled its winter and spring championships, including basketball’s March Madness. The NBA is on indefinite hiatus with plans to re-evaluate next month, while the NHL hit pause. MLB pushed the start of its season back by at least eight weeks. Major League Soccer suspended its season for 30 days, and the National Women’s Soccer League canceled its preseason matches. Even the Summer Olympics in Tokyo are in jeopardy of being postponed.
Chvotkin can be staring at weeks, if not potentially months, without a job.
“Basically, no games, no paycheck,” Chvotkin says. “No events, no paycheck.”
The sports shutdown has impacted nearly everyone in the industry, from freelance sports media members to part-time arena workers to professional tennis players who rely on prize money for income to college seniors who had their season abruptly ended. It’s forced fans to search for a way to fill the void of sports and reflect on the therapeutic role it can play. Social leagues, recreational sports events, and local road races like the Cherry Blossom Ten Mile Run have also been canceled.
“Some people are scared,” Chvotkin says. “Nobody knows what the future holds.”
The news didn’t come as a complete shock to Dashawn, a 21-year-old Greenbelt resident who works for the Washington Wizards’ in-game entertainment team. He had been following the news and figured the NBA might postpone or cancel its season.
For the past two years, Dashawn, who asked to only be identified by his first name, has worked at every Wizards home game, in addition to several team-related events. He helps hype up the crowd by throwing T-shirts into the stands and providing an energetic presence on the court during breaks in play at Capital One Arena.
Dashawn estimates that the gig provided about half his income. He also works at Buffalo Wild Wings in Navy Yard, and the cancelation of the rest of the NBA season and the temporary closure of restaurants in D.C. mean he’ll need to find other part-time jobs.
“Gotta roll with the punches,” he says.
Monumental Sports & Entertainment (MSE) and its chief executive, Ted Leonsis, owner of the Wizards, Capitals, Mystics, and Capital City Go-Go franchises, will pay the part-time employees who were scheduled to work events—15 at Capital One Arena and three at the Entertainment and Sports Arena—canceled in March. The part-time staff includes ushers, ticket takers, events staff, and operations staff. Their work schedule is determined on the 20th of every month for the following month, and no schedule has been set for April or beyond. If the games or concerts are rescheduled, the workers would be paid again for those events.
“It helps out a lot, but I’m still gonna look for other jobs just as a precaution,” Dashawn says.
Scott Choinski has been eagerly anticipating the start of the baseball season. For the past three years, he’s worked at Nationals Park selling 50-50 raffle tickets. He’s gotten to know regular customers and enjoys the camaraderie with his part-time colleagues.
He does the same job for the Wizards and the Washington NFL team. More recently, he picked up shifts with D.C. United and the DC Defenders of the XFL at Audi Field as an usher and ticket scanner.
All together, the stadium jobs make up about 25 percent of Choinski’s income. Last year, he started working full time for FedEx in the quality assurance department. He uses the money made from the part-time shifts at sports games to help pay his bills.
“If I was only working part-time at FedEx like last year, I’d be hurting,” he says. “The true effects of not working the games probably won’t hit me for another two to three weeks … but it will.”
On March 8, the Indian Wells Masters tennis tournament became one of the first major sporting events to be canceled due to the COVID-19 outbreak.
Four days later, the Miami Open followed suit, meaning professional tennis players would be without two of the biggest tournaments of the year. That same day, the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) announced it would suspend the men’s professional tour for six weeks, later extended through June 7 in a joint statement with the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA). The International Tennis Federation (ITF), which runs the Davis Cup and Fed Cup, postponed its events until June 8, and the French Open, originally scheduled to run from May 24 to June 7, will now take place from Sept. 20 to Oct. 4.
For the first few days after leaving Indian Wells, California, Denis Kudla struggled to find purpose in practice. He was set to play in the tournament’s qualifying rounds when he saw the news.
“It felt difficult,” Kudla says. “I was constantly on my phone, looking for next options. It was weird. Trying to reset and get back to being present, but at the same time, in the back of my mind, knowing I have time to improve, take off, get the body right, asking myself, ‘How am I going to approach all this?’”
