Writing the game

by Dom Smith – PPE student at the University of York

OCTOBER 28, 2020
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Empty stadiums without any fans offer a surreal spectacle, but it’s 2020, so why shouldn’t rows of cardboard people and fake cheers be streaming through loudspeakers as TV stations painfully scramble to recreate the gripping and compelling atmosphere that normally embraces sport?


Writing the game however, remains immune to Covid, as talented journalists continue to transport their readers onto the fields or into the stands, uplifting spirits, escalating the excitement, and all the while analysing in detail the sport’s every move.

Watching sport is of course the fastest way to see the game unfold before your eyes. Ten seconds in and the 100m final, it’s already done and dusted. Whereas sport journalists ensure that the match can be experienced from a different and deeper perspective, describing details that were possibly missed while watching live,  answering the pressing question, as well as documenting

the eventful occurrences and training leading up to the game. 

This requires pockets of information — hints and tips, if you like — that become all the more relevant. But that is just the beginning.  Besides the ability to sum up the game with words, other skills are equally important to convey the ‘bigger picture.’  


Chief Football Writer at The Times, Henry Winter talks about the five key principles of journalism. They are not plastered all over the internet, but they should be — they offer exceedingly good advice to anyone thinking of starting a career in such a richly competitive sector.


First, he says, you must be resourceful and persistent. You must go out and get what you want. If you want an interview, speak to as many people as necessary even if it means waiting a couple of weeks to chase them up again…every single one, while phoning or emailing more people, until you have what you set out to achieve. 

Eventually, someone will turn the key and open the door for you. There, you have your interview.


Try to interview as many people of public interest as possible. It shows initiative and will inevitably attract viewers to your work, wherever it may be published. When sitting in that job interview yourself, make sure you can reel off a list of people you have interviewed. Exclusive interviews show passion, initiative and willingness to put in the hard work.


The difficulty begins with the second principle. It would be all too easy to become blasé, irritating and obsessive when contacting other journalists or prospective interviewees. It is vital to treat everyone with respect, kindness and humility. You are allowed to be frustrated when a busy person said they would do something for you but doesn’t deliver. Do not show them you’re annoyed. On the flip side, if someone wants you to do something, provided it if of relevance.  Principle number two: trustworthiness.


Winter also regards building up contacts as a critical process to work with the media. You are only as powerful as the people you know. Go places, do things and make appearances. The number of useful contacts you make along the way will surprise you. Standing on the foundations of various contacts and influential personalities will help launch your career.


Build your social media presence and people will inevitably find you. It is vital that you actively go looking for prominent people, but every once in a while, someone will find you first. That will feel good, and that person may just come in handy in a project you’re working on two, five, ten years down the line. On a tangent, but still vitally important, backup your contacts to an external hard drive or suitable alternative. There’s only one thing worse than not having influential contacts — and that’s losing them.


Rule four is to go without sleep. Winter isn’t suggesting for one moment that journalists don’t need to rest and relax; they do. But you have to be prepared to work long and undesirable hours in order to get a scoop, built rapport with influential people, or interview the one and only person you need to speak to who just so happens to live on the other side of the world in a totally different time zone. The more you give, the more you get. That’s what they say, and it is most assuredly true. Particularly in journalism.


The fifth and final rule Winter includes is to “make sure your intro is hot.” If you put hard work into writing a column, securing an interview or covering a breaking story, the last thing you want to do is rush the introduction and watch 80% of readers close the app or put down the paper. Little did they know it, many of them would have thoroughly enjoyed your article if they’d read beyond your awkward and boring first paragraph. I take the fact you’ve made it this far as a compliment.


Grip your readers like all good novelists do. You are telling a story and entertaining just like they are. But, if anything, your piece is more important than theirs. Unlike most authors, you’re writing the truth.


Those five snappy rules are staple musts within journalism, but there are a few further points that still need addressing.


Many young writers are unsure whether they should be specialising or not. The best thing as a young sports journalist would be to broaden your horizons by writing as many different styles and pieces as possible. That includes writing about lots of different sports. Cover lacrosse, cover hockey, cover beach volleyball, cover sports that don’t involve a ball. Be able to answer ‘yes’ to the question ‘Have you a speciality?’. Write about your favourite team or sport. But make sure to get a grounding in a wide range of other topics along the way.


Start a blog. Or a podcast. Or a YouTube channel. Make something which is yours and no-one else’s — it will act as an online portfolio. This is a crucial process on the way to employment in journalism. Cover your local team or a local athlete or the history of your favourite sport. Plug it shamelessly but tactfully on social media. Be proud, encourage constructive (actual) criticism, and make your work better than your last upload each and every time.


Another crucial way to expose the industry to your work and your capabilities is to get as many ‘by lines’ as you can. This is the part of the newspaper or webpage that states who wrote that article. The more ideas you have, the more people you know and articles you write, the more scope there is to get published as a freelance or contributing writer on sites with large audiences. For your CV, impressive by lines are a big deal… as long as your work was of good quality too. At the earliest stages, accept unpaid freelance ‘work’. Any exposure is worth it.


Many think that doing a degree or internship in journalism is a must. The only thing that these courses can give you that other places or experiences can’t is an accredited qualification. To work for, say, The Times or The Telegraph, you must have an appropriate journalism qualification to even be considered. Many people do accredited fast-track courses at post-grad level. Whether to dedicate an undergraduate degree to journalism is your choice. Indeed, whether you even go to university is up to you as well. Some top journalists have gone to Uni, and some top journalists have not.


If you do go to university though, whether you study journalism or not, you should get involved with student media. If you don’t join the newspaper society or go up for election at the student radio station, a future prospective employer will be left wondering: ‘why on earth did they not take advantage of this opportunity?’


When it all boils down, it is clear there are no hard and fast rules about making it as a sports journalist. Using the above advice will only get you so far. If you have passion when watching sport and a hunger to write (or broadcast), you’re already halfway there. You should want to be doing what you’re doing; a half-hearted person never got anywhere. Let your love for sport lead the way.

Dom Smith is a Philosophy, Politics and Economics student at the University of York.  He is also the owner of the website EnglandFootball.org.  As a freelance sports journalist, he has written for the likes of 90min, The FA and COPA90, as well as featuring on BBC Radio and the ThreeLionsPodcast.