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So you think you can be a sports writer?

by Paul Cochrane
02 November 2018

When I was at university, textbooks called the sports department ‘The Toy Shop’ … although to be fair, more than 20 years on, I’m yet to hear that term used within the industry itself. Funny that. You see, we sports journalists take our craft very seriously. ‘Toy Shop’ dilutes the skill set.

But, I can see their point. From the outside looking in, there is a perception of the sports department as a collective with its own set of rules. Peculiar hours. Even stranger deadlines. Conversations in riddles. Scores and stats for punctuation. And a language spoken which probably can’t be found in the dictionary.

Trust me. We know it. But that’s what we do. And to be a sports writer, you may just have to board the same bus.

Truth is, and sorry to academia out there, most of what they teach you in the classroom won’t apply to the real world. You’ll have to make your own way like the others in the industry. We’re blessed to have so many gifted men and women plying their trade in print, digital and broadcast mediums. Read their work. Appreciate the genius and learn from the best. But know this – you only see the end result. The journey is bumpier than the beautiful blend of words you scroll through on your morning commute. You see, if you want to be a sports writer, there are some home truths you may want to consider!

Be researched.

Sports writers should know sport. You have a library in your head that’s not forced. You’ve lived it. You’ve ridden the bumps. You’ve stored away the intel upstairs. I use the 1989 Grand Final acid test. Which one? NRL? AFL? You choose. Or how about both. Both iconic and notorious in their own right, a sports journo really should know what made each of those games so special. I won’t publish a spoiler here! The point is, you never know when you need that default point of reference to draw upon. It might be in your writing, come up in conversation – or be part of an anecdotal narrative. Or perhaps it simply builds street cred. In any case, just as entertainment writers can rattle off Britney’s back catalogue, a political hack can reel off the Senate splits on leadership spills or a finance journalist can talk you through the fluctuation trends of the Australian dollar, if you want to be a sports writer … you’ve gotta know your stuff!

Be prepared to change gears.

Remember that university phase I mentioned at the top? I spent a year of that era waxing lyrical about how the power shift in sport had indeed moved content from the back page to the front. Back then I was talking about cricket’s match-fixing scandals and World Cup boycotts due to Sri Lanka’s Tamil war. These days, it’s commonplace. Let’s stick with cricket for a moment. Imagine being one of the beat writers in Cape Town earlier this year. One moment, you’re massaging a piece about Australia’s batting woes and their efforts to stay in the third test against South Africa. The next, you’re front and centre for the expulsion of the world’s best batsman, the sacking of an Australian captain, the manipulation of a test rookie and the exposure of a cheating scandal that would forever stain the baggy green. You brand it Sandpapergate. Suddenly, you’re writing the biggest story in the world. Or imagine being at the Sydney Cricket Ground in late 2014. It’s domestic cricket. Journos are the crowd. You’re only there because speculation over who will get picked for Australia soaks up the post-footy season melancholy. Next minute, an innocuous bouncer fells a young batsman at the peak of his powers. Sadly, we know how that story ends. Sports writers too need to change gears.

Know your audience.

Fact is, people, not everyone, but large numbers of humans, do buy the paper, click on websites or flick on the 6pm news – JUST FOR THE SPORT. This may come as a major shock to media empire CEOs, editors and news directors all over the country. But it’s true! It’s a readership or viewership on its own. If they’re not starting from the front, they’ve more than likely flipped the paper upside down. So who is that reader? Take the time to understand the demographic. What do they like to read? How do they like their content parcelled? Knowing your audience is a major step in defining your writing style.

Be nimble.

Deadline demands have changed. Platforms have shifted. Cut off times are no longer determined by the nightly press run. Most organisations are running digital-first strategies. You’re constantly working. Every update is just that – an update. Websites. Social media. Radio crosses. Live TV breaks. The goal posts have moved. Better fix your aim!

Be versatile.

No sports season runs 12 months of the year, unless you’re travel hopping the continents chasing the sun. So if you want to be a sports writer, you’re going to have to broaden that niche, my friend. And trust me, you’ll maintain some semblance of sanity if you are. Footy in the winter … consider tennis through January. Love your basketball? Consider throwing golf into your repertoire as well. And keen on covering an Olympics? For every medal you trumpet at the pool, brush up on your sailing and Greco-Roman wrestling.

Be professional.

Go ahead, build contacts and relationships. Our industry hinges on it. But in sport, you can tread a fine line between critic, observer and fan boy / girl. Maintain impartiality. No one likes to be torn apart. Athletes takes precious to a whole new level. Don’t believe me? Write a metaphoric nail that bursts those tyres you’ve habitually pumped up and see how that goes. Just a warning. There’s a reason why most outlets send in the newsroom bulldog when scandal breaks. That goodwill you’ve spent time building and nurturing with an athlete or organisation just isn’t worth destroying!

Be thick-skinned.

Sport doesn’t sit in isolation. While facts rule, media is largely an opinion driven business. Sports writers are observers who wordsmith their take on what they were privileged to have witnessed and seen. News articles. Columns. Not everyone will agree with what you report or think. Take the hits. Move on. At least they’re reading!

Be prepared to play the game.

It’s a political hotbed in sport. Grudges can run deep. But flattery can run a mile. Egos are everywhere. Stroke the right ones. But never lose sight of where credibility sits.

Be prepared to fall out of love with sport.

You’ll have days where the last place on earth you want to be is at a football game that your best friends would trade their first-born for, for the same opportunity. There will be days when the words to describe a forehand winner, a booming tee shot or a slick 100m run just can’t be found. You don’t have to work in sport to lose your mojo every now and then. So smell the roses. Remember your childhood dream. Chances are, you’re living it.

Have fun. 

If you love sport, it truly is the best job in the world! What’s the saying – love what you do and you’ll never work a day in your life? Well for most sports writers, this is certainly true!

Would you love to be a sports writer or is it an area you already work in?

Paul Cochrane
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Paul Cochrane

Paul Cochrane learned to read on a diet of back page journalism and after studying sports media at university, naturally found himself working as a member of the fifth estate. Over the past 25 years he has seen and experienced firsthand the rapid changes the industry has undergone, having worked at the highest level across print, digital and broadcast platforms, most notably as a senior journalist and presenter with the iconic national program Sports Tonight. He now plies his trade in the sports media management space, supplying content and strategic communications expertise to peak sporting organisations and events at both home and abroad. Drop him a line or find him on LinkedIn, Twitter or Facebook.
Paul Cochrane
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