Sports journalism is a budding field that is growing in popularity and has adapted well to the latest innovations in technology. In days gone by, sports fans relied on newspapers and TV reports to access sports content. Nowadays, blogs, podcasts and social media personalities bring a fresher, more unique perspective to the sports media landscape. Sports reports used to be delivered in a dry, straight-faced manner. Today, personality-driven sports journalism reigns supreme, with fans tuning in as much for the person delivering the reports as for the sport itself.
How has sports journalism changed over the years, and how is it contributing to the growth and development of sports in general? This article aims to address the shift in sports journalism and what it means for all involved. From the players to the spectators, from awareness to revenue, the sports media landscape has changed significantly. Read on to find out how and why this has happened and what it means for the future of sports journalism.
In the beginning was the box score
Sports journalism, like other forms of journalism, gained prominence through print media outlets. For much of the 20th century, box scores, or a summary of results, in newspapers were the only source of information for sports fans. Then, at the tail end of the 1970s, radio shows and TV stations such as ESPN changed the landscape of sports media from weekly or daily newspaper reports to 24-hour news cycles. Sports journalism went from reporting statements of fact to sharing human interest stories, adding another more colorful dimension to what was previously a much more black-and-white, this-or-that form of journalism.
Broadcast media helped elevate sports reporting in the 1990s to new heights. Broadcasters such as ESPN, Turner Sports and CNN/SI had new, innovative approaches to sports reporting. Breaking news, nightly highlights and game results, injected with the presenters’ personalities, became a staple of sports journalism on TV. Regional networks followed ESPN’s template, providing even more specific, localized coverage. The proliferation of the internet made it even easier for fans to get their sports fix, which brings us to sports reporting in the present day.
Sports reporting in the 21st century
Print media outlets were the first and, for a long time, the only source of sports reporting. Then, towards the end of the 20th century, broadcast media revolutionized sports journalism, making it vastly more entertaining and engaging more people in sports than ever before. The advent of the internet brought with it sports blogs, which gave fans more localized, specific and unique perspectives. In addition, blogs meant that sports reporting was no longer only the preserve of qualified journalists; fans could now be journalists themselves, building followings through their blogs. The internet extended sports coverage from the regional or national level to a global scale. Audiences around the world can now access coverage at the click of a button.
Broadcast media and digital media have done a remarkable job of growing the popularity of sports in general, as well as making fans feel more connected. If they have access to the right channels, a person living in the United States can watch an Aussie Rules (Australian Rules football) match live on TV. There is no doubt as to the effect broadcast media outlets have had on the growing popularity of sports. Sporting events have become so commonplace on TV and radio that many of us will have at least a vague idea of when the next Olympics, Super Bowl, Wimbledon or World Cup will be.
While sports and sports journalism have become a permanent fixture in many of our homes, digital media has taken sports fans’ engagement a step further. The internet facilitated the rise of sports blogs, which led to podcasts and social media. While only a few broadcast media outlets dominated most of the sports coverage in the United States, digital media caused the number of outlets providing sports coverage to explode. The abundance of sports content in digital media has meant there is a much greater variety of voices reporting on sports, with new outlets and journalists multiplying year after year.
Digital media has made the idea of an ‘off-season’, the period of the year during which games are not played, virtually redundant. When a season is in progress, broadcast media is good at amplifying it, but when that season ends, it can seem as if coverage all but disappears. With digital media, fans can now enjoy and, in some cases, expect year-round engagement with their favorite sports, teams and players.
The impact of sports journalism on athletes and coaching staff
The shift to an always-on culture promoted by sports media and sports journalists has had a major impact on the athletes and coaching staff who participate in sports. While there were sports stars even in the days of print media, the broadcast and digital media landscapes have turned what were regional or national stars into superstars known all around the world. Athletes such as Michael Jordan, Tom Brady and Cristiano Ronaldo have become brands themselves, surpassing the brand recognition of the teams they have represented. Where athletes were once seen as moveable parts to be replaced as necessary, they are now given iconic status. Fans want to know as much as possible about their favorite sports stars, and they also want to feel a connection with them.
We are no longer only interested in the performance of athletes; we also want to know their opinions on certain subjects. An ESPN poll conducted in 2020 shows more than seven out of 10 sports fans support athletes and teams taking a stance on issues of social justice and racial equality. Perhaps the most famous example in recent years of a sports star taking a stance is Colin Kaepernick’s taking the knee. The San Francisco 49ers quarterback made the symbolic gesture to protest police brutality and racial inequality during the national anthem prior to matches in 2016.
The rising interest in athletes and coaches has meant athletes and coaches have become more media savvy. From interviews to social media channels, many athletes and coaches are adept at navigating the sports media landscape. Rather than relying on third parties such as journalists or broadcasters, fans can now access content by following their favorite sports stars’ social media accounts.
The impact of digital platforms and modern technology on sports journalism
As mentioned earlier, digital media has facilitated an always-on culture among both sports fans and sports journalists. Many sports fans use smartphones and tablets to access sports content. A Burst Media report found that 45.7% of sports fans use smartphones to access content online, while 31.6% use tablets to access content at least occasionally. Sports journalists therefore need to be as media- and tech-savvy as the people they are reporting to if they want to remain relevant and maintain their followings.
