How to write about sports when you don’t know anything about sports

Here’s an email request I got that inspired today’s post on sports journalism:
I’m now requiring that all of my students write at least two sports-related stories this semester. I figure if they all have to write a crime story and a meeting story and an issue story, that they should know the basics of writing a sports story.
I’m not asking for game stories (short shelf-life anyway) or analysis, but I have some students who are freaking out like I told them calculus was required.
So, how about a post about writing sports when you know nothing about sports?
The idea of writing about something you know nothing about can be terrifying, especially something like sports, where the readers are so well-versed in and so passionate for the topic. Rather than letting this kind of thing freeze you in your tracks, here are a few things to think about as you work the problem and put yourself in a better position to succeed:
KNOWING NOTHING IS PAR FOR THE COURSE:  I get that the idea of covering a topic that you know nothing about can be jarring and anxiety provoking. That said, you need to start with the fact that you probably don’t know squat about most things you’ll cover initially.
Do you know how the city council reads, debates, amends and finally votes on a proposal?
Do you know stagflation can create financial concerns for businesses in your coverage area?
Do you know how a school decides what curriculum will be taught at a particular level or who decides if students meet the standards of that curriculum?
Probably not, at least not right off the cuff, so don’t worry so much about not knowing anything about sports more than you would anything else. Realizing that should cut your anxiety by one-third.
RESEARCH YOUR TOPIC: The whole idea of reporting before you write is to learn as much as possible about whatever it is you’re going to write about before you have to write about it. Sports isn’t any different than anything else you’ll have to write about, in the broadest sense, so you should begin covering sports the way you begin to cover anything else.
Figure out what the topic is you have to cover, do some internet searches on that topic, dig into the previous stories other smart people have done on the topic and form some questions on that topic based on what you’ve learned. Then, go to smart people who are involved in that topic and ask the questions you have, get some answers and start piecing your story together.
Don’t endow sports with some sort of mystical power just because it’s different or because thousands of people show up dressed like the people who play it, scream their heads off every minute of the game and drink beer in the parking lot. It’s the same as anything else you cover, so research the hell out of it and feel more grounded in the topic. Don’t let the “it’s sports” excuse allow you to under-prepare.
FIND THINGS YOU LIKE IN A FIELD YOU DON’T: It’s tough to write about something you don’t like. As someone who had to cover governmental issues for short periods of time in my career, I can say for sure that good writing does not grow from abject hatred of the topic. To make this kind of situation better, you need to look for the diamond in the cesspool and polish it up for the good of humankind.
You can’t hate everything you might be forced to deal with. (OK, I guess you could, but if that’s the case, change your major and go into business. At least you’ll make some good money on the deal…) There have to be at least a few topics, story types or intriguing moments you’ve experienced somewhere in your reportorial journey, so go there and do some digging.
You hate sports? Fine. Look for someone to profile and try to figure out why this person has dedicated themselves to something you completely don’t understand. Write a story about that person in a way that helps your audience (and maybe even you) connect to the sport on that emotional level.
Or, look for other stories that surround sports that fit into things you do care about.
  • Like money? Look into the costs of sports, the financial benefits/drawbacks of sports being located in certain areas and not in others or the money spent on keeping up fields/courts/arenas. Look at what jobs pop up AROUND sports like the people who have to clean the place up after Joe Nutzofan decides to eat 12 pounds of nachos and barf all over the place, the folks who run the ticket booths/entrance gates and the people who run the technology for the stadium/arena/whatever.
  • Like science and medicine? Look into the advances in technology that make shoes/uniforms/socks/whatever better than they used to be. Look at the surgical repairs that athletes frequently undergo and how they work. Dig into the world of performance enhancing drugs that are illegal or the health plans and team diet structures that are legal.
  • Like history? Dig into the past to find out what happened at your school in terms of athletics 20, 30, 50 or 100 years ago. Did you have any superstar athletes that people have forgotten? Did a team do something amazing and an anniversary is coming up? Do people have stories about a long-gone superfan who used to do some outlandish stuff while the games were going on? What about “where are they now?” features on people who were the top dogs and big wigs of the day?
  • Like psych? Get into the head of an athlete who is at the top of their game. What makes this person tick? What makes this person push themself beyond what others can do? Get into the mind of the recovering athlete. What’s life like after a major surgery or health scare? How do they come to trust their body again? Get into the mind of people entering their final year of sports. Few will get to move on to “the pros” so what is going on with them now as they enter that final phase? Dig into coaches or refs. How do these people do what they do and why do they do it?
  • Like weird stuff? Sports is nothing but weird stuff. Figure out who is the mascot and what the point of this is. Look at some weird sports that people don’t think about as sports like spikeball, pickleball or even noodling. As they used to say about ESPN8 The OCHO: If it’s almost a sport, we’ve got it here.

SHADOW A REPORTER: If none of this works for you, you can always figure out sports by following someone around who knows sports. As a student journalist at a college or university, you likely have student media outlets out there like a newspaper, magazine, TV station, radio station or digital media operation. The reporters in these places who cover sports have an interest in the area and are likely working on the same kinds of projects and schedules you are. This makes them a perfect resource.

Find one of them and ask if you can follow them around while they do their work. Treat it like a personality profile: Use the time with them to gather some observation of what it is they do and then ask questions like an interview for that profile to learn more about what you’re seeing.

The chances are pretty good that you’ll pick up on some of the things they do to cover the topic well. It’s also likely that the reporter will be happy to help you, given that you’re both going through the same kinds of things as student media professionals. At the end of your shadowing, you probably will have enough to scrape together a couple ideas you won’t hate in the field of sports to pass your class.

Or, better yet, you might actually start to like sports.

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