Sports journalism is a form of journalism that reports on sports topics and events. While the sports department within some newspapers has been mockingly called the toy department, because sports journalists do not concern themselves with the ‘serious’ topics covered by the news desk, sports coverage has grown in importance as sport has grown in wealth, power and influence.
Sports journalism is an essential element of any news media organization. Sports journalism includes organizations devoted entirely to sports reporting — newspapers such as L’Equipe in France, La Gazzetta dello Sport in Italy, Marca in Spain, and the now defunct Sporting Life in Britain, American magazines such as Sports Illustrated and the Sporting News, all-sports talk radio stations, and television networks like ESPN.
Sports journalists’ access
Sports teams are not always very accommodating to journalists: in the United States, while they allow reporters into locker rooms for interviews and some extra information, sports teams provide extensive information support, even if reporting it is unfavorable to them. Elsewhere in the world, particularly in the coverage of soccer, the journalist’s role is often barely tolerated by the clubs and players.
Sports journalists are like any other reporters, and they must find the story rather than simply relying on information given to them by the sports team, institution or coaching staff. Sports journalists must verify facts given to them by the teams and organizations they are covering. Often, coaches, players or sports organization management rescind sports journalists’ access credentials in retaliation for printing accurate yet disparaging information about a team, player, coach or coaches, or organization.
Access for sports journalists is usually easier for professional and intercollegiate sports such as American football, ice hockey, basketball, baseball and football.
Major League Baseball gave print journalists a special role in its games: They were named official scorers and kept statistics that were considered part of the official record of the league. Active sportswriters were removed from this role in 1980. Although their statistical judgment calls could not affect the outcome of a game, there was still the perception of a conflict of interest.
Sports stories often transcend the games themselves and take on socio-political significance; Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier in baseball is an example of this. Modern controversies regarding the compensation of top athletes, the use of anabolic steroids and other, banned performance-enhancing drugs, and the cost to local and national governments to build sports venues and related infrastructure, especially for the Olympic Games, show that sports still can intrude on to the news pages.
Sportswriters face much more deadline pressure than most other reporters, because sporting events tend to occur late in the day and closer to the deadlines many organizations must observe. Yet they are expected to use the same tools as news journalists, and to uphold the same professional and ethical standards. They must take care not to show bias for any team. Sports journalists usually must also gather and use voluminous performance statistics for teams and individual athletes in most sports.
Many of the most talented and respected print journalists have been sportswriters. (See List of sports writers.)
The tradition of sports reporting attracting some of the finest writers in journalism can be traced to the coverage of sport in Victorian England, where several modern sports – such as association football, cricket, athletics and rugby – were first organized and codified into something resembling what we would recognize today.
Cricket, somewhat like baseball in the United States, possibly because of its esteemed place in society, has regularly attracted the most elegant of writers. The Manchester Guardian, in the first half of the 20th Century, employed Neville Cardus as its cricket correspondent as well as its music critic. Cardus was later knighted for his services to journalism. One of his successors, John Arlott, who became a worldwide favorite because of his radio commentaries on the BBC, and was also known for his poetry.
The first London Olympic Games in 1908 attracted such widespread public interest that many newspapers assigned their very best-known writers to the event. The Daily Mail even had Sir Arthur Conan Doyle at the White City Stadium to cover the finish of the first ever 26-mile, 385-yard Marathon.
Such was the drama of that race, in which Dorando Pietri collapsed within sight of the finishing line when leading, that Conan Doyle led a public subscription campaign to see the gallant Italian, having been denied the gold medal through his disqualification, awarded a special silver cup, which was presented by Queen Alexandra. And the public imagination was so well caught by the event that annual races in Boston, Ma, and London, and at future Olympics, were henceforward staged over exactly the same, 26-mile, 385-yard distance, the official length of the event worldwide to this day.
The London race, called the Polytechnic Marathon and originally staged over the 1908 Olympic route from outside the royal residence at Windsor Castle to White City, was first sponsored by the Sporting Life, which in those Edwardian times was a daily newspaper which sought to cover all sporting events, rather than just a betting paper for horse racing and greyhounds that it became in the years after the Second World War.
