I’ve always been appalled by how people so vehemently discourage and dissuade aspiring sports writers from pursuing their dream careers.
When I was in high school and college, older sports writers, journalists, and even teachers provided an unending list of reasons I should avoid trying to cover sports for a living:
- “It’s too competitive!”
- “You’ll be poor!”
- “There aren’t enough jobs!”
- “No one ever leaves the good jobs!”
- “You’ll have to write about high school sports in some flyover town!”
While there is a level of truth in all of these claims, there are ways to circumnavigate some of the barriers to entry as you climb into the world of sports journalism.
Below you’ll find a step-by-step guide that will teach you the quickest entry into the sports journalism world and the path to making the most money in an otherwise low-paying industry.
How to become a sports writer (step-by-step guide)
1. Build up your writing skill through hands-on experience and (some) education
The best way to elevate your ability as a writer is to write nonstop. Naturally, without any experience, it’ll be difficult to find a platform willing to host daily articles from an unproven writer, so you’ll need to start your own blog.
Because you’re only using the blog to improve your writing, you don’t need to spend money buying a domain or website plan. There are plenty of free blog sites that allow you to do what you need to do, which is write, write, write.
In this stage, you also want to familiarize yourself with the AP Stylebook. Read it from cover to cover. Become friends with it. Having a good grasp of AP Style is imperative not only to getting job offers at news publications, but to becoming a better writer in general.
Taking journalism courses is a good idea, but don’t be deceived by money-hungry universities.
You don’t need a college degree to become a sports writer.
Newspapers, magazines and online publications don’t care if you went to Syracuse or a community college in rural New York. They care if you can construct sentences in an orderly, concise, and interesting way.
The applicant with the better portfolio (and, of course, better connections and relationships) beats the more prestigious alma mater every single time.
So don’t rack up tens of thousands of dollars of student debt if your mission is to become a sports writer. You’ll never finish paying off those loans on a sports journalist’s salary. It’s good to get educated, just don’t set yourself up for financial hell by spending too much on a college education.
If you attend a state school or any university with NCAA athletics, make sure you join the student newspaper staff. It’s great hands-on experience and you’ll probably learn more in the newsroom than you will in the classroom. I started out as a volleyball beat writer on the University of Missouri’s prestigious student newspaper, The Maneater, before transferring to Texas Tech University and becoming sports editor of The Daily Toreador. On a newspaper staff, you’ll also get experience designing pages, which is a huge plus on your resume.
2. Master the art of the interview
Interviews are unequivocally the most important part in the process of writing a good story, yet many journalists struggle to connect with subjects and ask the right questions.
Journalists often boast about how they “never prepare questions for an interview” and “engage in conversations” rather than conduct interviews. This reeks of lazy reporting.
Of course you want your interview subject to feel comfortable and you want the overall tone of your interview to be conversational. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t prepare questions.
The answers subjects give to your questions determine the course of your story, so it’s imperative you formulate the best possible questions that elicit the most compelling responses.
Here a few ways to ensure you’re getting the best quality answers in an interview:
- Ask questions that prompt opinions and emotions, not facts: Reporting facts is your job as the journalist. If their response to your question is something you could’ve looked up yourself, it’s probably not going to add any substance to the story. For example, if you’re interviewing a coach and he says, “John Doe broke our school scoring record last year. That kind of scoring prowess allows me to sleep peacefully at night. I can’t believe how lucky we are to have him,” you’ll want to omit that first sentence, and just write that out in the paragraph before the quote. You handle the facts while the subjects handle opinions and emotions.
- Actively listen to their answers: You see this on TV all the time. Reporters will ask a question, zone out, and then ask another question that clearly reveals they weren’t listening to the previous answer at all. While having a prepared list of good questions is important, a lot of the time subjects will say something that you didn’t foresee that deserves exploration. That’s why it’s important to pay attention to what they’re saying instead of just thinking about your next question. If the subject says something interesting and unexpected, dig deeper. If the subject doesn’t say anything worth following up, just refer back to your list of questions and try again.
- Ask for contact information to follow up: I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been in the middle of writing a story and thought to myself, “Damnit, I should’ve asked them about xxxxx! It would’ve added a really good detail or perspective to this story!” That’s where contact information comes in. You need to make sure you get phone numbers and emails and in that initial interview, ask the subject if it’s OK if you call them if you have any follow up questions. I have conducted hundreds upon hundreds of interviews, and no one has ever said “no” to that question.
- Ask for recommendations for other interview subjects: Usually the person you’re interviewing knows other relevant people in their field of expertise who would make for a good interview. If you’ve established a good rapport with the interviewee, ask them at the end of the conversation if they know of anyone who might also have a good perspective to share. Not only does this strengthen your story, it expands your network with people that would’ve otherwise been difficult to get a hold of.
