Do you want to be a sports journalist? Perhaps you’re a high school student who has always loved athletics and the written word, or maybe you’re a middle-aged engineer looking to turn a part-time passion into a full-time profession. Whoever you are, you’re ready and raring to dive into an exciting new career path.
But where do you begin? How do you stand out to future employers? Can you even land a job in sports journalism?
Don’t worry – everyone starts somewhere. ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith is perhaps the most famous sports journalist and personality alive today. But did you know that Smith got his start writing for the Winston-Salem State University newspaper? In a move that foreshadowed his controversial career, Smith wrote a column arguing that his own basketball coach should resign.
There is a real demand for sports journalists. Streaming services and social media may have changed the way people follow sports, but they haven’t robbed fans of their appetite for informative sports reporting. If anything, they’ve amplified it.
The first thing you should consider when pursuing a career in sports journalism is your training. You don’t need a journalism degree to work as a sports reporter – Defector Media’s Patrick Redford was a geology major – but it does help.
Today, earning a degree in sports journalism is easier than ever before. Many universities offer classes specifically designed to prepare students for careers in sports reporting. Some schools, like St. Bonaventure University, even allow you to earn a sports journalism degree online.
While there’s no substitute for real-world experience, you can gain a lot by completing a sports journalism degree program. You’ll learn about best practices for journalism excellence and ethics, study the best interviewing techniques, and explore the ins and outs of the business side of sports media.
Your program will likely expose you to a wide variety of media formats, such as podcasts and digital interviews. You may also have opportunities to learn about the roles of race and gender in sports, and how to produce culturally competent reporting.
It is important to conduct some research before committing to a sports journalism degree program. Look up the program’s curriculum. Research its professors, paying close attention to any relevant work experience they have.
Reach out to current students and alumni to ask them about the program’s positive and negative aspects. Does the program help students find internship opportunities? Does it help them find work after graduation? Five years out of school, how many alumni are still working as sports journalists? Doing your homework now can save you from making a costly career mistake.
Building your portfolio
Let’s say you’ve earned your sports journalism degree, are working toward it, or have decided that additional schooling isn’t the right option for you. In any case, the next thing you need to do to prepare for a career in sports journalism is to build your portfolio.
Your portfolio is a body of work that employers can look at to assess your abilities as a sports journalist. If you’re a writer, your portfolio will consist of articles and blog posts. If you’re a broadcast journalist, it might consist of podcast bits and video snippets.
Working at an internship with a sports media outlet is one of the best ways to build your portfolio, especially if you’re still in school.
Keep in mind, however, that not all internships are created equal. Some may pay you a salary, while others will only compensate you with college credit. One outlet may let their interns conduct actual sports reporting, while another might limit them to coffee runs and making copies. As with picking a degree program, it’s best to speak with current and former interns before accepting an offer.
Nevertheless, there are some truly tremendous opportunities out there. For example, look at Sports Illustrated. According to their website, their sports journalism interns are tasked with creating articles and player profiles, previewing upcoming events, and providing post-game analysis.
Interns at Sports Illustrated can expect to work in a variety of mediums, including print and video. If the Sports Illustrated internship is as advertised (again, talk to someone who actually did the program before you commit), it could provide a tremendous boost to your career.
Working an internship isn’t the only way to build your portfolio. You could also try landing a position covering sports for a local media outlet. While the pay and exposure may be minimal, a position covering local sports will allow you to develop the same skills practiced by journalists at major media outlets. You’ll develop and interview sources, analyze statistics, and craft your own personal reporting style.
A more modern equivalent to working for a local newspaper is blogging for a fan site, although these sites have a mixed reputation in sports media. While many produce excellent, passionate, and entertaining work, others are plagued by sloppy writing and dismal editorial standards. Nevertheless, if you want to be a sports writer, working for a fan site is a solid way to build your portfolio and expand your audience.
Consider the SB Nation site Troy Nunes Is An Absolute Magician. It’s a fan page dedicated to the Syracuse Orange.
Since its founding in 2008, Nunes has helped launch the careers of many aspiring sports journalists. Nunes alumni have gone on to write for the New York Daily News, Philadelphia Inquirer, NHL.com, and many other outlets. You shouldn’t quit your day job to take a fan writing position, but if you have the time, the experience and exposure may be valuable.
Breaking into radio and TV
We’ve talked a lot about how to build your portfolio if you’re a writer, but what if you want to get into sports radio or television?
If you plan on going into sports radio or television, podcasting is a great way to start. Now, it’s easier than ever before to get your own podcast up and running.
First, you need to choose a topic. Consider a local college team or a sport that doesn’t receive much media coverage, such as hurling, curling, or field hockey. The more niche your topic is, the more your podcast will stand out. Take the time to come up with a catchy name for your podcast.
Next, determine your episode format. Your format should be tailored to the skills and traits that make you a great sports journalist. Consider incorporating an interview into every episode. You need to show your prospective employers that you have the chops for serious sports reporting.
Once you determine your show’s topic and the structure of its episodes, you need to make sure it looks and sounds good. Don’t neglect your cover art as it’s one of the first things people will see when they search for your show.
A quick search of your area will probably turn up tons of local artists who will design your cover art at a reasonable rate. The same goes for your intro music. There are many excellent local bands out there that want to reach new listeners, just like you.
Next, you need to buy your equipment. Don’t go all out buying mountains of state-of-the-art technology. All you really need is a good microphone, a pair of headphones, and a simple recording program like Alitu, GarageBand, or Audacity.
Finally, pick a podcast hosting service and start recording. Make sure you fact-check your stories and edit your podcast for consistency and clarity prior to posting. Treat every episode like an audition for a larger platform. Promote your show aggressively on social media.
A large social media following will impress prospective employers. As tempting as it may be, don’t buy “likes”. Fake followers are extremely easy to spot, and they make you look unprofessional and desperate.
Podcasting isn’t your only option if you’re trying to build your portfolio. You can also start a YouTube channel.
Running a YouTube channel isn’t all that different from hosting a podcast. The more niche your topic is, the less competition it will have in YouTube’s search algorithm. Of course, you don’t want to make it so niche that no one will ever look for it. Always be professional, but don’t be afraid to flex your sense of humor. Work diligently to promote your channel and attract new followers.
Building a career in sports journalism takes time and a lot of hard work. You will likely experience many failures and a lot of rejection along your path. Sports journalism is exciting work, and the competition for full-time positions is fierce. David Roth and Drew Magary, two popular sports writers, spent years working mundane day jobs before they were established enough to write full time.
Always remember that all the sports journalists you love were once in the same position as you. Don’t get discouraged. Remember why you wanted to get into sports journalism in the first place. Infuse your work with that passion, and keep building your portfolio. Work internships. Join a local paper. Start a podcast or YouTube series. Do everything you can to stand out to future employers.
If you truly have the makings of a great sports journalist, you’ll make it in the end.