In France, L’Auto, the predecessor of L’Equipe, had already played an equally influential part in the sporting fabric of society when it announced in 1903 that it would stage an annual bicycle race around the country. The Tour de France was born, and sports journalism’s role in its foundation is still reflected today in the leading rider wearing a yellow jersey – the color of the paper on which L’Auto was published (in Italy, the Giro d’Italia established a similar tradition, with the leading rider wearing a jersey the same pink color as the sponsoring newspaper, La Gazzetta).
After the Second World War, the sports sections of British national daily and Sunday newspapers continued to expand, to the point where many papers now have separate standalone sports sections; some Sunday tabloids even have sections, additional to the sports pages, devoted solely to the previous day’s football reports. In some respects, this has replaced the earlier practice of many regional newspapers which – until overtaken by the pace of modern electronic media – would produce special results editions rushed out on Saturday evenings.
Some newspapers, such as the The Sunday Times, with 1924 Olympic 100 m champion Harold Abrahams, or the London Evening News using former England cricket captain Sir Leonard Hutton, began to adopt the policy of hiring former sports stars to pen columns, which were often ghost written. Some such ghosted columns, however, did little to further the reputation of sports journalism, which is increasingly becoming the subject of academic scrutiny of its standards.
Sportswriting in Britain has attracted some of the finest journalistic talents. The Daily Mirror’s Peter Wilson, Hugh McIlvanney, first at The Observer and lately at the Sunday Times, Ian Wooldridge of the Daily Mail and soccer writer Brian Glanville, best known at the Sunday Times, became household names in the late 20th Century through their trenchant reporting of often earth-shattering events that have transcended the back pages and been reported on the front pages: the Massacre at the Munich Olympics in 1972; Muhammad Ali‘s fight career, including his 1974 title bout against George Foreman; the Heysel Stadium disaster; and the career highs and lows of the likes of George Best and Lester Piggott and other high profile stars.
McIlvanney and Wooldridge, who died in March 2007, aged 75, both enjoyed careers that saw them frequently work in television. During his career, Wooldridge became so famous that, like the sports stars he reported upon, he hired the services of IMG, the agency founded by the American businessman, Mark McCormack, to manage his affairs. And Glanville wrote several books, including novels, as well as scripting the memorable official film to the 1966 World Cup staged in England.
The 1950s and 1960s saw a rapid growth in sports coverage, both in print and on broadcast media. It also saw the development of specialist sports news and photographic agencies. For example, photographer Tony Duffy founded the picture agency AllSport in south London shortly after the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, and, through some outstanding photography (such as Duffy’s iconic image of the American long jumper Bob Beamon flying through the air towards his world record at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics) and the astute marketing of its images, saw the business grow into a multi-million pound, worldwide concern that ultimately would be bought and re-named Getty Images.
Increasingly, sports journalists have turned to long-form writing, producing popular books on a range of sporting topics, including biographies, history and investigations.
In London, through the 1980s and 1990s, one shop on Charing Cross Road – the area known for its book shops – was entirely devoted to sport, although the growth of online book sales through websites such as Amazon eventually led to the closure of Sports Books.
This was not before, though, the establishment, through sponsorship from William Hill, the bookmakers, of an annual prize for the sports book of the year. This was first held in 1989, when Dan Topolski‘s book about one of the most controversial University Boat Races was declared the winner.
The status of the awards, and of sports books generally, were enhanced greatly in 1992 when Nick Hornby‘s first novel, Fever Pitch, took first prize. Both Fever Pitch and True Blue have subsequently been adapted into feature-length motion pictures. Only one author, Donald McRae, in 1996 and 2002, has won the William Hill award more than once.
Unsurprisingly, given cricket writers’ often literary aspirations and the appetite for books on cricket, the summer game has four times been the subject of the prize-winning book, the same number as football.