The use of multimedia in sports journalism is on the rise. Social media is an excellent channel for sports journalists to build and engage audiences; however, the more successful sports journalists are the ones who can also produce audio and video content, such as podcasts and vlogs. While there are still significant audiences for long-form content published on blogs and websites, sports journalists are increasingly adept at producing short-form content that is more easily digestible and can be consumed on a smartphone or tablet.
In a 2018 interview about the past and future of sports journalism, Mike Butterworth, Director of the Center for Sports Communication & Media at The University of Texas at Austin, argues sports journalism is in flux: “We’re at a transitional moment, not just in terms of what’s happening in the industry and digital platforms — the nature of how we think about great writing is evolving with that.” The rise of new channels in sports media to distribute content, such as podcasts, social media and vlogs, attracts new audiences. Butterworth goes on to state: “People can not only distribute stories in different ways, but they are accessible to different kinds of audiences.” The popularity of sports is growing, and with that comes the potential for greater diversity and inclusivity among audiences.
How sports journalism raises awareness
The power of sports journalism to make a positive impact on society is increasing. Sports journalists tell stories that address issues happening in society right now, while sports stars make comments or gestures that address those same issues. The reach of major sports is far and wide, so sports journalists, along with athletes, are in a unique position to not only point out what is happening in the larger society but also to shape the discussions around it. Butterworth puts it this way:
“Sports are a place where these issues are not simply happening, not simply mirrors to larger society — they’re a place where those issues are being shaped. Some of our most important conversations are originating there.”
The potential for sports to shape conversations about society has been realized most effectively in conversations about social justice. As mentioned above, Colin Kaepernick and his teammates taking the knee in protest of police violence took the United States by storm. Regardless of where you stood on the subject, it was a powerful and emotive action that was almost impossible to ignore. It broached the subjects of social justice and racial inequality among people for whom those subjects were rarely, if ever, discussed. Taking the knee was such a potent gesture that it was even adopted by sports players in countries around the world, most notably by players in the English Premier League, which is the most-watched sports league in the world.
Help your career grow with an MA in Sports Journalism
If you’re interested in pursuing a career as a sports journalist, programs such as the online Master of Arts in Sports Journalism offered by St. Bonaventure University might be just what you need to take your career to the next level. The program is ideal for a prospective sports journalist who already has a strong foundation in sports journalism. St. Bonaventure University’s MA in Sports Journalism helps you build all the skills necessary to become a successful sports journalist and make a unique impact on the future of sports journalism.
If you are tech-savvy, ethical and committed to telling impactful stories, the Sports Journalism Master’s program can help you achieve your goals as a sports journalist. You can complete the entirely online graduate program in as little as 18 months. You will learn how to conduct compelling interviews, leverage social media for storytelling, research beyond the numbers and produce podcasts, giving you a competitive edge over other candidates in a constantly changing field.
A sample of the courses available through St. Bonaventure University’s MA in Sports Journalism include the following:
- Art of the Sports Interview
- Business of Sports Media
- Journalism Ethics
- Sports Reporting
The program gives you an unmatched educational experience with insights and mentorship opportunities from accomplished alumni, such as Adrian Wojnarowski, whose popular podcast The Woj Pod is renowned for encouraging participation across fan bases. By developing your skills as a sports journalist, you will be prepared to provide your unique perspective and tell impactful stories to fans hungry for new takes on their favorite sports and players.
The outlook for sports journalism is bright
As this article has shown, sports journalism is quite healthy. Thanks to digital platforms expanding the sports media landscape, there is a wealth of sports content generated using a variety of media and by a range of voices. Startups have become as integral to the sports media landscape as major broadcasters, and that competition has encouraged innovations from both emerging and established players in sports journalism.
When it comes to the reasons that the industry is doing so well, it is worth noting the artistic and technological innovations that have taken place in sports journalism. If you are an aspiring sports journalist, you will be pleased to know newcomers can earn above-average salaries from the get-go. The average sports journalist salary is $49,870 in 2023, with the highest earners earning $133,000 per year.
Added to the attractive salaries is the potential for sports journalists to not only report on sports but also to tell stories that shape and define moments in history. Put simply, sports journalism is not only about sports. It is also about society at large. Understanding the connection between sports and the larger society and how each informs the other is of paramount importance for any prospective sports journalist. For Butterworth, such an understanding is what separates the truly significant from the merely capable:
“What distinguishes competent work from important work is the ability to contextualize the choices that we make, and the understanding of the historical background, the recognition of critical identity positions that are at stake, being able to make those kinds of interpretations. Somebody who is trained in both the vocabulary of and the specific skills in a sport, they can make that transition and be equipped to know what kinds of questions to ask, to think about language choices, and why they’re interpreted the way that they are.”
Sports journalism contributes to the growth and development of sports in a variety of ways. From the impact on athletes and coaching staff to how it raises awareness of the big issues in society, sports journalism can be all-encompassing in its scope and aims. With so many opportunities available to prospective sports journalists, from the resources provided by major broadcasters to the new models proposed by startups, there has never been a better or more exciting time to be a sports journalist.