June 2, 2020 (Updated )
If you’re reading this, the chances are that either Simone Biles gives you life, you think Ben Stokes is a hero or you would happily live in a world run by Megan Rapinoe. In other words, a good chunk of your brain is dedicated to sport. You want to spend your life covering games, talking to athletes and writing blistering takes on Tottenham Hotspur’s transfer business…
Getting to that point, however, is more of a marathon than a sprint, but there is a lot we can tell you about how to give yourself the best possible shot on goal (see what we did there), thanks to our friends.
We chatted to BBC Essex Sport broadcaster Victoria Polley, Tony Morgan who works on digital production at The Evening Standard, The Sunday Times journo Rebecca Myers, Sky Sports News reporter Matt Murphy and digital and data sports journalist Umar Hassan. Here’s what they had to say.
Don’t Just Go For The Big Name Sports
To kick things off (no, this won’t stop), there was one bit of advice all of our journalists agreed on – and that was not to just focus on the the big name sports like football, rugby, cricket or F1.
“It’s absolutely crucial to ensure you can cover a wide range of sports,” stresses Rebecca Myers to Journo Resources.
She explains that there simply aren’t enough jobs covering Premier League football for all the people who want to cover it. Many organisations will be “saturated with coverage from them”.
“You won’t be able to stand out if this is all you can offer,” she continues. “Be willing and and keen to get stuck into any and all sport. Many of the best human stories are not in football but in smaller sports where athletes might have to work a job alongside training, or maybe are parents making a comeback.”
“I think the more interested you are in sports that aren’t football, the better,” agrees Matt Murphy, a freelance reporter at Sky Sports News.
“You definitely need to know your football if you want to cover sports generally, but if you can bring knowledge of other sports to the table it can open doors.
“It’s almost a breath of fresh air if you’re a snooker or cycling expert. It’s especially helpful when big organisations cover the Olympics. If you can find me a full-time archery or rock climbing commentator in the UK, I’ll be very impressed.”
“It’s almost a breath of fresh air if you’re a snooker or cycling expert.”
Basically, give yourself the best possible chance by becoming an expert in some sports that are a little off the beaten track. Darts nerds, wrestling wannabes, gymnastics fanatics — this is your time to shine.
“Access and the opportunities to develop key contacts can be a lot easier for a young journalist getting into the industry outside of football,” agrees Tony. “Opportunities to get out there and cover these sports away from your desk are so much greater.”
He also points out that there will always be the option to come back to football later on.
“Building on your knowledge and contacts in other sports doesn’t mean you won’t get the chance to cover football in some capacity.”
The key is to back yourself early in your career and not be afraid to take on beats that might seem a little strange to you at first. If you’re a student, an excellent place to start would be your student union — where every sport you could ask for is right on your doorstep.
“The amount of sports available at the student union was the perfect proving ground to show that I was a journalist capable of covering multiple sports well,” says Umar.
“I remember at one point, I covered six sports which included cheerleading, netball, hockey, rugby union, football and basketball. That experience proved beneficial for my long-term development in the field.”
Come Prepared For Stories Within Stories
Covering sports is very unique. There are often stories within stories within stories, and tiny details can make a world of difference to a match report. A detail that might seem innocuous might be way more important when you take an athlete’s form or team statistics into account.
That’s why it’s so important to do your research first. Victoria Polley, for example, has a routine before she commentates on a Saturday afternoon football match.
“If I’m commentating on a football match on a Saturday, I’ll have set aside some time during the week to do my homework on each team and stats on players and results,” she says.
“If it’s a sports person I’m interviewing, making sure I know everything I should to get the most out of the conversation. For me, getting to talk about sport on the radio is something I love, so all the work that goes alongside it doesn’t feel like a chore. You can’t know enough.”
The final Around The Wicket of 2019 comes to an end at the home of @EssexCricket.
Essex Sport is back from 2pm, next Saturday!
? > ⚽️ pic.twitter.com/IgCEvcvSXn
— BBC Essex Sport (@BBCEssexSport) July 27, 2019
Understanding the rules of the game, especially if it’s a sport you’re not greatly familiar with, is fundamental. Umar Hassan, who took a punt at reporting on Gaelic football for The Irish World, had no prior knowledge of the sport, so it was a “jump into the unknown”.
