If you are working in the media and sports is your forte, chances are you have been asked this question already: what do those involved in covering sports do when there is no live action?

The year 2020 has been surreal for almost everyone around the world for various reasons, and sports is no exception. Coronavirus has led to unprecedented events this year, the kind of impact on the sporting world not seen since World War II. No one in the sporting industry — be it the athletes and their families, coaches, support staff, officials, broadcasters, journalists, agents or those working in stadiums — was ready for this. No one could have predicted that an Olympic year, a dual T20 World Cup year, a European Championships year would end up being the year where sporting action reaches a grinding halt.

But in the midst of all this, a new trend has emerged. One that has kept athletes, fans and even those covering the game engaged. Many sportspersons around the world have stepped up their social media game, reaching out to their followers not just about their personal routines but turning interviewers as well.

And it makes one wonder if the coronavirus lockdown, not just in India but around the world, could permanently change the way sportspersons interact with fans.

Ever since the advent of Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, athletes have said how social media has been a tool to bring them closer to their fans. In the past, this has often been a double-edged sword: with instances that show how it can be put to good effect or occasions that made you wish the athletes would just do their thing on the field of sports.

But now, with no sporting events to participate in or even prepare towards, these superstars have taken the opportunity to interact with each other on live video.

It is no secret that Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal adore each other, but their interaction on Instagram was enough to send tennis fans around the world into a frenzy. Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray constructing their favourite tennis player was one among the many great moments during their live chat.

Away from tennis and closer home, cricket stars have been on overdrive in chatting with each other from the comforts of their homes. Be it former Indian stars reminiscing about old times like Yuvraj Singh and Harbhajan Singh or current cricketers and modern greats, like AB de Villiers and Virat Kohli sharing their bromance.

One of the more unique interview formats that we have seen is on YouTube. The ever-so-social-media-savvy Jemimah Rodrigues and her partner-in-crime Smriti Mandhana have started a series titled ‘Double Trouble’ where they released a couple of video interviews, featuring badminton world champion PV Sindhu and India vice captain Rohit Sharma.

Also read: Sunil Chhetri interacts with IM Vijayan, Sania Mirza and Virat Kohli.

For Indian cricket fans, this concept is not entirely new. BCCI.tv has been turning players into interviewers (most of all, Yuzvendra Chahal). This is now becoming the norm, with inter-sport discussions too. With Rodrigues and Mandhana,for instance, the standout feature so far has been how comfortable their subjects have been in discussing various issues. While Rohit has always been outspoken, Sindhu’s demeanour in her interview was a breath of fresh air.

Which brings us to the question: is this the new normal? Sure, the players who are interacting with each other could have the same marketing agency representing them or common brands they endorse. The questions will still be vetted to some extent. With the level of comfort athletes have with each other more evident, fans have been able to see a different facet of their personal lives. Apart from a selection of senior journalists around the country, very few can guarantee that sort of comfort to a sportsperson that one of their peers can offer.

It is, therefore, not a massive surprise to see Sindhu open up (even if briefly) about the pressure she was under in Basel in 2019 or, more strikingly, Mohammed Shami reveal his mental battles to colleague and friend Rohit Sharma.

The biggest takeaway? The guard that these media-trained superstars erect before the media (mainstream or otherwise) has invariably been dropped. The absence of scrutiny – no constant press conferences, questions about performance and pressure of tournament – has freed these sportspersons in a way that is enabling them to talk even about failures candidly.

This means that fans can have an honest insight into the personality of an athlete so often hidden in the grind of the fast-paced sporting life and the necessity to maintain a certain persona on social media. It’s been a long time since athletes, especially in India, have been able to have conversations without questions and answers invariably twisted for catchier headlines. This new, unique format therefore shines a light on the authentic selves of sporting idols.

Sure, the authenticity of a good interview with an unbiased, well-trained journalist will be tough to replicate. Sure, brands and agencies could seen realise that these interactions could also be money-making opportunities, and that might dilute the spontaneity over time, but the temptation to make these more regular will be high. For now, the real winners might be fans, who get to see the their personal athletes more up close and personal than ever before.

In an era where content is king, this trend could be the heir that takes the crown soon.