The award has not been without controversy in recent years. In 2000, the award went for the first time to a “ghosted” book, Lance Armstrong‘s It’s Not About the Bike. At the time, some also observed the irony of the award going to the American Tour de France winner, when, in 1990, Paul Kimmage‘s stern critique of doping in cycling, Rough Ride, had been declared the winner.
The 2007 winner of the award, announced at a ceremony staged at Waterstones, Piccadilly, on November 27, was Provided You Don’t Kiss Me, the account of local newspaper reporter Duncan Hamilton working with the controversial Nottingham Forest manager, Brian Clough.
Investigative journalism and sport
Since the 1990s, the growing importance of sport, its impact as a global business and the huge amounts of money involved from sponsorship and in the staging of the Olympic Games and football World Cups, has also attracted the attention of well-known investigative journalists. The sensitive nature of the relationships between sports journalists and the subjects of their reporting, as well as declining budgets experienced by most Fleet Street newspapers, has meant that such long-term projects have often emanated from television documentary makers.
Tom Bower, with his 2003 sports book of the year Broken Dreams, which analyzed British football, followed in the tradition established a decade earlier by Andrew Jennings and Vyv Simson with their controversial investigation of corruption within the International Olympic Committee. Jennings and Simson’s The Lords of the Rings in many ways predicted the scandals that were to emerge around the staging of the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City; Jennings would follow-up with two further books on the Olympics and one on FIFA, the world football body. Likewise, award-winning writers Duncan Mackay, of The Guardian, and Steven Downes unravelled many scandals involving doping, fixed races and bribery in international athletics in their 1996 book, Running Scared, which offered an account of the threats by a senior track official that led to the suicide of their sports journalist colleague, Cliff Temple.
But the writing of such exposes – referred to as “spitting in the soup” by Paul Kimmage, the former Tour de France professional cyclist, who now writes for the Sunday Times – often requires the view of an outsider who is not compromised by the need of day-to-day dealings with sportsmen and officials, as required by “beat” correspondents.
The stakes can be high when upsetting sport’s powers: when in 2007, the English FA opted to switch its multi-million pound contract for UK coverage rights of the FA Cup and England international matches from the BBC to rival broadcasters ITV, one of the reasons cited was that the BBC had been too critical of the performances of the England football team.
Most countries have their own national association of sports journalists. Many sports also have their own clubs and associations for specialist journalists. These organizations tend not to operate as trades unions, but do attempt to maintain the standard of press provision at sports venues, oversee fair accreditation procedures and to celebrate high standards of sports journalism.
In Britain, the Sports Journalists’ Association was founded in 1948. It stages two prestigious awards events, an annual Sports Awards ceremony which recognises outstanding performances by British sportsmen and women during the previous year, and the British Sports Journalism Awards, the industry’s “Oscars”, sponsored by UK Sport and presented each March.
Originally founded as the Sports Writers’ Association, following a merger with the Professional Sports Photographers’ Association in 2002 the organization changed its title to the more inclusive SJA.
The SJA represents the British sports media on the British Olympic Association‘s press advisory committee and acts as a consultant to organizers of major events who need guidance on media requirements as well as seeking to represent its members’ interests in a range of activities.
In March 2008, Martin Samuel, chief football correspondent of The Times, was named British Sportswriter of the Year, the first time any journalist had managed to win the award three years in succession.
At the same awards, Jeff Stelling, of Sky Sports, was named Sports Broadcaster of the Year for the third time, a prize determined by a ballot of SJA members.
The International Sports Press Association, AIPS, was founded in 1924 during the Olympic Games in Paris, at the headquarters of the Sporting Club de France, by Frantz Reichel, the press chief of the Paris Games, and the Belgian, Victor Boin.
The first statutes of AIPS mentioned these objectives:
to enhance the cooperation between its member associations in defending sport and the professional interest of their members.
to strengthen the friendship, solidarity and common interests between sports journalists of all countries.
to assure the best possible working conditions for the members.
AIPS operates through a system of continental sub-associations and national associations, and liaises closely with some of the world’s biggest sports federations, including the International Olympic Committee, FIFA, football’s world governing body and the IAAF, the international track and field body.