Sports Journalism

I CONSIDER MYSELF LUCKY since my career has involved working in newspapers, magazines, radio, internet and TV as well as having written numerous sports books. I hope therefore I can succeed in giving you a broad overview of sports journalism in this discussion.


Feel free to interrupt me anytime to ask questions.

Even though the stress will be on print reporting, I will also give you a look at other forms of sports journalism.

First of all I would like to give you a brief history of organized sports and sports journalism to give you an idea how far both have come in the last one hundred years.

It was the British who were the inventors of most modern sports including cricket, tennis, football and athletics. But it was the ancient Greeks who centuries back had thought up the concept of the Olympic Games.

The Olympics were revived in the late 19th century and the first of the modern era were held in its birthplace of Athens in 1896.

Incidentally, the next Olympics in 2004 will also be staged at Athens.

The first cricket Test match between England and Australia was held at Melbourne in 1877 while Wimbledon was first played the same year.


However, none of these sporting events excited much interest in the media for the first two or three decades. It was only after the end of the first World War in 1918 that newspapers began regularly reporting sports in any detail.

In India too newspapers rarely devoted much space to sports. The first breakthrough came with the inaugural Asian Games which were held in Delhi in 1951. It was from then onwards that newspapers began having separate sports departments and sports pages. The second breakthrough came with the advent of colour TV, showcasing first the 1982 Asian Games and then India’s triumph in the 1983 Prudential World Cup. Now finally, sports news began to find itself on the front pages as well.

The story goes that in the early years of Indian sports journalism anyone found not worthy of being on the news desk would get shunted to sports. Happily that is not the case today where we are in an age of specialization with reporters having their own beats.

Among the leading pioneering sports journalists in India were P.N. Sunderasan, KN Prabhu, Bobby Talyarkhan and N. Ramaswami. The quality stuff they wrote decades back is still worth reading.

Back in the 40s it was not unusual for the pre-eminent cricket writer of his day, Neville Cardus to write meandering, even poetical reports crossing 2,000 words on a local county match.

The biggest change since then has been that reports have become snappier and more to the point. Quote journalism has also made its presence felt and no report is complete these days without such quotes from the star of the day.

My first sports editor in Indian Express in Madras in the early 80s, an Olympic marathoner by the name of CSA Swamy used to tell me that I should think of the headline for my report before I think of the intro.

I still think that is sound advice. The whole point of a report should be to get to the point right in the opening sentence.

The days of Cardus are well and truly over. We are told we are in a leisure age. But as a matter of fact I am of the opinion that modern technology has actually meant we have less leisure time now than before.

Of course the advent of television, something that first took off with the 1982 Asian Games and then cable TV in the 90s, has also meant that print journalists today have had to alter their styles to a certain extent.

I am not of the opinion though that when writing for a daily newspaper, or even a website, one has to be purely analytical and not report the events on the field in a chronological manner as well.

The popular theory is that readers of newspapers would have watched the match on TV the previous day. That of course is not always the case. Some of us have to work for a living.

Still, the trend these days is to be more analytical than sequential and this is not a bad thing. Quotes or no quotes though, its still not a bad idea to get to the result of the match or the highlights of the day right in the first para or the first sentence itself.

In that sense what my sports editor told me over 20 years ago still holds good.

While some newspapers, notably the Hindu perhaps because of its more conventional readership, tends to prefer reports of 1,500 words or more, I personally feel the ideal length is between 500 to 750 words.

It is actually more difficult to write a shorter report than a longer one, especially if there has been plenty of things to write about. This requires discipline and practice.

When writing for the Net of course, it is speed that is the major factor and so the length of reports tends to be even shorter.

I almost had a revolt on my hands when I was sports editor of the website from 2000 to 2001 and I had to insist on my young colleagues cutting down the length of their reports.

I am a great believer in brevity being the soul of wit and if the Net taught us anything in journalism, it is that being short and snappy is the preferred style of reporting today, a trend that I welcome.

You must remember if you are looking at a career in sports journalism in a newspaper that there is more to it than just writing and reporting.

For some arcane reason, the sports department is the only one in a newspaper where the journalist has the twin roles of editing and reporting. That is not the case with the general news department which has a separate department for production and reporting.

Today’s hi-tech journalism means that the sub-editor also has to make the pages on his own on a computer. There is no cut-and-paste man to do the work as in the earlier days.

Add to that the regular feature writing and interviews that are part and parcel of sports journalism and you will see that the modern day sports journalists have their hands full.

This mind you is peculiar to Indian journalism alone. In fact the sole paper which makes an exception to this rule is The Hindu and that is because their reporters have the added task of writing for their sister publication too, the weekly Sportstar.

This remains the only general sports magazine in the country when at one time in the 80s, there were two others as well, both now defunct.

