BOZEMAN — “Republic sports!”
It was with those two words that my sports journalism career began 39 years ago this fall, with an anticipatory punch of a flashing white button on one of those phones now banished to the dustbin of history alongside buggy whips, transistor radios and Blockbuster video stores.
Like most sports writers of my Woodward and Bernstein generation, I cut my teeth taking high school football and basketball box scores from coaches, in my case as part of a small army of sports clerks collecting results from across Arizona for the state’s largest newspaper in Phoenix.
I can still feel the rush as if it were yesterday. At times, all 10 lights on several of those old phones buzzed and blinked impatiently as coaches from Page to Bisbee and Parker to Show Low waited to give us their linescores, scoring summaries and individual statistics.
I couldn’t fathom a sports section without box scores.
“Calling in results from Salmon Well,” came the distant, crackly and distinctly Hispanic voice on the other end of that debut call.
I dutifully took the scoring, intrigued that a desert state so far from any anadromous fish runs would have a community called “Salmon Well.” I surmised the town, wherever it was, was christened by a homesick Michigan snowbird like myself.
After that harried first night — imagine drinking from a firehose for two hours straight — I eagerly reported for Day 2 and was summoned by the gentle but firm voice of the night desk supervisor. He was armed with what would become the first of many journalism teaching moments.
His message was from the sports editor, who had spent half his morning dealing with a barrage of irate readers. They were comprised of just about every living soul from a little copper-mining community northeast of Tucson called … San Manuel.
Two career lessons were thus indelibly etched:
• The importance of thoroughness and accuracy. Believe it or not, it’s a tenet those of us in the mainstream newspaper business still hold sacred.
• The importance of box scores, especially to small, proud communities that otherwise only see themselves in print when something goes dreadfully wrong.
Which brings me back to the unfathomable notion of a sports section without high school box scores.
For a variety of reasons, mostly related to shrinking resources, we are forced with having once-unfathomable conversations about whether to keep providing this longtime staple. An enormous amount of staff time goes into them for, frankly, relatively modest returns in terms of readership.
The Billings Gazette, for example, inputs more than 100 basketball boxes most Friday and Saturday nights. They represent about 3% of our online sports readership while requiring up to 70% of our staff time.
The Missoulian has been in similar straits for some time.
Some weeks during the busy football and basketball seasons, our choice is literally between box scores and everything — anything — else.
Other newspapers have already done away with them for similar reasons. In fact, 406mtsports.com is the only site in Montana that publishes all the state’s high school box scores.
And we’re still committed to doing just that. As my Salmon Well/San Manuel — say them both, really fast — anecdote affirms, box scores matter, even today.
But here’s the deal: we will need your help. More to the point, we will need the help of your athletic directors and coaches.
Beginning this coming fall, we will no longer be able to accept box scores the old-school ways: by phone, fax or email.
We will be asking home-team coaches or other trusted folks in their schools to input box scores directly into our system, where we’ll aggregate them for publishing online. When athletic directors return to campuses in August, we will send login and password information to each one for distribution to their fall coaches.
We aren't asking for more time from coaches or their staffs. It's merely a shift in the way they provide the information.
Similar formats are successfully underway at other newspapers across the country.
Still, we realize this is a dramatic change. Growing pains are inevitable.
Yet the alternative — having box scores go the way of buggy whips and transistor radios — is untenable to this old ink- and cyber-stained wretch.
So our mission next sports year remains for 406mtsports.com to be the home of every high school box score in the state. We are committed to working with ADs and coaches from all 170-some-odd schools to ensure accurate and timely results for the foreseeable future.
And come to think of it, this way we’ll no longer run the risk of a rookie sports writer creating a fictitious Montana town that unleashes the denizens of a real one on an unsuspecting sports editor.