Every journalist is different, but I usually refrain from writing anything at all until I’ve done most of my interviews. I let the interviews guide how I write the story. I don’t try to force my agenda on the interviewees and try to get them to say something that fits my narrative. It’s unethical and uninteresting. Your power is in the questions you ask, and it stops there. Let their answers dictate the rest of how the story unfolds.
3. Start freelancing
I’m going to let you in on the most important secret of the sports writing world: full-time sports writers are not paid a salary that’s commensurate with the actual amount of work they do.
I’m going to repeat that because it’s paramount you understand this concept before you start looking for work:
Full-time sports writers are not paid a salary that’s commensurate with the actual amount of work they do.
To prove my point, I’m going to do a little math for you with real industry numbers.
The freelancing I do at my local newspaper pays me the following rates:
- $125 to cover a high school football game
- $150 to cover a college football game
- $100 to cover a high school basketball game
- $125 to cover a college basketball game
- $150 to cover a minor league soccer game
- $100 to cover a high school baseball game
- $200 for a feature story
Now, here’s a breakdown of what full-time newspaper reporters make:
- The average sports writer for a newspaper is tasked with writing roughly an article per day, so five articles per week.
- The salary sports writers earn is influenced by the size of the newspaper and area of the country in which they live, but the median salary across the country for a sports writer is $27,865, plus substandard benefits and health insurance.
- 5 articles/week x 50 (2 weeks vacation) weeks per year = 250 articles per year.
- $27,865 ÷ 250 = $111.46 per article.
The takeaway here is that writing for newspapers doesn’t pay well, but freelancers enjoy more flexibility and less hours for what effectively amounts to the same pay.
This allows anyone stringing for a newspaper to simultaneously freelance for other, higher-paying outlets. It still pays to freelance for legacy media outlets because it validates you as a journalist to be associated with these brands, so I encourage writers to freelance for – not become employees of – newspapers and magazines while also stringing for other nontraditional, high-paying outlets.
4. To make good money sports writing, take advantage of the sports gambling revolution
During March Madness of this year, a gambling site offered to pay me $100 to write a preview and a “how to watch” for each of Texas Tech’s tournament matchups, on top of the recurring stipend I get from SB Nation. When Tech advanced to the Sweet 16, they offered me an additional $300 to write a blog post about why I think Tech will or won’t make the Final Four.
In a three-week period, I made $900 from that gambling site for writing short blog posts I could’ve written in my sleep. They required no interviews or extensive research like I need for newspaper stories. They simply wanted my opinion and a link to their gambling website in each article. It was less work and more money than what I do for the local paper.
For reference, I spent a grand total of roughly two hours to write all of those blog posts. To make $900 freelancing for the newspaper, I would’ve had to cover about seven games, and at approximately five hours of work per game, that would equate to 35 hours of work.
Now, those opportunities aren’t popping up every other day, but they’re definitely available during key sports seasons like March Madness, professional sports playoffs, the Super Bowl, the World Cup, and other marquee events.
Gambling companies and websites have more money than they know what to do with – take advantage of that and start seeking out freelancing opportunities with those sites.
5. Build up your reputation
The previous tips will help you get your start as a sports writer and make some half-decent money. But if you want to make a legitimate career out of sports writing and make enough to live comfortably with discretionary income, you need to have a recognizable brand.
Individuals with big brands carry the platforms they write for.
Advertisers don’t care if Stephen A. Smith works for ESPN or The Onion. They will pay whichever network carries his show. The same applies to writing. Hate him or love him, the guy that runs Barstool Sports could leave tomorrow, start a brand new website and instantly have more success than blogs that have been around for 10 years. Same with Adrian Wojnarowski. Same with Shams Charania. Same with Adam Schefter. The list goes on and on (by the way, most major sports TV personalities were writers before they became broadcasters – there’s just way more money in TV). If you have a recognizable brand and a large following, you’re going to make money.
It’s easy to say, “Want to make money as a sports writer? Just be Adam Schefter!” It takes time to build a brand. But if you have the hustle and determination, you can make it happen by:
- Making friends, not enemies: Never burn bridges in this business. Remember as many faces and names as you can. Get as many phone numbers and emails as possible and reach out to contacts in the industry frequently. A former mentor of mine told me I should be on 30 phone calls per day with people I’ve made connections with. Don’t let people forget you.
- Writing guest posts: This is a great way to get new eyes on your work and your brand. Freelancing is one way to do this, but sometimes you just need to do some free labor to get access to bigger audiences.
- Appearing on podcasts: Everyone and their mom has a podcast. If they have more than 10 listeners, it may be worth trying to make an appearance on a show. All it takes is one listener who loves your personality to tell a friend, who tells another friend, and so on.
- Staying active on social media: Engage with as many trending conversations as possible in your general field. Start becoming recognizable in those social media circles. Utilize all major platforms.
Becoming a sports writer is a marathon, but the good news is that anyone can do it. Start with your blog, and follow the steps above to rise to sports journalism prominence.