Writing sports leads that don’t suck: Avoid cliches. Rely on facts. Tell me what happened and why I care.

Newer sportswriters tend to go one of two ways when confronted with writing a lead:

  1. This was the most sensational, inspirational, celebrational, muppetational event in all of human history! The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ? Yeah, take a back seat to this 0-0 soccer game between the Northeast West South-Central State Barbers and the Our Lady of Perpetual Motion Twitchers!
  2. Fill in flat cliche here. That is all.

While we’ve talked about the problems with hyperbole and the need to rely on facts before, a) we haven’t talked about it much in sports and b) the bigger problem in sports tends to be the latter issue. Sports lend themselves to cliche more than any other area of journalism and they do nothing good but bury the actual lead.

Case in point (and a minor plug for our school): The UW-Oshkosh men’s basketball team earned its first trip to the NCAA Final Four. It had been more than 15 years since the Titans even made the Sweet 16. Here are some things to consider as “important” that took place on Saturday night:

  • The team made its first Final Four game in school history.
  • The underdog Titans defeated the No. 9 team in the country on its home court.
  • Ben Boots scored a career-high 36 points to help the team win.
  • One of the reason Boots scored so many is because senior guard Charlie Noone was tossed out/fouled out after catching a technical foul for his fifth foul of the game in the middle of the second half. Noone was a career 1,000-point scorer, a big deal at this level.
  • Down 6 points with 1:45 to go in the game, Boots hit two key threes to knot the score.
  • The game went into overtime, the second time this season a clash between these teams went into overtime. (The previous one was a double-OT game.)
  • Refs called 45 fouls, costing Augustana two of its key big men.

In short, there is no shortage of amazing things you could use for a lead. Here is what the local newspaper posted as its lead:

ROCK ISLAND, Ill. – History was made by the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh men’s basketball team Saturday night.


Three quick things here:

  1. The lead is a cliche and a bad one at that. History is ALWAYS made. You reading this blog post is technically making history.
  2. The lead is written in passive voice. The cliche of “Titans make history” wasn’t even active.
  3. HOW the Titans made history is probably something people would like to know in the lead. What did they do? Did the coach murder a referee after a bad call? Did the whole team lose its uniforms and play the game in clown costumes borrowed from the circus? Did the team steal basketball powers a la “Space Jam” to win a game? Did they lose by more points than any team ever? Good grief…

When it comes to writing a sports lead, here are three key things to remember:

  1. Rely on the facts and tell me what happened: You don’t have to sell me on something being amazing. Just tell me what happened that was factual and yet cool and let me figure it out for myself. If the authors had woven in any of the components listed in bullets above, they would have had a great lead.
  2. Don’t assume people will read beyond the lead: Deadwood in the lead is a death knell for a story. The second paragraph is better and the head and deck include key information. However, you can’t rely on other components of the story to save you when you write a lousy lead. It’s like telling the cop who pulled you over for speeding how everyone else was driving faster: It doesn’t make you any less guilty.
  3. Remember your audience: Write for your readers, as in people who probably didn’t attend the game. If you went home after watching that game and your roommate asked, “Hey, how was the game?” what would you tell your roommate? “We won! We’re in the Final Four!” Would you ever imagine walking into your apartment and announcing, “History was made!” in response to that question? Probably not.

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