Athlete calling athlete: Making sense of players turning interviewers and its domino effect

The phenomenon of athletes turning anchors or interviewers began as an experiment but seems on course to become a trend, both in India and elsewhere. A slew of current and former sportspersons have taken to the format, and dare one say, are doing an exceptionally fine job too.

Shantanu Srivastava September 09, 2020 12:02:51 IST
Athlete calling athlete: Making sense of players turning interviewers and its domino effect

In April this year, with the country under lockdown and all outdoor activities indefinitely suspended, sports fans in India woke up to an eclectic grouping of three young women discussing their success stories and journeys in a fun, engaging banter. Released on YouTube and featuring cricketers Jemimah Rodrigues and Smriti Mandhana as hosts, the pilot episode of Double Trouble had the reigning world badminton champion PV Sindhu as a guest. Expectedly, the show became quite popular with the endearing rawness of the spunky hosts standing out as a refreshing change from practiced formats.

It set in motion an interesting ripple effect. A number of current and former sportspersons joined the bandwagon of Instagram chats, YouTube shows, podcasts, and webinars, the central theme being them playing the anchor. Not surprisingly, he/she would get the guest, in this case, another athlete, to open up in a very matter-of-factly manner, making for an insightful and engaging viewer experience.

What began as an experiment seems to be fast becoming a trend, both in India and elsewhere. A slew of current and former sportspersons have taken to the format, and dare one say, are doing an exceptionally fine job too.

Former Australian cricketer Shane Watson’s podcast, Lessons Learnt With The Greats, is a prime example of one such all-encompassing chat. The show, that has so far featured the likes of Rahul Dravid, Dennis Lillee, Sir Vivian Richards, Wasim Akram, among others, follows a fixed template, and one can almost second guess Watson’s line of questioning after listening to a couple of episodes. However, what may pleasantly surprise the listener is Watson’s easy build-up and the honesty of his guests, all of which make it anything but yet another sit-down session of questions and answers.

Watson, still an active sportsperson who plies his trade in the franchise cricket, opens the show with usual expected platitudes for his guest, but soon delves into the technical, mental, physical, and financial aspects of the game with seamless proficiency. His camaraderie and ready access ensure a warm, personal tone, and even tetchy topics of failures and professional lows are negotiated with remarkable ease.

Among the Indian initiatives, Inside Out With WV Raman is noted for Raman’s intelligent questions, while Double Trouble is identified for its freshness and casual feel. Ravichandran Ashwin’s Reminisce With Ash, as the name suggests, has the Indian off-spinner diligently choosing the career highlights of his guests and discussing them threadbare with the said cricketer, while Aakash Chopra’s interviews on his show Aakash Vaani appear more anecdotal while going through the expanse of his subjects’ career.

Given the format’s steady popularity and wide acceptance, it is worth pondering whether the trend indeed has a sustainable future in the medium to long term. There is a sizable school of thought that believes that in the visual online medium, a sportsperson playing an anchor guarantees both success and quality, and the pattern, experts say, might be here to stay.

“I strongly believe that this trend is here to stay,” says Tuhin Mishra, MD and co-founder of Baseline Ventures, the sports marketing firm that manages Mandhana, Rodrigues, and Sindhu.

“We had the first movers’ advantage with Double Trouble and it became popular because of its rawness. We didn’t coach or tutor the two girls; they just did it organically. The trend has really caught up now and we believe that this format, of sportspersons interviewing their colleagues, is something that is far more engaging than regular anchor-based shows or interviews,” he said.

India’s ace squash player Saurav Ghosal, also managed by Baseline Ventures, is the latest athlete to turn anchor, with his YouTube show The Finish Line. An eight-part series, the show has Ghosal trying to decipher the success formula from the likes of Abhinav Bindra and Viswanathan Anand. The preparation is meticulous, the questions well thought, and the research immaculate.

“I have thoroughly enjoyed this series,” Ghosal tells Firstpost. “It is a welcome departure from what I have been doing and gives me a great insight into the minds of the champion athletes. What works for me is that being an athlete, I understand what my subject has gone through. I know what it takes to win and lose, how it to be in the zone, and what is it like to perform at the highest level.”

Ghosal’s brief is simple: Try and probe the mental side of his interviewees. The team at Baseline helps him with the preliminary research, but Ghosal also relies on his own legwork which, as it turns out, is quite journalistic in nature.

“My preparations start with reading on the subject. I read all the interviews I can find on my subject, be it in newspapers or on the internet. I try to speak to people close to my interviewee, and of course, it helps that I know some of my guests personally. I have known Bindra for a number of years and we have chatted about success and failures in past at a very personal level too,” says Ghosal.