Tennis is different from team sports in that professional players don’t make a base salary. Most players earn their income through prize money, and no matches can mean no income. Kudla, who splits his time between Tampa, Florida, and Arlington and is currently ranked No. 111 in the world, knows he’s in a better position than most. In addition to accruing $2,995,987 in prize money over the course of 10 years between singles and doubles matches, he has sponsorship deals with Lacoste and Yonex. But Kudla understands the plights of the tennis world.
Coming up on the professional tour, players can lose money while competing in tournaments when their expenses outpace their earnings.
“We’re purely a commission-based job,” Kudla says. “No salary or anything. You work for anything you get. Until you’re at the highest level, it usually puts you in the negative. It’s a crazy dynamic.”
Kudla, 27, plans to continue training but he now has hours in his day that he can fill with Netflix, practicing the piano, or planning for his career after tennis. Being a regular in the top 100 has made him financially stable so he won’t need other sources of income, but he says he’s “not going to not consider” looking for another job if the tour is suspended for longer than six weeks.
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His girlfriend’s parents own a restaurant in St. Augustine, Florida. “Maybe I can help out there,” Kudla says. (Or maybe not. Restaurants in Florida are now required to operate at 50 percent occupancy and tables must be at least six feet apart.)
Like Kudla, Thai-Son Kwiatkowski believes the ATP made the right decision to suspend the tour. He just hopes that the governing body will help players recoup some of the money they spent traveling to tournaments.
Kwiatkowski, the 2017 NCAA men’s singles champion from the University of Virginia, is now ranked No. 182 in the world on the ATP Tour and supports himself with prize money and by participating in international tennis exhibitions. He had been looking forward to playing at Indian Wells, considered the unofficial fifth Grand Slam in tennis because of the competitive field it draws, for the first time in his career and had already paid for his flight to California.
Kwiatkowski is now back in Charlottesville, trying to figure out how to balance his schedule with the tour’s start date in flux. The communication from the tour’s governing body has been “abysmal,” according to Kwiatkowski, who found out about the Indian Wells cancelation on Twitter.
“We are not employees of ATP—they love saying that—we are members. We are not entitled to anything, but I think they have some sort of responsibility to help us during this time,” Kwiatkowski says. “The guys ranked 100-plus need a little bit of help, whether financially or whatever kind of solution. I don’t know what the answer is. I feel like we’re in the dark.”
At 4:16 p.m. on March 12, the NCAA announced that it would be canceling its winter and spring championships. A day later, individual conferences made the decision to cancel regular season competition for spring sports. Olivia Beach cried when she heard the news.
Beach, a senior at Slippery Rock University in western Pennsylvania, walked on to the school’s women’s lacrosse team her freshman year and battled through knee injuries to become a starter this year. She understands the decision to cancel the season, but that doesn’t make it hurt less.
“As a team, we put in so much sweat and tears preparing for our season,” says Beach, a 2016 graduate of Walter Johnson High School in Bethesda. “Just not being able to finish that out as a team is really heartbreaking.”
Seniors like Beach will have to live with unanswered questions about how things could or would have turned out. The NCAA will grant student athletes who participated in a spring sport another year of eligibility, but details have yet to be finalized.
The NCAA’s decision also meant the sudden end of collegiate careers. Basketball players getting ready for March Madness can no longer showcase their talents on the sport’s biggest stage. The Maryland women’s basketball team rode a 17-game win streak into the NCAA championships, including winning the Big Ten regular season and tournament titles.
Coach Brenda Frese believes the Terps could’ve added another championship banner to the rafters at Xfinity Center. The year’s team reminds her of the 2006 national champions led by several future WNBA players, including Kristi Toliver, Crystal Langhorne, and Marissa Coleman.
“Everyone was talking about the other three schools, we were kinda under the radar,” Frese says. “I think we would’ve gotten to the Final Four, and then it just comes down to who was playing the best basketball.”
Frese will never know, but she takes solace in the final moments of her team’s season. The Terps won the Big Ten tournament as confetti rained down on their heads at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis. “We had better closure than most,” she says. “I feel grateful and blessed for that.”
Elite athletes are used to routines. They’ve been taught that if you work hard enough, you can achieve your goals. The past week has been a lesson in helplessness and patience for the many seniors who could not finish their careers on their own terms.
