Around 20% of people in the US regularly play sports, but around 70% consider themselves to be sports fans. This striking statistic provides an insight into the relationship with sports that defines many aspects of human culture. Sport influences our sense of national pride, our local allegiances. and many aspects of personal identity. It’s a relationship that wouldn’t exist in its current form without sports journalism, which gives pleasure to tens of millions of people and has a far bigger impact on our lives than many people give it credit for.
This article looks at the history of sports journalism, exploring its development alongside sports themselves and the way it has been shaped by wider social, commercial, and technological developments. It digs into the developments you will need to understand if you’re thinking of embarking on a career in sports journalism yourself.
In one form or another, sports journalism has been around for close to 3,000 years. It flourished in Ancient Greece, Rome, and China in various forms. Writings on sport would be retained in libraries for reference, disseminated in pamphlet form, or reports would be read out loudly by town criers so that illiterate members of the public could stay up to date. All three of these civilizations had betting cultures that related to sports and also saw athletes become heroes, celebrities, and focal points for widespread public excitement.
While theoretically, any man could attend big sporting events (women’s access varied), one had to have political connections to get the good seats, as well as be able to get to a major city to begin with, so journalism was important in finding out the details of what one might otherwise miss. Shared enthusiasm about sports was one of the cultural factors which helped large empires to maintain a sense of social cohesion and consequently sports journalism was a valued—if not necessarily very well-paid—undertaking. Though it became a lot less prominent in the West during the Medieval and Early Modern periods, public enthusiasm for sport remained.
The development of modern sports journalism
Sports journalism as we know it today really began to develop in the late 18th Century, when news publications that originated with the development of the printing press in Europe began to establish standardized ways of covering stories. This was, of course, a chaotic period in US history. Parts of the country had only recently been settled by European civilizations and were yet to develop an organized sports culture, with journalists taking no interest in long-established Native sporting contests. As things settled down, however,
it emerged that there was significant public demand for sports news and that it really helped to sell papers. Beginning in New England, this gradually spread out across the rest of the nation. Once again, sports journalism would have a role to play in creating a sense of unity. It helped to bring people together despite disparities in cultural and religious backgrounds, making it easier for people of different cultural backgrounds to relate to each other.
The printing press
In the early 19th Century, journalism enjoyed a boom era as a rise in literacy and the widespread distribution of printing presses facilitated access to news media. Rival publications competed for public attention, driving down prices and leading to the first flush of sensationalist news reporting. Sports was naturally suited to this, creating a sense of excitement and drama, and giving people a chance to express their local allegiances and competitive feelings in a healthy way.
Although success in some sports was much easier for those from wealthy backgrounds, sports as a whole captured the spirit of the American dream, promising that any talented young person who worked hard at it could be a success. Of course, most sports in the US were still racially segregated for a long time, and most journalistic attention went to events involving white people, though excitement about Black boxers would gradually lead to change. Women’s sports did exist but were not taken very seriously, being treated more like hobbies and rarely making headlines. Female sports journalists, however, began to emerge fairly early on, and though they had a much tougher time getting work, some, such as Ina Eloise Young and Mary Garber, gained nationwide attention and respect.
A new profession
The upshot of this growth was that in the late 19th Century sports journalists began to be recognized as members of a distinct profession. It became increasingly common to see dedicated sports journalists, rather than journalists with wide-ranging interests for whom sport was just a sideline. The development of formal national leagues for baseball and basketball meant that US sports journalists needed to keep up-to-date on constantly changing statistics and have a vast amount of knowledge which required a dedicated approach.
They needed to know as much as possible about players, most of whom would only be significant for a few seasons before being replaced, and, of course, they had none of the support systems which we take for granted today, such as computerized databases against which to check their facts. As the more successful among them began to establish themselves in the public eye and be seen as sports personalities themselves, the public started to recognize this, and sports promoters identified them as a valuable resource.
Although photography has also been around since the late 19th Century, it was some time before it assumed the role in sports journalism which we’re familiar with today. There are images of sports stars from that century, but they’re very carefully posed, for the simple reason that early photographs could not be taken at speed. Slow shutter speeds meant that the vast majority of shots taken during a sporting performance would emerge hopelessly blurred.
In fact, the race to improve this technology continues today, with photojournalists working in this area forced to invest continually in the very latest equipment in order to have a chance of outdoing one another and capturing those crucial fractions of a second when a ball goes in a net or a runner crosses the finish line. It wasn’t until as late as the 1970s that really good action photographs began to appear, and most of them still look scrappy compared with today’s work. The cost of film and processing was also significant, so it wasn’t really until the shift to digital in the 1990s that newspapers and other sports publications could rely on getting great shots from every major event.
The emergence of the sports department
In the early days of newspapers, having one dedicated sportswriter per publication was generally deemed quite sufficient. As papers grew in response to a growing demand for news, their sports sections expanded by a disproportionately large amount, so a lot more writing was needed. The simultaneous development of further sports leagues meant that it became impossible for any one person to keep up with everything. As a result, dedicated sports departments began to emerge. These made it easier for established sports journalists to support one another and mentor newcomers, as well as lobby senior editors for increased resources. It entrenched sports journalism as a specialism, and sports departments soon began to engage with colleges to prepare the next generation of writers, broadcasters, and photojournalists.
