Sports is like any other beat if you do it the right way. And doing it the right way begins with one simple rule: Don’t get stuck in the mind-set that you’re getting paid to watch games.
Be a reporter.
Look for the little details that will take your game story or profile to the next level. Ask the extra question, paying attention to scenes that will make your story more compelling. Concentrate on finding that one moment that everyone will be talking about the next day. Describe moments that you witness that readers may not. The more you know, the more authoritative your copy will be.
Leave the clichés to ESPN.
Like any anything else, the sports world has its own language, but that doesn’t mean your readers speak it. Write clearly and concisely, and describe what you see. But resist the urge to describe basketball post play of “in the paint” or a rebound as “cleaning the glass.” A hockey penalty box should not be referred to as the “sin bin.” You’re getting paid to be creative, so leave all of the Boo-Ya’ing to Stuart Scott and just stick with the facts.
Cut the coach-speak.
Too many reporters allow coaches to use clichés to mask their true feelings about a game. Anytime you’re finding “We didn’t fold our tents” or “Give the other team credit” in your game stories, take it out. Take time to ask the extra question rather than just taking the first thing out of a coach’s mouth as gospel. True, you’re most likely on deadline, but one more question-answer combination will take only another two minutes.
Leave the play by play on the field.
Nobody wants to read a total re-creation of a game you’ve covered. Your job isn’t to provide a moment-by-moment commentary of what you just saw. So other than describing a key play or a game-winning sequence that really envelopes the game, leave the play by play out. In most cases, the game can be summarized in one paragraph. Use the rest of your space to tell a story.
Cut the quotes.
You’re a storyteller, so tell a story. In short features and longer take-outs, resist using every quote you’ve got in your notes or on your recorder. Sure, the athlete you’ve spoken with feels like what he says is very important, but don’t feel like you need to use an entire quote. If you’ve got a paragraph, use a sentence. Paraphrase the quotes that really don’t say anything, setting up more of a narrative style. If you’re story reads in a pattern of transition, quote, transition, quote — change it.
Get to the guts.
When crafting a profile, get beyond the surface. Does anyone really care about how old an athlete was the first time they picked up a basketball, a hockey stick or a golf club? Not unless your name is Grandma. If the subject of your profile has gone through a tough time, ask them to describe their toughest day in a way that almost re-creates that time.
The more details you have in your notebook, the more readers feel like they truly know who you’re writing about. Questions to ask: What’s on your iPod? If so, are there song lyrics that can be weaved into a story? Have you written any poetry or journal entries that may show a different side of the profile? The more in-depth you get into with a subject, the more your readers will feel like they know them.
As big of a part of sports as statistics play, don’t overload game stories with them. Too many numbers — outside of the ones really needed — slow down the rhythm of stories. Too many numbers are a crutch and leave readers with the impression that the reporter just regurgitated the score book rather than covered a game.
Think about your readers.
It’s easy to assume that your readers are all sports fans. But remember, some aren’t, so it’s important to write in a way that will appeal to everyone. If you find your stories reading like a SportsCenter highlight, consider finding a more human angle. Athletes are people first not the other way around.
If you can show the emotion that people feel, you’ll connect more with your readers, and it will set your stories apart from everyone else’s who covered the game.
Jeff Arnold is a sports reporter with the Ann Arbor (Mich.) News and covers college football and prep sports. During his 13-year journalism career, he has worked in Michigan, California, Tennessee and Missouri. He has covered everything from high school synchronized swimming to the NFL. He also freelances for The Associated Press in Detroit. He is a member of SPJ’s Detroit Pro Chapter.