But, he says: “In those eight months, I managed to get most of my match reports in print, which was a proud moment in my career.”
Get A Nice, Diverse Skill Set
While it’s difficult to say exactly what skills you’ll need as a sports journalist, as roles can vary so widely, it goes without saying that journalists need to wear a lot of different hats. You’ll need to be able to chop and change your job based on what’s required.
Tony’s advice? Be versatile. “Be able to write news stories in the morning, research and do an interview with someone in the afternoon and live blog a match in the evening.
“Being comfortable on camera is also handy with so many outlets driven by social content now.”
Equally, spread your time across different disciplines of journalism too. “People are actually doing match reports less and less,” says Matt. ”
The Athletic, which boosted its UK football coverage by employing some of the best writers in the country last summer, actually specialises in features, interviews and think pieces specifically because they know people are less interested in match reports.
“They can be helpful for practice, and many places still do them, but they’re certainly not the cream of football journalism they once might’ve been.”
“It’s far more important to write more in-depth coverage such as features, analysis and interviews”
“Match reports are necessary, but they are increasingly less important as we now know that people will get their match report coverage almost immediately after the whistle has blown,” agrees Rebecca.
“It’s far more important, and more likely to be important in the future, to write more in-depth coverage, such as features, analysis and interviews.”
“Interviews in particular are a great way to stretch you as a writer and often produce the best stories. Investigations are crucial to sport, where issues such as doping and sponsorship can be fascinating and murky.”
And that’s where an ability to manipulate and use data comes in. Sports are numbers games and, in this current journalism landscape, nothing hits harder than a beautifully made infographic full of facts that helps you to digest all that heavy data.
Learning how to make them is useful, and it doesn’t take much to get in on the ground, says Umar. “There are some tools that don’t allow you to code at all to create visualisations, such as Flourish, Datawrapper and Canva – although there is R, Python and SQL for journalists wanting to hone their data skills.”
Knock On All The Doors
When you’re trying to get to get into sports journalism, no job is too big or too small. Don’t be afraid — apply for everything you can when you’re starting out. Whether it’s work experience or getting involved in student publications, it all helps to gain that all-important experience.
It might mean going the extra mile to get somewhere, but it will pay off in the future if you can show you’re serious about making it in sports journalism. Victoria remembers a time when she took the initiative early.
Want the inside scoop on what your CV should be looking like? Here’s our deep-dive (with before and after sliders) on how you can make your application actually stand out. And here’s another, from an editor with experience of hiring people.
“I wrote to the Sports Editor of BBC Essex when I was 17, which led to work experience and subsequently, a paid role on the sports show while I was a student,” she says.
“While studying at the Centre for Journalism (University of Kent) was hugely important to my career, so was having gone out and got that newsroom experience and crucially, contacts to be able to secure a full-time job before graduation.”
Also — you had to know this was coming — networking is a crucial skill for turning up job opportunities, leads and building relationships. Like Victoria, don’t be afraid to reach out, whether that’s to more experienced colleagues or other important figures in the sporting world.
“I found very early on if you can build relationships with the teams you cover, as well as fellow journalists, that’s half the battle won. Go for a coffee with a journalist you admire and look for ways that you can help them. Give more than what you take, is the best policy.”
Let The Passion Shine Through
As with most journalism jobs, sports journalism is full-on. It will almost certainly require your time on evenings, weekends and sometimes night shifts (we see you, NFL/NBA journos). Quite simply, it will eat you alive if you don’t have the passion for it.
“If you don’t live and breathe sport, you probably need to ask yourself if this is really the job you want,” warns Victoria.
“If you don’t love it enough to report a non-league football match on a freezing Tuesday night in February, or be in a studio talking about cricket on the hottest Saturday of the year, then it might not be for you.”
But if it is your passion, be sure to show that enthusiasm to your and your audience. Jump higher, run faster, hit harder and your sports journalism career will be a roaring success.