“For four years, we’ve had a firm schedule. We’ve known what we’re doing,” says Ryan Baker, a senior on the University of Virginia men’s swim team. “We manage time well between class, practice, recovery. We’ve always had so much control in our lives.”
Baker qualified for the NCAA championships in three individual events (50, 100, and 200 freestyle) and four relays (200, 400, 800 freestyle relay and 400 medley relay). He found out that the championships would be canceled as he was warming up on the pool deck before practice.
Afterward, the team gathered in a classroom at the school’s aquatic center, where the seniors took turns addressing their teammates. The mood was somber, and as Baker spoke, he started to realize the gravity of the situation and what that moment meant to him. “I think everyone understands this is something bigger than sports,” he says.
“It kind of started to sink in, oh, I might never swim again competitively,” Baker adds. An Arlington native who swam at Gonzaga College High School, Baker plans to end his swimming career at the Olympic Trials in Omaha, Nebraska, in June, but fears that the meet could be in doubt because swimmers currently have nowhere to train and no competitions to swim in.
“If there’s one thing athletics has taught you, it’s you have to roll with the punches sometimes, whether it’s season ending injuries, or maybe you get cut, or you’re riding the bench,” he says. “This is a big punch, but just another punch for these people. We have to stay tough and keep on.”
Watching sports is part of Guthrie Edson’s nightly routine. Before bed, he’ll watch whatever games are on, regardless of the sport or team. Edson watches the games while engaging with other fans on social media or with his friends via text.
The games and the banter give the 22-year-old from Falls Church a sense of community.
“In fourth or fifth grade, I started following sports more closely,” Edson says. “I study sports management at George Washington University. Sports have been a part of my life for a long time.”
The loss of sports has created a void. He’s back at home with his parents in Virginia, and hasn’t yet found a replacement in his routine. “That’s going to take time,” he says. For now, Edson may watch some of the classic NBA games and 30 for 30 documentaries that are on the ESPN+ app.
When Dawn Michele Whitehead moved to D.C. from Indiana just over five years ago, she dove headfirst into D.C. sports fandom, even before the current wave of championships. She bought partial season tickets for the Wizards, started rooting for the Nationals, and attends about five Mystics home games a year.
Sports provide a way for Whitehead to socialize with friends. It’s not just a game. It’s a part of her lifestyle.
“I’m going to miss that piece of it,” she says.
For the past 15 years, Whitehead has also attended the Miami Open tennis tournament. She has family in south Florida, and few things can match the thrill of watching players like Serena Williams practice and compete live.
Sports, Whitehead says, is important because it brings people together. She witnessed the passion of D.C. sports fans last year while standing in front of the National Museum of African American History and Culture on a chilly afternoon during the Nationals’ championship parade. The year before, she soaked in the Capitals’ Stanley Cup victory, and in 2017, Whitehead witnessed the city’s collective energy during the Wizards’ playoff run.
In times of crisis, sports can be a comforting constant. Whitehead enjoys reading and says she’ll be able to keep herself busy. But it won’t be the same.
“I’m not quite sure what will replace sports,” she says. “Because they really bring people from such different backgrounds together.”
Chvotkin tells herself it’ll be fine. She’s grateful for the fact that she has enough money saved up. In addition to being a freelance sports TV producer, she’s an adjunct professor at the University of Alabama, where she teaches an online sports marketing class. CBS Sports announced on March 16 that it would pay all technicians and utility workers, including freelancers, scheduled to work March Madness.
Her friends have been sending her job listings for public relations jobs, but Chvotkin doesn’t want to commit to anything full time yet. She’s still glued to her TV, flipping through the channels in hopes of finding sports. She may update her resume, and wants to be ready when the jobs do return. Once that happens, it’s full steam ahead, she says.
For now, she’s using this time to catch up on sleep, clean her apartment, and spend time with family. She can’t remember the last time she slept until 8 in the morning. In live sports, TV producers need to be able to adapt to unexpected situations. That challenge won’t change.
“It’s just weird, just an odd feeling of the unknown,” Chvotkin says. “But the only thing we can do right now is take care of ourselves. Our health is of utmost importance.”