Journo Resources Fellow

April 17, 2024 (Updated )

Millions of us tune into the ‘big’ moments every year — but that doesn’t mean we’re reading the sports sections on the regular. If sport really is for everyone, how can we get more people to read about it?

Know your audience. It’s a piece of advice that almost every journalist has heard, regardless of their niche. But what if your intended audience doesn’t usually read your content? Maybe they don’t even think it’s for them.

It’s a problem sports journalists have grappled with for years. Some of the nation’s biggest cultural moments revolve around sport. The London Olympics, Andy Murray winning Wimbledon, and the Lionesses’ Euros victory all made the 10 most-watched TV programmes of their respective years.

But not all of these viewers stay tuned in. Outside of the big moments, not everyone thinks sport is for them. So, how can we persuade them otherwise?

Identify People, Personalities, And Intersections

“I think something that is easy to forget, is that there are certain things readers of every publication care about,” says Josh Noble. As sports editor for The Financial Times, his remit is slightly different to other sports editors. The key, he says, is focusing on people and personalities.

“There’s always scope for a story about human beings and characters; which can be uplifting, or depressing, or illuminating about a wider social theme. We’ve done stories that, in theory, are based around football matches, but really tell a very different tale.”

He points, for example, to the paper’s coverage of the Qatar World Cup, where almost all of the paper’s stories focused on the money, politics, and power of the tournament. “We wrote about so many things, but very little about what happened on the pitch,” he adds.

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“The test for almost every story is if a reader doesn’t care about sport, are they going to get something from this? You always have to be talking to a broader audience no matter what you’re writing.”
Josh Noble, sports editor at The Financial Times

Be Accessible – Not Condescending

For Joe Thomas, the Everton correspondent at the Liverpool Echo, the focus should be making your work as accessible as possible. For this, tone is vital. Talking to Journo Resources, he says: “I think that our job, more than anything, is to give our reader a better understanding of what’s going on and why that might be the case. I think it’s important that you never appear condescending, it’s not my job to talk down to people, it’s my job to help them understand what’s going on.”

From him, this means making an active effort to interact with your target audience — whoever they may be. “The best way of being able to communicate clearly with your audience is to understand the audience in the first place. The only way you can do that is by taking every opportunity to speak to those people, engage with them and understand what their concerns are, what their hopes are, and what information it is that they think they need. Once you can see the story from their perspective, the easier it then becomes to convey what they need to know in a way that they can understand.”

The language we use also plays a key part. Many reports will use complex sporting terminology, with journalists aiming their work towards people who already have an interest in the sport they’re covering. But this can have an alienating effect on potential new audiences.

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Um-E-Aymen Baber (L) and Joe Thomas (R)

This was a challenge faced by Um-E-Aymen Babar when she covered the 2022 Winter Olympics for BBC Sport. “There were so many terms that even I had no idea about,” she tells Journo Resources. “If I don’t understand it myself, how could I possibly explain it properly to someone else?”

“But, I think that’s a good thing,” she adds. “It forces you to go out of your comfort zone and go out there and learn it. So you do end up making niche sports a lot simpler when you’re writing about them. It’s about making sure you can explain things or else use more general terms — and I think you become better at it the more you go on.”

The point in sports journalism, she explains, is to make your work conversational and help it “appeal to a wider audience”.

Josh agrees: “Knowing you have to write for people who don’t care about sport makes things pretty straightforward because you can dismiss around 80 per cent of the noise and you don’t have to worry about what the sports pages are writing because that’s not aimed at who you’re going to be talking to.”

Dig Deeper Into Stories

Even when thinking about audiences who already consume sports media, assessing your audience can be a useful exercise. John Cross is the chief football writer at The Daily Mirror, and tells me: “I think as time has evolved, the reader has evolved and they want to know more about the thinking behind the scenes, so it’s a bit more in-depth and you have to put so much more thought into it.”

