Coronavirus disease wipes out work for those that lean on sports for income

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Oklahoma City-based photographer Joshua Gateley (center) kneels on the sideline during a 2019 game between the Browns and Broncos in Denver. Gateley is one of many photographers professionally impacted by the Coronavirus disease outbreak.

Joshua Gateley arrived with camera gear in tow at Sprint Center Thursday morning. He hesitantly expected a basketball-filled day with the Big 12 tournament planning to unfold before no fans.

The Oklahoma City-based freelance photographer wasn’t sure what the day held, considering the night before.

He and other credentialed photographers left the same arena following Wednesday’s Big 12 tournament play-in games hoping they’d see each other the next day as concerns over the coronavirus disease heightened.

The Big 12’s attempts to complete its men’s and women’s tournaments despite concerns over the pandemic meant Gateley, hired by ESPN to shoot the tournament in Kansas City, Missouri, would still have work through Sunday.

But just before the Texas and Texas Tech men tipped off at 11:30 a.m. Thursday, it all vanished.

“I was actually walking into the arena Thursday morning when I got a call from the producer at ESPN who said, ‘just giving you a heads up, this thing is about to get canceled,’” Gateley said.

The Big 12 axed its basketball tournaments. It later did the same with all of its spring sports.

The NCAA canceled its men’s and women’s basketball tournaments as well. The NCAA’s spring championships shortly met the same fate as March Madness.

In America's attempt to slow the coronavirus pandemic, sports have come to a near halt. It’s a difficult reality for college student-athletes and coaches, and some professional, to face with their seasons abruptly ended.

For Gateley and many others, sports’ unexpected hiatus is a direct hit to their livelihood.

Gateley, who graduated from OU with an advertising degree in 2002, relies on the sports calendar to pay his bills and support his wife and two children.

His primary clients are OU and ESPN, which provide him enough work that he was able to leave his eight-year job at an energy company to pursue freelance photography full time in February 2016.

You’ve likely seen one of Gateley’s photos. He handles portraits for OU’s student-athletes, which often complement physical and digital promotional materials for the Sooners’ myriad programs. Perhaps, you've seen him roaming OU football’s home and away sidelines, capturing action shots and frequent post-game celebrations.

Gateley is now uncertain of what he and many others in his shoes, whether freelancing full- or part-time, will do with the global pandemic clearing their work schedules.

“Really it kind of hit me [Friday] morning, at least the next two months, everything I had on my calendar that I had counted on for work is gone,” Gateley said. “... there are a lot of other people in the same boat as me. Hourly workers, who work these events and the cities that count on this revenue and everything else.

“It's weird. I've spent all day racking my brain, and I don't have an answer to what I'm going to do next.”

An estimated 57 million people worked as a freelancer in some capacity last year in the United States, according to a report from the Freelancers Union and upwork.com, which accounts for 17 percent of the country’s population.

Gateley recognizes how fortunate he is to be in his position. It took over a decade to build his current network of recurring freelance opportunities from his original photography job for a magazine 16 years ago.

“I joke with my wife all the time I don't have a real job,” Gateley said. “I love sports, I love being a fan of sports and then getting to take pictures of my biggest hobby as a job is crazy to me.

“I still try and line up jobs months out, that way I know at least the base of what I have coming and then there's always stuff that pops up. So, now that there's nothing on the horizon, it's kind of scary.”

He feels for the others affected by the outbreak — the arena vendors, security guards and others that work in or around sporting events to provide income for their families.

“I think anybody right now has a right to complain, whether it's their kids out of school or their favorite sports team isn't playing,” Gateley said. “I'm not judging anybody complaining at all. But the thing I keep thinking about or wanting to say is to most of the general public, if they're frustrated, they're frustrated that their entertainment has been taken away from them.

“But for those of us that work in the sports industry, our livelihoods, for now, have been taken away. And that goes for the athletes. For the coaches. For the hourly workers. The freelancers.”

He knows games will eventually return.

It’s just the ‘when’ that concerns him.

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