For India’s best-known male squash player, the experience to host the show has been quite rewarding. The show is fast gaining traction and viewers have been appreciative of well-researched questions and well-thought answers.

“It was a conscious decision to make it a no-frills interview. We wanted to appeal to fans who really want to know what goes inside the mind of these inspirational athletes. It is a welcome departure from Double Trouble, that perhaps had a different audience,” explains Mishra.

The importance of the personal equation that Ghosal mentions cannot be stated enough. While a well-read journalist or a seasoned anchor may still have trouble getting an athlete to shed his/her inhibitions, a fellow sportsperson asking the very same questions is more likely to elicit a suitable response. Commentator-cum-content creator Aakash Chopra agrees that having a personal connect with a number of current and former cricketers not only puts them at ease when they turn up on his shows, but also helps him to get them to open up on contentious topics.

“Look, I don’t mean any disrespect to sports journalists, but athletes, and especially cricketers, are far more comfortable discussing certain things with someone who has played the game. A cricketer may take offence at a question from a journalist, but if the same query is posed by someone who has played the game at the highest level, they’ll be fine. For example, I can easily ask Cheteshwar Pujara what he feels about missing the IPL bus and he won’t feel bad because he knows I have played the sport and was never considered a T20 player myself.

“That said, there are great sports journalists who have served the fraternity well for a number of years. I don’t think these chats can replace their analysis or reportage,” explains Chopra.

Acclaimed broadcaster and cricket analyst Joy Bhattacharjya believes that the trend has the potential to stay, albeit the frequency of such shows may reduce when regular sporting action resumes. Bhattacharjya essentially categorises these athlete-anchors in three sets: recreational, full-time, and in-between.

“The recreational category has the highest numbers as the athletes didn’t have much to do during the lockdown. Then, there are some who may be looking at it as a possible full-time career. There’s a third, an in-between group of athletes that may feel they have the potential to make a career out of it but at a later stage, so they’ll keep doing this stuff off and on. But what this trend has essentially shown is that one really doesn’t need a Star or a Sony to broadcast his/her views. You can open your own YouTube channel and start right away,” he says.

The question then arises is, where does this leave sports journalists? With the COVID-19 situation wreaking an already struggling media sector, a number of journalists have lost their jobs or endured salary cuts. Then, there has always been the issue of access. With almost each elite sportsperson in the country being managed by a public relations agency, the chances of an athlete developing a warm, personal relation with journalists are exceedingly rare. Virat Kohli opening up to Sunil Chhetri in a YouTube chat makes for excellent viewing, but in newsrooms across the country, sports journalists silently squirm at the sight of another door being shut on them. Longform interviews have become increasingly rare, and running rehashed stories is fast becoming the norm.

Senior sports journalist Vijay Lokapally believes that while the trend may justifiably worry his ilk, there is no alternate to quality.

“See, we are living in an era where only the very best will survive, be it any sector. With the economic mess we are in, organisations will look to downsize a lot. So, to stay relevant, sports journalists will have to raise their game. There will always be space and growth for good writers and good students of sports. If you are good, you don’t need to worry,” he says.

“I completely understand the nervousness of sports journalists,” agrees Bhattacharjya. “A number of news organisations do not have a sports desk altogether, so the situation is quite grim. Now, if you have athletes turning anchors, it will make things more difficult for sports journalists. There's also a whole lot of amateur writers who do not need a newspaper platform to express their views. But, despite everything, good sports journalists will survive. There will be no replacement for good match reports, investigations, or analytical pieces because journalists are trained for such skills.”

That said, one can foresee a spurt in virtual sports events in days to come. With social distancing guidelines in place and the coronavirus pandemic showing no signs to relent, corporates as well as governments are looking to conduct sports events, even distance runs, digitally - as self-contradictory as it may sound.

There is, however, enough room for online sports learning, as India On Track (IOT) COO and co-founder Rohan Chopra says. IOT recently conducted a five-day online sports festival (1-5 September) for children in collaboration with LaLiga, Major League Baseball, and NBA, a model that Chopra believes is worth emulating.

“Speaking purely from a business perspective, I believe this innovation (of conducting a virtual sports festival) will gain a lot of acceptance in the sports community. Sports, as an industry, is still at a very nascent stage in India and it will help the entire sector if the industry comes together in this,” he says.

“Logistically too, virtual events make a lot of sense. As an organiser, I don’t have to bother about the travel and accommodation of my delegates, and that saves a lot of money. All I need is an idea and the internet.”

With Formula One and US Open 2020 up and running and the Indian Premier League (IPL) ready to take off in 10 days, there won’t be a dearth of live sports on television, at least in near future. Gauging the popularity of the proverbial athlete-anchor in the backdrop of live action will then make for an interesting observation.

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