The Evolution of Sports Journalism

There is no question that the world of sports journalism is changing at a rapid pace. Indeed, anyone beginning their career today will face a vastly different climate from someone who started out in sports journalism 50 or even 20 years ago. Current graduates can expect the way that journalism is produced and delivered to change just as dramatically if not more so over the course of the next 50 years, given the ever-increasing globalization of sport and the rate at which technology is developing.

In this article, we take a look at the evolution of sports journalism, from the messengers of ancient Greece to the development of the printing press, the first specialist sports newspapers, and today’s digital world. In addition, we examine how technology has helped shaped the evolution of sports journalism, discuss what the rise of artificial intelligence (AI) might mean for the industry, and try to understand the best approach to carving out a successful long-term career path as a sports journalist.

An ancient profession

It could be argued that sports journalism dates as far back as 850 BC, when Homer wrote about the first known draw in wrestling, as Achilles raised the hands of both Ajax and Odysseus in victory. In fact, the Greeks wrote about a variety of sports, including wrestling, throwing, boxing and racing. The start of modern sports journalism as a genuine profession, however, probably began in the late 18th and early 19th century, when various newspapers and magazines began reporting on various types of sports, such as swimming and horse racing. As sport itself became increasingly popular and newspapers were also ever more widely read, the first true sports journalists began to emerge who focused entirely on the world of sport.

Naturally, all of this was only made possible with the earlier invention of the printing press. There is no question that technology plays a crucial part in the evolution of any profession, and journalism is no exception. At this time, although high-speed presses and more affordable paper enabled fast, large-scale publication, journalists typically still worked by reporting back to the newspaper headquarters with their story on paper. The telegraph, however, soon made it possible to produce up-to-date news from a variety of locations. Interestingly, the widespread use of the telegram in the 19th century is also said to have contributed to the terse style of newspapers due to the extra cost for each additional word.

A new century

The 20th century saw an explosion in popularity of team sports such as basketball, baseball, American football and soccer, not to mention the advent of global events such as the Olympic Games. In terms of rapid reporting, the increasingly widespread use of the telephone also made it easier to deliver reports from afar. Naturally, in addition to the millions of people who flocked to the stadiums and arenas on any given weekend, there were also many more unable to travel who were nonetheless clamoring for information. As key purveyors of the events that took place, sports journalists became established as a vital part of not only the world of journalism, but also the growing sports industry. In America, a range of sports journalism courses also sprung up that could teach budding reporters the intricacies of the profession.

In addition to the telephone, another hugely influential new technology unquestionably contributed to the growing popularity of sports: the radio. In turn, the radio created a new profession: broadcast journalism. While until this time, sports journalism had been conducted solely through writing and photography suddenly, there was a demand for people who had a talent for using their voice to describe the action. Naturally, the most dramatic change in this regard was the fact that lucky owners of radios and their acquaintances could gather around the ‘wireless’ and listen as major sports events unfolded in real time.

TV changes the game

Yet even the impact of radio paled in comparison to the arrival of television. In terms of sports broadcasting, TV truly took off in the US in the 1950s and 1960s, as all of the major sports – basketball, American football and baseball – began broadcasting live games across the nation. For the first time, the performance of athletes was visible not only to the people in the stadium, but also to those following events from home. This was a significant difference, arguably turning these athletes into even greater stars, but probably also opening them up to more extensive criticism. In addition to carving new avenues for sports journalists, TV also saw the arrival of pundits – often ex-pros who were brought along to discuss the game in question. These pundits usually had little to no formal media training, but their real-life expertise in their given sport meant that they could often provide fascinating insight that no sports journalist could truly compete with.

The increasingly popular spectacle of the locker room interview was another notable addition, and pre-match press conferences were soon commonplace. With each new aspect of the profession of sports journalism, of course, there were new skills to learn and changing technology to master, from the microphone to the tape recorder. In some ways, we could see this era as the beginning of a new, less exclusive age of sports journalism – soon, celebrities would be asked their opinion, while other popular features in the second half of the 20th century, such as phone-ins and fan interviews, introduced a more influential third element beyond the press and the players in sports coverage: the general public.

Going digital

In terms of changing technology, newsrooms across the world in the 1970s and 1980s were gradually transformed through the arrival of computers, which were soon used not only to write copy, but also for editing and formatting work. Perhaps for some sports journalists, this may have seemed at the time like simply a new tool to perform the same old task – a keyboard is just a digital typewriter, isn’t it? We can say with the benefit of hindsight that it was the beginning of another genuine revolution in the profession of sports journalism, just as it was in many others.

Of course, hot on the heels of computers came the spread of the internet in the 1990s. While in many ways, the nature of the work of sports journalists was in many ways not that significantly affected in these early years, it was still at times a major adjustment, especially as more and more news sites began going online, which in turn created pressure for ever-faster content delivery. In addition, the early days of the internet also saw the rise of more do-it-yourself websites, as tech wizards and bright young things were able to cut out the middleman and deliver their own brand of sports news to the online masses. This was a theme that would become ever more pressing for journalists of all persuasion in the decades to come.

