As the executive producer of Rogers Sportsnet’s drive-time chat show, Tim and Sid, Jon Coleman was used to dealing with certain kinds of breaking stories. “Breaking news trades,” he explained on Tuesday afternoon. So, if the Toronto Blue Jays land a big-name pitcher, or if a Canadian hockey team makes a major deal, the show is all over it, amplifying the excitement of fans who are tuned in.
So when his phone started blowing up early Sunday afternoon with reports that the basketball star Kobe Bryant had been killed in a helicopter crash, Coleman, who was promoted from Tim and Sid in the summer of 2018 to general manager of news and information for Sportsnet, had to scramble. At the time, he was severely out of position, in Niagara Falls, Ont., enjoying some family time with his wife and two young daughters at Great Wolf Lodge. Back at Sportsnet HQ, a skeleton staff was working what was expected to be a quiet Sunday; with a Raptors game in San Antonio, Tex., slated for a 4 p.m. (ET) tip-off, the first broadcast from the network’s Toronto studio wouldn’t start until 10 p.m.
Within minutes, all of that was in doubt. If the news was true, would there even be a game? If there were no game, how quickly could Coleman get a crew and talent to the studio to cover the developing story? If a game went ahead, the network would need to do a special halftime show from its Toronto studio. Meanwhile, misinformation began swirling on social media, adding pressure to the network to get on air – but only with what they knew for sure.
Coleman called Billy Duke, a managing editor who oversees the assignment desk, to get staff working the phones to confirm the news.
“When I first heard it, it was from a TMZ report,” explained Coleman, referring to the gossip news site. “I know that tends to scare people. I actually think they're becoming a lot more credible, especially on the sport side of things. They do have people that feed them a lot of information, but we're obviously not going to report what they report as fact. If they’re saying somebody's got a torn [anterior cruciate ligament] – okay, you might go with it. But if somebody's reporting the death of a legend, you're not following that lemming off the cliff until you know for sure.”
Coleman directed his head of digital to get reporters writing stories, “but we’re not posting anything until we know. We need to be ready. Especially on digital, being first is very important, but it's not as important as being right, especially with something of this magnitude. Credibility is everything. We’re not going to jump the gun here and report something of that magnitude, and have it be inaccurate. That would cripple the brand.”
At 3:15 p.m., having confirmed the reports with its own sources, the network tweeted out the news. (The network’s archrival, TSN, tweeted it at 3:10 p.m.)
While Sportsnet staff called their roster of NBA insiders trying to confirm the news, Coleman beetled down the QEW from Niagara Falls, liaising on speakerphone with his senior producers and senior director to strategize possible coverage. Network schedulers corralled whichever staff could get to the studio quickly. When the studio director who was scheduled to helm the 10 p.m. show wouldn’t be able to make it in on time because he lived too far away, Andrea Cuccaro, who is on the network’s management team, “jumped on her bike and came in.”
“Tremendous credit to them and everybody involved. Not one person hesitated. Everybody dropped what they’re doing, understanding the magnitude of this,” Coleman said.
“While we’re mobilizing those forces, I’m on the phone with Greg Sansone, the vice-president of programming, to lay out a plan: If there’s no game, we’re going to go up at 4. If there is a game, we need to take over the halftime, because the [production] truck [in San Antonio] is not equipped to cover news stories,” Coleman said. “They’re producing a game. They don’t have the time to be monitoring all the news, let alone bringing in material to help tell those stories.”
Coleman was also in contact with Martin Paul, the executive producer of Sportsnet’s Raptors broadcasts. Someone else was in touch with Raptors general manager Bobby Webster, who was talking to the National Basketball Association, to figure out whether the Raptors’ game against the Spurs would be cancelled.
By the time Coleman dropped his family at home in Toronto and made it to the studio shortly before 4 p.m., a tech crew of about 20 was prepping elements to use in on-air stories, and anchors Martine Gaillard and Brendan Dunlop were made up and ready to go on air, along with basketball reporter Michael Grange, in case the game was cancelled.
About 10 minutes before tip-off, word came in that the game was on, so Coleman and his crew pivoted to focus on halftime coverage with Gaillard, Dunlop, and Grange. That went live around 5 p.m. on all six available Sportsnet channels: the five main ones, which were carrying the Raptors game, as well as Sportsnet 360, formerly known as the sports news channel The Score.
During the halftime coverage, Coleman and his crew were told the Los Angeles Police Department were about to hold a news conference. But it was delayed, so while the five main Sportsnet channels switched back to the Raptors game, the anchors stayed on Sportsnet 360, said Coleman, and “tap-danced to that news conference."
When the game came down at about 6:15 p.m., Coleman and his crew went to live coverage, which ran about an hour and 20 minutes. (They also did a full Sportsnet Central broadcast at the usual 10 p.m. (ET), and another at 10 p.m. (PT).) “By this point, we’d gathered tons of material. We went really hard, and we were able to talk to a lot of our NBA insiders and hear some stories.”
ESPN basketball writer Marc Spears, who was friends with Bryant, did an interview via Skype. The former Toronto Raptor Alvin Williams, who had been friends with Bryant since the two were young men in Philadelphia, spoke to the Sportsnet anchors as well, reminiscing about how he had helped recruit Bryant to Villanova University.
“That was by phone,” said Coleman, who explained that was how the network conducted a number of interviews on the breaking file. Some didn’t want to get on camera. “A lot of these people, you know, they were crying.”