How To Add Depth To Your Sports Journalism

• Centre your story on people and characters — not just the sport. This way, it will be easier to create a more considered emotional response in the reader and not just gunning for one team.

• Remember to focus on the wider context — are there any parallels within the story to what is happening in the wider world? Cross-reference your writing with social, economical, political, and historical contexts to add more depth; sometimes there may be nothing — but there may be something.

• Get to know your target audience! The best way to communicate with your target audience is to understand them, so find ways to interact whether it be online or IRL.

• Don’t recognise a term? Sport is full of jargon! Put yourself ahead of the competition by making yourself familiar.

• Most importantly, what would the audience be reading a piece for, aside from the sport? If you can identify the pivotal news hook, you’ll always be onto a winner.

Just look at the meteoric rise of The Athletic, which at the time of writing claimed to have quadruped its subscriber base to 4.2 million since its acquisition by the New York Times. Alex Mather, the company’s CEO, told TechCrunch the secret to their success was asking writers to “focus on deeper stories that add value to paid subscribers over time”. In other words, less “aggregated, shallow content”.

For those looking to reach wider audiences, the key seems to be tying together depth, human narratives, and accessible language.

On the flip side, sports reporters can sometimes find themselves working on stories that automatically transcend the pitch. For example, John explains the care he took when reporting on footballers’ reactions to the Israel-Gaza war: “You have to be alive to certain situations. Football brings you across different aspects that you have to consider and be careful of. You definitely have to change your style and be sensitive.”

Joe also tells me about his time covering the court cases and campaigns following the 1989 Hillsborough disaster. While he covered it in his previous role as a crime reporter, he tells me it can’t be defined as either a sports or news story.

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"The reader has evolved and they want to know more about the thinking behind the scenes, so it’s a bit more in-depth and you have to put so much more thought into it.”
John Cross, chief football writer at The Daily Mirror

“It started off as a sports story and then became a news story,” he explains, “so there isn’t any way of telling it as a news story without it being a sports story. You can’t disentangle it from the sporting event that it was. It’s an issue that transcends that traditional news and sport divide. It’s both. It’s almost unique in that case.”

What Would The Audience Want Were Sport Not A Factor?

Both Joe and John believe there’s a lot to be gained from bringing a news perspective to sports reporting. “Working on news gives you a harder edge,” says John. “You have to be ready to ask any question and I think sometimes people get a little bit nervous about asking questions and I just think: ‘It’s fine, it’s nothing compared to what I’ve done on news’.”

Joe adds: “When you’re going through news, you do a lot of very difficult work both emotionally and logistically and you do a lot of jobs that are quite hard. The world of sport is so completely different — my time in news gave me a very useful perspective of where football sits. While it’s hugely important to so many people, it isn’t quite life or death. [It] gave me a decent sense of ground and perspective.”

However, he’s keen to stress that whoever you’re reporting for, nuance remains key for sports stories. “There’s a lot more room for objectivity and nuance. A lot of the time [in sport] you’re dealing with things that are subjective and something I find difficult is getting accurate answers, often from straightforward questions.”

But, done in an accessible way, it’s exactly this nuance and flair that can help draw even more readers to sports stories, by offering intriguing and compelling cultural commentary.

For Josh, the key is to always look back to your audience and ask what they really want. “The test for almost every single story is if a reader doesn’t care about sport, are they going to get something from this? Are they going to learn something about business or money or politics or people? You always have to be talking to a broader audience no matter what you’re writing.”

It seems “know your audience” is the secret ingredient after all.

Alex McMonnies
Alex McMonnies

Alex is a sports journalist who recently graduated with a First Class Honours degree in Sports Journalism from the University of Central Lancashire.

He has also written for publications such as the Telegraph, Liverpool Echo, and the Non-League Football Paper, as well as working for Preston North End for two years.

Alex’s piece as part of Journo Resources’ 2023/24 fellowship looks at how to craft sports stories that reach a wider audience than sports fans. You can see Alex’s portfolio here,