‘It’s going to get much, much worse,’ lamented the Guardian’s star
sports writer Richard Williams despairingly on the morning the Daily
Mirror declared football war on Germany. He was describing the offensive
and coarse way in which the massed forces of the tabloid press, the
Sundays as much as the dailies, have been whipping up England’s
supporters in recent days with raw sentiments which make the coverage of
the beef war look tame.
But these despicable lapses, using aggressive language in the worst
possible taste, are diverting attention from the underlying truth: that
sports journalism, once a matter for the back pages dominated by male
writers, has become one of the most prestigious and innovative forces
Why this has happened is a matter for debate. I think it is because the
breed has been freed from many of the constraints which, on newspapers,
rob reporters of their individuality. Sports journalists are allowed to
write about their subject with passion and wit. This is why top writers
gravitate into sport, while sports editors, often gutsy, swashbuckling
characters, with a firm grasp of what readers want, are promoted to
powerful mainstream jobs. The genre has fostered individuality: column
writing and colourful opinionated prose, while both Radio 5 and Sky
Sports have discovered the power of converting former sports stars into
proper broadcasters, rather than clumsy commentators wheeled out for say
the Cup Final.
Judging a series of press awards last month, there was one category
which outshone all others and caused the most heartsearching for us:
the sports photographer of the year. It was almost impossible to produce
a clear winner, such was the calibre of the shots on display.
The genre is also assisted by the fact that it has acres of
space/airtime to fill. It is an open secret that Radio 5 Live has
succeeded almost entirely because of its access to live sporting events,
such as golf, new to radio. Before last autumn’s Ryder Cup, live
continuous golf commentary on radio did not exist. But the team pulled
it off and won a Sony award for their efforts.
This year has also seen a massive growth in sports pagination. Perhaps
the most shrewd and successful move by the relaunched Sunday Express has
been to add an arresting broadsheet sports section. The Independent has
followed suit with its Monday sports tabloid, and helped boost sales on
that day, a trick the Daily Telegraph has long been pulling in a bid to
stay over a million copies a day. This forced the Guardian, desperate to
hold its sales above 400,000, to follow suit last Monday.
The message is: if you want to get ahead, forget investigative
journalism, or celebrity interviewing. Take up sports journalism