If you take a sports journalism masters today, this is the tradition that you will be stepping into. St. Bonaventure University’s 18-month online course draws on the experience of previous alumni and offers opportunities to get hands-on experience by working alongside established media teams on the press row.
Sports on the radio
Reading about sports is great, but if you can’t be there in person and you want the next best thing, nothing can compete with live coverage. Decades before television came onto the scene, it was radio that changed the face of sports coverage around the world. It was never going to take over from the papers because people also wanted pictures, but it quickly secured a place alongside it, with some experienced sports journalists jumping ship to focus on the new medium.
The first football game, from the University of Minnesota, was broadcast by an amateur in 1912 and excitedly received by ham operators across the country. In the 1920s, football, baseball, and boxing all received regular professional radio coverage, and that coverage retained an audience even after television became established. The ability to listen to sports coverage while working or driving gives radio sports journalism a place that has not gone out of date, and which continues to thrill listeners to this day.
The modern Olympics
It’s impossible to explore this period in the development of sports journalism without reflecting on the impact of the biggest sporting event of all: the Olympic Games. Although there were earlier attempts at reviving the Ancient Greek event, the first true modern Olympic Games were held in Athens in 1896. They were first televised in 1936, and although the footage was only broadcast live within the host nation of Germany, it soon began to circulate around the world due to the embarrassment caused to Germany’s Nazi government by the tremendous success of African American athlete Jesse Owens.
One of the first big international sports stories of the television era, Owens’ success inspired audiences worldwide and helped to establish a lasting place for sports coverage as part of the regular news bulletins screened in movie theaters before most people had television sets in their homes. The US was among the most successful competitors in early Olympic Games and its triumphs made extensive coverage of the event a priority for broadcasters as their audiences began to develop, helping to normalize the provision of significant amounts of airtime for sports.
Journalists and athletes: a developing relationship
One of the consequences of all these changes is that top sports teams and big-name athletes began to receive a lot more attention from sponsors. These sponsors realized that the widespread coverage associated with them could really help to promote their brands. As big money entered the game it changed many sports—some would say for the worse—but it also sent a clear message to teams and individual players alike that media attention mattered.
For this reason, match schedules began to change to fit more easily into TV and radio schedules or to accommodate audiences in different time zones. Managers developed close relationships with sports journalists and sought to promote their athletes in ways that went beyond sports themselves, trying to position them as all-American heroes (or, in the case of sports like boxing and wrestling, sometimes as villains). Some journalists became embedded with teams and followed them all around the country. Dedicated time was set aside after games for interviews and photocalls. This did a lot to simplify the lives of reporters who had sometimes received a less than enthusiastic welcome in the past.
Specialist outlets and the reinvention of sports stars
As sports journalism gained a mass market following, dedicated outlets began to develop across all media, catering to those who wanted to engage with sports without the bother of news and additional content which they just weren’t very interested in. Specialized outlets came in the form of periodicals such as Sports Illustrated and broadcasters such as the CBS Sports Network. Success in sports is something that many of us dream of for ourselves or our children, but in the vast majority of cases, it is not a lifelong career.
Athletes generally peak in their teens or twenties and can no longer expect to compete at the top level by the time they reach their mid-thirties. Moving into broadcasting provided some retired sports stars with a second career, enabling them to cash in on their fame and use their expertise to entertain and inform on the page or in the commentary box. A few found that they had skill with the written word, but more often it was the charisma that had initially contributed to their stardom that viewers wanted more of, and they found their place in radio or television.
Sports journalism in the digital age
The advent of the digital age has changed sports journalism, as the speed with which information can now travel has made it impossible for traditional news outlets to maintain a monopoly on updating scores or announcing results. Numerous amateur sports broadcasters have emerged on YouTube and similar platforms, though they have had to professionalize fast in order to compete with one another. Individual athletes and their managers have used social media to raise their own voices for multiple purposes,
such as providing extra content to strengthen their relationship with fans, trash-talking opponents before important matches, speaking out on political issues, or promoting charitable causes. Traditional, properly trained sports journalists have had to work harder to keep up but have generally retained the advantages of access and widely recognized authority. They have also benefited from a further diversification of outlets, with niche channels and publications emerging which would not have been viable in other formats.
Traditionally, many people have been attracted to sports journalism because it offers a chance to be positive and to focus on the best of what human beings can achieve. There have, of course, been a number of scandals over the years, from the Black Sox scandal which saw members of the Chicago White Sox throwing games for money, to the performance-enhancing drugs used by athletes such as Ben Johnson, Lance Armstrong, and Diego Maradona.
Even the first-ever winner of an Olympic marathon, Frederick Lorz, was found to have traveled part of the route in a car. For much of its history, however, sports journalism tended to shy away from the really ugly stuff going on behind the scenes, and although there have been individual efforts made in the past, it is only fairly recently that it has seriously engaged with issues such as the bullying and sexual abuse of athletes, and systemic racial discrimination. Tackling issues like this has seen sports journalism develop a political edge that was often lacking in the past, and this speaks to the changing status of sports in the public imagination.
It is impossible to separate today’s sports journalism from this rich and complex history, and it’s important to recognize that it hasn’t arrived at a final form. It will keep on changing and evolving as the world around it does so. It’s the ability to adapt which has made it so successful, along with the simple fact that it brings joy to people all around the world. If you want to pursue this highly active and demanding career path, you’ll have to be ready for a challenge, but if you’ve got what it takes, sports journalism can be a long and rewarding career.