“Life After A Life in TV Sports” by guest blogger George Falkowski This comes to you from the Great Beyond of working in sports television.  Think of me as a TV ghost that comes calling late at night, warning you of what it’s like on the Other Side.

Please don’t panic.  It’s not all bad.

My name is George Falkowski.  My first internship came at the start of my senior year in college, in 1982.  Since then, I worked for New England Sports Network as a field and features producer.  I worked for SportsChannel NY as a features producer and occasional reporter.  In 1996, I landed the job of sports anchor/reporter for News 12 New Jersey.  My role expanded in recent years to include work as a news and feature reporter.  I have also taught at the college level as I earned a masters degree.  My cartoon artwork has appeared in several books. 

I have been nominated for a bunch of NY Emmy Awards, winning four, and adding an Edward R. Murrow regional award to the trophy shelf.

And right before Thanksgiving, I was laid off.  Happy holidays.

My fellow veterans in the business sympathized with a line from “The Godfather”:

“It’s the life we chose.”

I’d be kidding if I said I didn’t see it coming…eventually.  But I believed if I continued to do quality work, if I proved my versatility outside of sports, I would make it harder for management to eventually pull the trigger.  It didn’t work.

This is how it is in sports media these days, especially television news, where sports is generally regarded as something they have to tolerate because a small but vocal segment of the viewers actually like sports.  In general, TV news barely pays attention to sports, unless a story breaks that is so big they can’t ignore it.  In my last shop, examples would be the Tim Tebow-to-the-Jets story, or if the Giants made a run to the Super Bowl, or the Devils advancing to the Stanley Cup Final.  If people who don’t care about sports are talking about it, news suddenly cares.

Maybe not every station is like this, but to those I know in the field, the song is a familiar one.  Some stations still throw everything into a big sports story.  Others have different ideas about that.  Shrinking budgets dictate a lot of these decisions.

Our sports department was whittled away for four years.  We went from three full-timers and a freelancer, to two and one, then me and one, then just me.  I ran the department alone for ten months and we never missed a beat.  But if there were cuts to be made at the station, we all knew where they were coming.  It got to the point where if I missed a day for vacation, sickness or a personal issue, they didn’t bring anyone in to replace me.  No one seemed to mind.

Yet, management insisted that “sports remains a priority.”

A year ago, they brought in a 29 year-old, made him sports director from day one, and told me as soon as he was up to speed, I would “transition to news”. 

Arriving at work on the Sunday before Thanksgiving, I was met by the news director and the company’s HR director.  On a Sunday!

Turn in your playbook.

In a way, I understood it.  I’d been there nearly 18 years.  My salary, built up over that time, was a burden.  A news operation has bigger financial priorities than paying for a veteran sports guy who occasionally does news.   The bottom line was in the TV game of musical chairs, the music stopped and I had no place to land.  Really, I get it.

But it doesn’t make unemployment, particularly in this economy, any easier to take.  Nor does it ease the hurt.  You give everything you have and then one day, the numbers don’t add up.  You’re a victim of “reorganization”

I offered to take a pay cut on the spot.  No dice.  It was never an option.

In the time since, I have applied for many jobs.  I received two more NY Emmy nominations after I was laid off. 

Yet as of late June,  I haven’t even received a note acknowledging that I’ve applied for a TV job.  Not. One.

I’m lucky in that I received a healthy severance package, but that’s running thin.  Unemployment ran out weeks ago.  I started my own website and continue to cover local stories of interest, sports and otherwise.  Just because I enjoy the stories and the process of telling them.   Local teams have been great about issuing me credentials.   It brings in no money but it keeps me in the field and may yet lead to something.  I took a course to get my real estate license as a Plan B. 

The entire TV business is shrinking.   Newspapers are dying.  Magazines are on life support.  ESPN let go of many long-time employees in the past year.  No doubt, money being the key issue, and the new healthcare law also a culprit as expenses have gone way up.   For many of my displaced friends, most of whom have great talent and experience, there is a shock when you discover that despite all you bring to the table, no one seems to want you.  It’s stunning, quite frankly.  We’re in our early 50’s and it’s like we’ve passed our freshness date.  Last week’s bread, so to speak. 

I know just about everyone in New Jersey sports from top to bottom.  I know every story we’ve ever covered.  I can handle everything from sports to snowstorms.  And none of that matters.

But you know what?  I wouldn’t trade my TV experience for anything.

I’ve covered eight Stanley Cup Finals and two NBA Finals.  I worked with the Bruins and Red Sox for ten years.  Fenway Park was my work address.  I’ve been covering the Giants and Jets for 17 years.  I’ve covered college and high school sports.  Too many events and memories to count. 

People use to ask, “You go to the games for free?”

And I would have to say, “No.  They pay me to go.”

I really developed a connection with the people of New Jersey, my home state.  They knew I was one of them.  I got to be a sportscaster in my home market, in front of friends and family. I still get approached by former viewers when attending sports events and they all have kind things to say.   It doesn’t pay the bills, but it’s pretty neat.

The good news is the growth of all-sports networks.  The jobs may be few and hard to get, but if you’re determined to work in sports, that’s a great place to aim.  Every major sport has its own network.  Regional networks like NESN are all over the country now.  If you work at one of them, you know that sports is the priority.  I was in regional sports for the first 13 years of my career.  The move to TV news was refreshing and challenging.  I really enjoyed it, especially when I was able to prove that I could handle news and feature assignments. 

Now is the time for reinvention.  I have two kids, aged 13 and nine.  And a mortgage and two car loans.  I have to do something and to be honest, it’s going to be real weird if it’s not in media.  I still have gas in the tank and the energy to continue.  I’m keeping the faith. 

That said, being home to see your kids go to bed more than twice a week isn’t a bad thing, either.

So it’s not a warning I toss your way.  Maybe more of a caution.  Sports can be a rewarding experience if you don’t mind working long hours, night and weekends, usually for lousy pay.  You may have to move multiple times, or travel to the point of exhaustion.  Your relationships will suffer without the proper support system in place.  It’s not a normal life.  Ask my first wife.

The sports business, any part of it, is demanding and generally thankless, except for what you take from it.  There aren’t many things cooler than walking into a professional stadium or arena and getting paid to do it.

I believe those on the outside call it “living the dream”.

We know better.  We know the cost.  But we love it anyway.

I ask that you work hard, be dedicated, be enthusiastic.  Learn the new technologies.  Stay relevant.   It’s critical that you develop other marketable skills and develop a great network of friends in the profession in case they day comes when they ask you to “turn in your playbook”.

But hey, it’s the life we chose.