Revenues and revolutions

What has developed in the last 20 to 30 years in the world of sports journalism could be seen as either a heartwarming democratic revolution or a depressing erosion of standards and integrity, depending on who you ask. As we indicated above, during the first years of the internet, most people still relied on newspapers, magazines and television for their sports news and coverage. However, we have increasingly begun to consume our news through electronic devices such as smartphones, tablets and laptops, often via a range of websites or apps that have developed independently of ‘old media’. These changes have inevitably led to a relative loss of influence and power for traditional print media, as well as television and radio broadcasting to certain extent. In many cases, these outlets have also been cut off from some of their most valuable revenue streams, as advertisers tend to look for the more predictable results of internet-based advertising.

In terms of print media, all too often the budget simply is no longer there to support a major newsroom of highly trained and experienced journalists churning out story after story. Instead, the focus is often regrettably on recycling the latest news from other sources and feeding the 24-hour news cycle demanded by an audience that is forever logged on and fed by social media. Not coincidentally, many journalists would also argue that there has been a giant push toward stories that pull in advertising revenue. While these can still be – and often are – high-quality articles, there is undoubtedly a tendency across all forms of sports news toward clickbait headlines and stories that feature the biggest stars and teams that will generate the greatest traffic. In many ways, this is nothing new, of course – sales have always mattered – but there is arguably greater pressure to produce the numbers when the figures, such as number of readers, can be accessed in real time.

The rise of the amateur

The spread of social media has also helped push forward alternative, non-mainstream sources of news, often passionate, knowledgeable amateurs who – in some cases – are able to establish a lucrative source of revenue through their online followers. There are certain YouTubers, for example, whose audience dwarfs that of many of the most respected and popular sports journalists in the world. Although there is, of course, absolutely nothing wrong with anyone who wants to offer their opinion on sporting events, these alternative sources of news, information and entertainment related to sports inevitably impact the work of sports journalists, either directly or indirectly.

The advent of AI, of course, which is capable of generating (semi) readable articles in a matter of seconds on any given subject, is another cause for concern among journalists. At the same time, none of this means that the situation is hopeless for prospective journalists. We mustn’t forget the countless opportunities also offered by the digital age, including the chance to build up your own audience away from a single place of work (through YouTube, Twitter, Facebook or other channels), to research almost anything instantaneously, and receive valuable feedback in real time from viewers and readers. What it certainly does illustrate, however, is just what a volatile and unpredictable profession it is, and how over the course of a career, any sports journalist must be ready for anything.

Preparation and training are key

Today, perhaps more than ever in the face of amateur competition, proper training and the right qualifications can be crucial for any journalist looking to stand out from the crowd and succeed in such a challenging profession. In addition to mastering the art of writing a good story, interviewing people or undertaking deep-level research, journalists must also be familiar with the importance of a wide range of digital skills, from social media storytelling, podcasting and video reports to SEO analytics, mobile reading habits and pay-to-click advertising.

Given the increasingly complicated and wide-ranging tasks of a sports journalist, it is perhaps unsurprising that employees continue to place a high premium on people with formal training and a high level of expertise, particularly in the specialist field of sports reporting. Even graduates of journalism school will often also look to complete a master’s in sports journalism, where they can learn how to specialize in their chosen field and acquire the skills and knowledge to truly succeed. With a Master’s in Sports Journalism from St. Bonaventure University, for example, prospective journalists receive extensive training from a wide range of professionals who work for the likes of ESPN, the New York Post and USA Today.

In this kind of course, students can learn not only about the history of sports journalism, but also about the present day in the rapidly changing society and ever-evolving media landscape, with a focus on how diverse audiences interact with sports and how sports journalists cover issues of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual misconduct and other contemporary issues. In addition, they also look at the practical side of sports reporting, including how to conduct research and effective interview techniques, journalism ethics, the business side of media and sports, analytics, entrepreneurship, and freelancing and contracts.

Keep on learning

Naturally, even graduates in sports journalism school also need to build up the experience needed to truly thrive in the industry. The future of journalism is unknown. The impact of AI is only just in its infancy, for example, though already some writers might be finding themselves reduced to editors of a computer’s hard work, while people with over 30 years of experience and a range of qualifications might feel threatened by a teenage vlogger with the latest hot take. In addition, there are also many ‘unknown unknowns’ to come, not only in terms of technology, but also with how the sports themselves will develop, and the way that people consume them, whether it be live, through television or streaming, news articles or anything else.

This is why for any budding sports journalist in the 21st century, lifelong learning is certain to be a crucial part of their armory. In addition to keeping up with the rapidly evolving world of sport and the latest technological changes, the best and most forward-thinking sports journalists also do their best to explore all other elements of their profession. Whether through peer-to-peer conversations, mentoring sessions, formal training courses or private reading, they are certain to keep on learning and improving throughout their career.

The right calling and a thrilling ride

Overall, the history of journalism is the story of how changing technology and our ever-evolving fascination with sports has been one of constant flux, yet with one constant: we want to know what happens next. Despite the dazzling amount of changes and the increasingly complex world that exists today, the basic skill of sports journalism remains the same – the ability to convey the thrills, the excitement and the glory that sport embodies to the audience in a way that is accessible and heightens the experience of sport.

There have been many changes over the past 200 years of sports journalism, and the next century perhaps promises to be even more dramatic, with great technological advances that threaten various parts of the industry. At the same time, for those talented and hard-working journalists who are able to combine dogged determination with a talent for words and the ability to evolve along with their chosen medium, there is still much opportunity out there, and plenty of joy and fun to be had in what is surely one of the most enjoyable professions in the world.