Covering a sport

Introduction to Sports Reporting

You can never know too much about the intricacies of a sport that you’re covering. Your knowledge of the details will improve your coverage of any sports event. Here are several ways to get up to speed on the basics:

Watch a game or two in advance to understand of basic rules, key strategies, terms and etiquette. As you watch, think about how you would cover the game under the pressure of deadline. Who would you want to talk to? What would you ask?

Get the rules from the league. Leagues at all levels will try to help reporters and the public better understand their sport.

Introduce yourself to athletic directors, information directors, managers, public relations officers, referees/umpires, trainers and coaches. Build relationships with people important to the team and players. They can help get you information, interviews and access.

Your colleagues might have some tricks or advice they can share to make your first assignments easier. They might share a tradition a team has before they get on the field, where and how to find the stat sheet, what seats are best to select in the press box, what’s the best way to get an interview with a difficult coach.

Create a system to keep score. Some sports have sophisticated methods while others are very simple. See how official scorers keep track of numbers in the game. You can use that system or develop one that works for you and helps you with your reporting.

Taken from Introduction to Sports Reporting, a self-directed course by Joe Gisondi at Poynter NewsU.

Elements of a game-preview story

  • Impact on standings
  • Teams’ strategy
  • Key players
  • Key individual / team accomplishments & stats
  • Quotes from both teams
  • Recent history / result of previous matchup
  • Other motivating factors for both teams

Breakout box

  • Game place, time
  • Standings
  • All-time record in this matchup
  • TV, radio coverage
  • Weather forecast (if outdoors)
  • Ticket availability, cost and where to get them

Elements of a game story

  • Compelling lead – not overloaded with stats
  • Key plays
  • Key stats
  • Quotes from both teams
  • Getting beyond cliché quotes (how-why questions)
  • Historical significance
  • Weather/ field conditions if significant
  • Attendance if significant


  • Box score. Always!
  • Breakdown of key play or key stats
  • Standings, whenever possible.

Sports Writing Tips

Sports writing, it’s been said, can be the best writing in the newspaper or the worst writing in the newspaper. Done well, it goes far beyond routine game stories and gets into interesting personalities, analysis of key events, offbeat stories and major investigative work. Sports readers are among a newspaper’s most devoted audience … and the best educated about the subject. A bad sports section doesn’t give the reader anything he/she doesn’t already know; doesn’t look ahead rather than backward; and relies on cliches and worn-out writing formulas.

Tips to keep your sports writing sharp:

1. Use as many names in your stories as possible.

2. Keep a file of statistics and records. Consult them frequently.

3. Know the rules of the sports you’re writing about.

4. Know your sport’s jargon. It’s necessary for you to completely understand the sport. BUT, use jargon sparingly in your stories.

5. Emphasize action in your stories, in page content and in your style of writing. Write short, crisp sentences with strong verbs.

6. Study good sports pages in other papers. The Tribune, Daily Herald and USA TODAY are good places to start. Read Sports Illustrated and/or ESPN The Magazine. Notice not only the writing style, but how news is presented visually.

7. Be careful about overplaying the “hero”; be alert to good performances by others who may not be as well-known.

8. When you cover a game, look for a key moment, a turning point that defines who wins or loses. Or, maybe it’s an outstanding individual effort throughout the game. Focus your game story on that key.

9. Be careful about placing so much emphasis on “major” sports that you neglect others  (especially participation sports like intramural events, etc.)

10. Remember that sports fans are gluttons for statistics and records. But, also remember  that too many numbers clutter a story. Use glance boxes, sidebars and  graphics whenever possible.

How Not to Cover a Sports Beat

By Kevin Ball, former sports editor, Northwest Herald. From a workshop Kevin did for the Northern Star sports staff.

Never research a story before asking questions

Go ahead. Wing it. The coach or player you are interviewing certainly will be impressed with your total lack of knowledge and interest in them.

Besides, who would want to find out that this star athlete was a ward of the state, grew up in foster homes, bounced around with various relatives, had a father who left his family when he was a small child and his mother was a drug addict who just last winter died in a tragic fire that everyone probably already saw on the Chicago TV stations. Nah, just ask him how he learned to dribble with his left hand and hit a turnaround jump shot. That’s what your readers will want to read about. Yeah. Sure.

Don’t bother trying to get to know a coach

Sit in the back of the room during press conferences, never make an effort to interview someone unless you are hidden in a media pack and make sure never to make eye contact or smile when he passes by.

Never let a source get close to you. Always keep a professional distance. You wouldn’t want him to feel too comfortable with you, to tell you something that no one knows. Like maybe he plans to retire after 25 years of coaching and reaching the IHSA State Baseball Tournament for the first time. Or maybe, after just leading his team to the IHSA Class 2A State Football title, he has just asked school officials to honor his request for a two-year sabbatical
or he’ll quit.

Never read the competition

They couldn’t possibly have something you haven’t already had. They couldn’t possibly have taken a different angle with a game story or a feature you didn’t think about.

Never mind that they only touched on a subject that could turn out to be a centerpiece feature for your section. Or that they have a quote from a player you don’t … maybe one who says he just quit the team.

Always wait until the last second to call a source for a story

Procrastination is the best policy, I always say. You know that coach or player is just sitting there with nothing better to do. What else could he/she be doing on a Friday afternoon before a holiday weekend? Coaches love it when you roust them out of their slumber, catch them in the middle of dinner or just as they are heading out the door with kids
loaded into the minivan and the engine running, ready to take off on vacation.

Ethics and the sports beat

People often become sports writers because they are sports fans. No problem there. Where it can become a problem, though, is when those two lives mix.

No cheering in the press box. You are there as an impartial journalist, not as a fan. Dress and act appropriately. That means don’t wear any team gear, don’t cheer or boo, don’t refer to a team as “we” … you get the idea.

No free travel: The Star does not accept free travel. For example, to cover a road football or basketball team, journalists do not ride for free on the team bus or plane. The Star arranges in advance to pay for your expenses.

When it’s OK to get in free: When journalists want to attend a sporting event for purposes of covering that event — a news story, commentary, photo, video — you don’t have to pay to get in. BUT … you need to arrange for media credentials in advance, and as early as possible. Do not show up to a game, flash your media pass and expect to be admitted if you haven’t arranged for credentials.

When it’s not OK to get in free: When you are attending a sporting event as a fan, and not as a journalist, you should be treated like any other fan. If there’s an admission charge, you pay it.

But aren’t all NIU athletic events free to students? Yes, with the exception of offsite games, like when the football team plays at Soldier Field. The point is, never use a media pass to watch a game from the media area unless you are actually covering the game. Photographers should never use a Northern Star media pass to shoot an event that is not for the Northern Star.

Abuse of media credentials: If a Northern Star employee is found to have accepted media credentials for a concert, sporting event or other public event, but then attends the event for non-Star purposes, the employee is subject to disciplinary action, possibly including dismissal.

“Free tickets or passes may be accepted by staff members for personal use only if tickets are available on the same complimentary basis to non-journalists.”
– ACP Model Code of Ethics


The Sports Cliche List – none of these should show up in your writing!

National Sports Journalism Center

Sports Shooter: Site for sports photographers

Huskie Athletic Department homepage

Mid American Conference home page

Western Division: Western Michigan, NIU, Toledo, Central Michigan, Ball State, Eastern Michigan

Eastern Division: Bowling Green, Akron, Ohio, Buffalo, Kent Stat, Miami, UMass

Big Ten Conference homepage

NCAA homepage / NCAA fan homepage