Being a Sports Media Professional

The sports media industry is massive. With sports becoming more connected across the globe, more outlets are bringing people in to cover fans’ favorite teams.

While every sports fan has at least watched SportsCenter or read an online post in their life, few know what goes into the day-to-day life of a sports media professional.

With that in mind, I reached out to people across the world of sports media to take folks behind the scenes of what the life is like for the people that get to cover the big game. These people come from across the world of sports in America, from team employees to national organizations to sport-specific sites.

I asked all of them the same set of questions and have only edited the responses for clarity.

The following people took part in this project. They were asked to answer the questions as long or as short as they felt comfortable with. I would like to thank them all for taking the time to be a part of this. I have linked all of their Twitter profiles below.

Bryan Curtis: Editor-at-large at The Ringer

Mike McMahon: Senior Writer at College Hockey News

Eric Russo: Digital Content Specialist for the Boston Bruins

Matt Zemek: Copy Editor at CBB Today

Alan Saunders: Beat Writer at PGHSports Now

Jeff Pearlman: Author

Trisha Blackmar: College Basketball/Women’s Sports editor for Sports Illustrated

What inspired you to chase a career in sports media?

Bryan Curtis: Mostly the usual stuff. I was lousy at sports when I was in elementary school, but I was fascinated by sports writers. I remember looking at their pictures in the newspaper when I was a kid and thinking a lot more about them than I did the athletes. Strange, for sure, but it led directly to this career.

Mike McMahon: Oddly enough, sports talk radio. I say oddly enough because I rarely listen to it now, but as a 10-year-old I’d come home from school, put on WEEI and do my homework all afternoon while listening to guys talk sports. It became what I wanted to do. After college I interned at a couple of radio stations and a TV station and ended up working at a newspaper after cold-emailing the sports editor about 100 times.

Eric Russo: As far back as I can remember, I wanted to work in sports. I remember growing up watching the Red Sox religiously and dreaming about one day being the next Don Orsillo or Tom Caron.

As I got older that vision shifted to more of a reporting role, or even something in sports radio (I watched/listened to Felger and Mazz every day during high school and college). But once I got to Everett High and began taking sports writing and journalism classes – shoutout to Mr. Fineran and Mr. McGowan – I knew I wanted to be a reporter. With the encouragement of my teachers (and family), I decided to go for it, despite knowing how difficult a field it is to break into.

Matt Zemek: Listening to Vin Scully call Dodger games when I was a kid growing up in Phoenix made me want to be a sports broadcaster. When I went to college, I realized that writing and not radio would fit my skill set and meet my intellectual needs, but the original desire to work in sports came from Vin at a very early age. I also taught myself to read by kneeling over the Sunday sports pages when I was a little boy.

Alan Saunders:  I started writing when I was in college when I had a writing professor challenge me to get something published. I always liked sports, and it seemed like something I could do. I never really expected it to be a career. It just sort of happened that way.

Jeff Pearlman: I loved sports as a kid, but there was only so far I could go. Ran a year of track/XC at the University of Delaware, but was a mediocre hack. Writing, to me, was something special. You had a voice. You mattered. You could impact people. Inspire change. I was this ignored geek, generally. But the pen gave me life.

Trisha Blackmar: I always wanted to work in journalism in some capacity and I applied at SI at just the right time — about a year before the Nagano Olympics. I had studied Japanese in college and my language ability helped get in the door here.

Who were your top teams to follow growing up? What inspired you to become a fan?

Bryan Curtis: Cowboys, Rangers, Mavericks–the same as they are today. What’s funny is no one in my household was a sports fan. At all. I’m not sure my dad knew which way to run around the bases, but my mom figured that knowing about sports was important, for social reasons, and arranged it so that I’d hang out with other kids who did like sports. Those friends got me into it.

