A reporter has one job when covering a sporting event – to paint a picture.
But what do you do when your entire audience has already seen that picture?
In many respects, covering high school sports is easier than covering big-time college athletics or the pros. It’s a much simpler process because your readers typically weren’t at the game and they didn’t watch it on TV. They may not even know the final score. As a reporter, and a storyteller, you have the luxury of starting with a blank canvas.
When covering bigger sporting events, you have to give your readers something they haven’t already seen on their 60-inch, hi-def screens. It can be daunting.
The Super Bowl is the biggest and most confounding example. How do you provide your audience with a storyline they aren’t familiar with? It seems like everyone on the planet is watching the game. How do you give your readers something new? And really, how do you separate yourself from the hundreds of other journalists covering the game?
It certainly is a challenge, but it’s one that all sports reporters should relish. It’s the “Super Bowl” for writers too – don’t waste the opportunity.
Here are 10 tips for covering big-time sporting events:
1. What can’t you see (or hear) from your couch at home?
A play-by-play game story won’t work – you’re not giving your audience anything they don’t already know. Instead, take your readers behind the scenes.
What is the atmosphere in the building? What is the mood in the locker rooms? Did the stadium shake when the game-winning touchdown was scored? What does it smell like? What does it sound like?
Give your readers a virtual press badge and take them to parts of the arena they aren’t typically allowed.
2. Don’t write the obvious.
Every reporter is going to write a story about the MVP. Separate yourself. Write about the game’s most underrated player. Give your readers the story behind the game’s most important play call.
Find a unique story that won’t be reported anywhere else.
3. Use “human” quotes.
Coaches love coach-speak and players love player-speak. “We gave it 110 percent…left it all on the field…really came together as a team…our guys really brought it today.”
Instead of useless anecdotes, dig for quotes that show a more emotional side. Anger, pain, elation – a great quote captures the sensation of the moment.
Keep asking questions until someone gives a “human” answer. And that reminds me…
4. Ask better questions!
Quality questions lead to quality answers. DO NOT start a question with “talk about….” That just gives the interviewee free reign to talk about whatever they want.
Ask a pointed question: What was the critical play call on the game-winning drive?
Don’t give your subject any wiggle room. Be specific in your questions. Avoid obvious questions like “how does it feel to win?” Instead, ask “what was the low point of the season?” Get them to contemplate the entire journey. Get them to tell a story.
In the moment, athletes and coaches are probably not going to offer you anything other than “it feels great, we worked hard, blah blah blah.” Do your homework and dig for the best quotes.
5. Don’t interview fans.
Just don’t. Please. This goes especially for TV reporters. Those interviews rarely provide any substance.
6. Don’t tweet just to tweet.
Live tweeting major sporting events is an iffy practice. Most likely, you’re just clogging up someone’s twitter feed. Remember, people are already watching.
If you’re going to tweet during a big game, offer your insight. If you’re an expert, give your opinion. But beware of “hot takes.” Don’t go out on a limb just to come back 2 hours later and say “I told you so.”
Instead of a hot take, give an informed take. ESPN writer @BillBarnwell is a good example of how to do this well. During a recent Panthers-Seahawks game, he peppered his Twitter feed with some interesting facts. Sports fans love their stats and cool facts.
Also, if you have a strong opinion, provide context or an explanation. And be prepared for some backlash. Just don’t get into a twitter war.
7. Avoid media scrums.
What new information can you possibly obtain while surrounded by 50 other reporters who also happen to be on deadline? Seek out the players sitting by themselves. On media day, talk to the offensive linemen sitting in the stands. He may just have an interesting story that nobody else will report on.
Tom Brady and Peyton Manning will have the largest media hoards, but are they ever going to provide anything of substance? The special team’s gunner may open up if you give him a chance.
And you never know, he may end up as the star of the game. How many reporters wrote a feature on Malcolm Butler before last year’s Super Bowl? My guess is not many.
8. It’s not about you.
Nobody cares about the hardships of a reporter. Keep the story about the game, the players, the atmosphere … it should never be about you.
You’re at the Super Bowl. Nobody feels sorry for you because the food stinks in the media room. Or because a coach was mean to you.
If you’re writing a column, you can provide anecdotes or write in the first person, but keep the focus on the game.
9. Put the thesaurus away.
You don’t need big words to write intellectually about a game. Be insightful, be funny, be fresh – just don’t over think.
Don’t try to prove to your audience that you’re smart. If a reader has to think about a word’s meaning, that immediately takes away from your message.
Be straight with your readers – if you’re painting a picture, do it in a clear and vivid way. If readers have to guess the meaning of your story, you’ve missed the mark.
10. Don’t be the judge, jury and executioner.
Avoid making broad judgments, especially in the moment. You are not the commissioner. You do not speak for every person in your readership.
One of the worst things a reporter can do is condemn an athlete or coach immediately after a game. Emotions run high in the postgame locker room. Keep that in mind.
Provide context for every controversial quote. Make sure you get every side of the issue. Reporters should be tough, but remember to always be fair. Your readers expect that of you.