I spent the first nine years of my career working for the Indian Express in Madras where the Hindu is headquartered. This is the only major city in the country with just two English dailies and of course the Hindu and Express reporters were always competing for scoops.

The problem for us in Express was that we would have to balance our reporting duties with work on the editing desk and this left us with precious little time to follow up on exclusives.

Despite my experience in television and on the net as well as with magazines, I have always felt daily newspaper journalism is the purest form of writing reporting. This is still the case despite the proliferation of 24-hour cable news channels. There is nothing quite like reading the day’s events in depth in the papers the next morning and that is why print journalism will always be with us.

The three years I spent working first in the Financial Express features section and then in Outlook magazine were frankly among the most boring of my career. I missed the adrenaline rush of the daily beat. Writing just one or two features or interviews a week for a magazine is not quite the same as a report a day. That kind of journalism keeps you on your toes and helps you keep your finger on the pulse of events around you.

On the other hand the year I spent with was the most hectic and rushed of them all and here too I felt I was indulging in half-baked journalism with speed rather than style, or even accuracy the sole driving force on the Net. This has always been the drawback of the Net and will continue to be, given its inherent nature.

Television of course has plenty of glamour and while it is nice to be recognized on the street, I personally find it deeply unsatisfying as a medium for journalism. Writing two minute reports including a couple of sound bytes is not the ideal way to build up one’s writing skills.

It is much easier in that sense, though professionally frustrating for a print reporter to move to television rather than a TV reporter to suddenly find himself or herself having to write in-depth reports for a newspaper.

So we come back to daily print journalism once again.

Despite taking off in a big way in India, sports journalism here still lacks the respectability it has acquired in the West. This is perhaps because the big names of Indian writing are not attracted to sports. In the West on the other hand you have the likes of legendary novelists Norman Mailer and Ernest Hemmingway writing famous accounts of sporting events.

There is though a certain amount of glamour in sports journalism and this has attracted a new yuppiesh breed of young journalists, who are often more attracted by the lure of foreign trips and proximity to cricketers who are of course the new glamour boys of Indian society, replacing even film stars these days.

This has resulted in sportspersons, particularly cricketers now finding themselves in the Page 3 colour sections of newspapers. I am not particularly enamoured of this form of journalism and still believe in sports for the sake of sports. It is a similar case with football in Europe where the likes of David Beckham is as famous if not more for his glamorous lifestyle than for his football skills.

Personally speaking, despite cricket being my favourite sport, I still maintain reporting the Olympics in Sydney has been the highlight of my career. The Olympics is where the world of sport comes together every four years to celebrate and it is surely the pinnacle of achievement both for a sportsperson as well as a sports journalist to be present at this event.

Just two recent examples of cricket’s hold over the India media.

During the recent long lull in international cricket from the time of the World Cup final till the current series of matches, it appeared the media was desperate for some sort of cricket stories. Six months without action in the biggest sport in India must have driven editors crazy.

Thus we had a weekly magazine doing a story on what Indian cricketers were up to during the break. This was most enlightening to the readers no doubt as they finally discovered what Sourav Ganguly ate for breakfast in Kolkata.

This trivialization and personality-driven journalism is certainly a new trend though thankfully mainly part of cricket only. There was even one report in a newspaper about South Africa’s Shaun Pollock becoming a father for the first time. The report claimed to exclusively quote Pollock’s maid servant with the wonderful news.

The word exclusive incidentally is one of the most over-used and abused word in journalism today. The other one, or rather two, is ‘breaking news’.

It was during this six months lull in Indian cricket that other sports finally got their due.

This was not due to any sudden re-think on the part of editors around the country. Simply speaking, it was a desperate effort by them to fill up space usually full of cricket news.

Thus we suddenly had hockey news both on our front and back pages and a sudden effort to even glamourise what was once considered our national sport. Hockey lovers and players alike had for years complained that cricket was hogging all the limelight. But such was the sudden resurgence in media interest in hockey that the coach now actually began to shield his players from the media.

Better working conditions and much better salaries have made for a healthier environment and sports is now a sought after aspect of journalism and not just a dumping ground for failures.

When I started my mainstream career the paper used to be printed in the hot metal system which was both messy and unhygienic what with the press full of lead fumes and ink. And my salary was Rs. 675 plus Rs. 75 transport allowance. The advent of computers has changed all that and salaries over the last few years have skyrocketed.

Despite the many changes in sports journalism, both good and bad over the last 50 years or so, the major factors still remain constant, or at least they should.

When you go to report a match, whether it is cricket, football, tennis, hockey or whatever, the basic idea is to paint a word picture for the readers as well as write an accurate, technically sound piece. The real trick is in combining all these aspects in the right manner. And of course that old saying, facts are sacred, opinions are not holds good for all forms of journalism.

The basic ingredients for good sports journalists are threefold:





If you possess all these qualities and a drive for hard work, everything else will fall into place.