In Depth

Sports Journalism: Time for a Change-Up

By Jon Lafayette

Holy cow, these are tough time for traditional sportscasters. But new technology and social media may be creating opportunities for people who want a career in sports journalism.

Despite record ratings for big events like the Super Bowl, the recession has hit broadcast outlets like a blitzing linebacker, and on-air talent are feeling the pain in their paychecks. Also taking a toll on broadcast jobs is the growth of cable, where outlets led by ESPN are acquiring rights to more and more games and aggressively pushing into local markets.

Jobs are being created on cable, but they’re mostly for less experienced sportscasters, or for people who can create content for the Web.

“It’s an ever-changing world, an ever-changing industry, an ever-changing landscape,” said Dave Goren, executive director of the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association and Hall of Fame.

While new media is creating opportunities for those smart enough to change with it, Goren said, “I think there’s probably more of a contraction to come before there’s an expansion.”

Things are tough for sports writers in the troubled newspaper industry as well.

“Anecdotally, all you have to do is be able to read and you can tell,” Goren said. “Every day there’s another paper either dropping sports or cutting a bunch of sports people.”

But because most employers are looking to do things more cheaply to make up for lost revenue, “in some ways that might be good for younger kids coming into the business,” Goren said.

Expansion seems to be going on at ESPN, which is adding events and pushing into new media, which is creating a need for more sportscasters.

“It’s certainly creating more opportunities for younger broadcasters, especially on the digital side,” said Laurie Orlando, senior VP for talent planning and development at ESPN.

She suggested that digital media might be replacing local stations as the training ground for young sportscasters.

“No longer are we just a broadcaster. If there’s any place in our industry that is full-service and multimedia, it’s ESPN. We expect that our talent, within reason, are going to contribute to all of those platforms,” she said, adding that the expectations are just as high online as on television to deliver credible information and deep knowledge to the ESPN fan base.

Orlando said that channels like ESPNU and ESPN Regional Television are two places where sportscasters with just five years in the business can gain big-time experience.

“As long as they show promise and they’re people we see potential in for down the road, it’s a great training ground.”

Regional cable sports network Comcast SportsNet Chicago is also expanding.

“We’re adding people and our business is still in a growth mode,” said Jim Corno, president of Comcast SportsNet.

Much of the hiring is for network’s website.

“We’ve got people who go out and cover the teams from a digital standpoint,” he said. “They’re hired for the digital department, but they do have some on-air exposure as well.”

For example, John Mullin, who covers the Bears for chicago.comcastsportsnet.com, also appears on the network’s “Chicago Tribune Live” show and its “Bears Postgame Live.”

At the same time, the network’s veteran sportscasters are becoming switch-hitters.

“Our on-air people are learning the digital side,” Corno said.

Online reporting and social media are creating new expectations for sportscasters.

“The guy can no longer just sit there, call the game and go home. Or if you’re an anchor, you can’t just go on, ‘here’s the news of the day,’ and go home,” he said. People expect you to be visible on all the different platforms. They expect to see you and have access to you through the Web space.”

Corno said some of his on-air talent have been very aggressive about blogging and social media.
“It’s not like we’re twisting arms here,” he said.

The activity is good for both the network and the anchors.

“You hope that the Comcast SportsNet brand is getting more exposure and more people have access to it,” he said. “As far as the talent goes, all the exposure they get helps them too. It’s a win-win.”

Eventually, Corno said, his on-air and digital sportscasters will have nearly interchangeable skills.
“I think the on-air personality is always going to be the higher priority. But I think you’re going to expect those on-air personalities to participate in our Web and digital components.”

While cable outlets are expanding, many stations are thinking about cutting back on sportscasts and sportscasters.

“I would say that it is something that a lot of stations are talking about,” said Stacey Woelfel, chairman of the Radio Television Digital News Association and news director of KOMU-TV.
The reason is that studies have shown that only 20 percent of the audience cares about sports, and that it’s often an expensive area to cover.

But Woelfel said there’s more talk than action.

“The problem is none of us wants to give up 20 percent to the other guy. And that 20 percent goes up when the local team goes to the NCAA Tournament or Super Bowl,” he said. “That’s not to say there haven’t been cutbacks.”

Many sports departments are down to one or two people. Travel has also been reduced sharply; instead of sending anchors, reporters, sportscasters, a cameraman and producers to an event, these days a station may send just two people.

One survey suggests that recent cutbacks have been more anecdotal than systematic. According to the latest RTDNA/Hofstra University study, about 2,000 people work in TV sports as an anchor, reporter or both, or about 2.7 per station. That number has held steady over the past five years.
Some stations are taking a one-man-band approach to sporting events.

“Now it’s shoot your story, cut it, send it back by FTP and then set up your Skype and do a live shot for us,” Woelfel said.

In fact, that may provide a scouting report for what stations will be looking for in a sportscaster.
“The local or regional sports journalist of the future is a one-man band, and is somebody who moves easily between sports, and is a person who has an interest in important local and regional sports,” Woelfel said.

Of course, there are some optimists.

“Sports is a staple of television. There’s an ebb and a flow, but sports is going to stay important, and hiring is going to increase in the future,” said Richard Leibner, president of top talent agency N.S. Bienstock. “Maybe you won’t have five-person or 10-person departments, but you’ll have two- or three-person sports departments. These days, sports crimes and scandals become a lead story, and whether that’s covered by news or sports remains to be seen.”

Goren, who was in sportscasting for 24 years, said he’d still recommend it as a profession.

“You’d better know there’s a shrunken pool out there. You better know how to shoot video. You better know how to do everything is the bottom line,” said Goren. “I always said as I was coming up, if you love it enough you’ll do whatever it takes. But anybody who paints it with a rosy picture and said everything is wine and roses is selling you a bill of goods.”