Mike McMahon: The Bruins were my No. 1 team by far. My dad had season tickets so we went to probably 20-30 games per year. This was in the late-90’s, early-00’s. Like most kids, I became a fan because my family was fans. My grandfather was a 50-year season ticket holder to the Patriots, so football as huge in my house. My dad had the Bruins tickets.

Eric Russo: I was all Boston. It started with the Red Sox from a really young age, but the Bruins weren’t far behind. My passion for the Patriots and Celtics came a little later (maybe around 8 or 9), but I have always been all in on the four teams here.

In general, I grew up in a pretty passionate sports family, but my dad would certainly be No. 1 on the list when it comes to whose responsible for my obsessions.

Matt Zemek: Phoenix had only the Suns in the early 1980s when I became a sports fan so I was interested in the nationally relevant teams — Lakers in the NBA, Cowboys in the NFL, Cardinals in MLB, Georgetown in college hoops. Those allegiances changed over the years, but those were my first fan relationships.

I distinctly recall falling in love with sports on my brother’s First Communion day in November of 1981. When we got back from Mass to watch NFL football at my grandfather’s house, the Dolphins and Jets were playing a Sunday late game on NBC in the rain. The players wore these long capes, the Shea Stadium lights creating a dramatic scene. I was hooked.

Alan Saunders: I was a big Pittsburgh sports fan, so I cheered for the Penguins, Pirates, and Steelers. It was something that was a big part of my family growing up.

Jeff Pearlman: Jets-Mets-Nets-Islanders. No one in my family cared about sports but me. Literally no one. But I loved the colors, the sounds, the names, the diversity.

Trisha Blackmar:  Mets and Giants. My mom was a huge fan of both teams so the games were always on in my house. And both teams won titles when I was in middle or high school, so that helped.

What was your first job in the industry?

Bryan Curtis: My first job was as an intern (“reporter-researcher”) at the New Republic. The next year, I went to Slate, where I was named editor of the one-man sports department. That made it official.

Mike McMahon: First paying job was at The Eagle Tribune. First internship was at WBZ NewsRadio.

Eric Russo: My first real paid job in the industry came when I was 18. That’s when I started as a sports hawk at The Boston Globe, working on the desk and answering phones. That led to an opportunity on the high school football beat the following fall, and eventually a bevy of other opportunities covering high school, college, and even professional sports for the Globe.

Matt Zemek: Technically, I contributed to Gator Country — published by Raymond Hines — and wrote articles during the season on the Florida football team. My first really big break in sportswriting, though, was being allowed on the staff at College Football News, where I wrote for 13 years with Pete Fiutak and Rich Cirminiello. That started in 2001 and went through 2013. I am proud to say I created the “Instant Analysis” article series for CFN, circa 2004-2005, and had a lot to do with the development of that site over time.

Alan Saunders: My first job in the industry was covering prospects in the Penguins system for Hockey’s Future.

Jeff Pearlman: I was a food and fashion writer for The Tennessean in Nashville. I was terrible.

Trisha Blackmar: Reporter at Sports Illustrated.

What differences did you notice in yourself as a media professional vs as a fan on the couch?

Bryan Curtis: I was thinking about this question the other day. I’m still a big sports fan, especially when it comes to the Cowboys. I paid to go to both playoff games this year and sit in the stands. But my fandom has become very–I’m searching for the right word–contained.

I still hop up and down for three-plus hours during a Cowboys game. I still hope they win. But whatever joy or anger I feel is very fleeting and tends to disappear about five minutes after the game. I don’t really get mad at bad personnel decisions anymore. I don’t hate players from other teams like I did when I was a kid.

I’m still really invested in being a Cowboys fan. It’s part of my identity and I never don’t want to be a Cowboys fan. But it’s almost like it has become a state of being that no longer relies on wins and losses anymore. Does that make sense? It’s a weird place to be and I’m just beginning to understand it.

Mike McMahon: I tend to not care as much anymore, which is kind of sad. I’ve become a lot more jaded and actually get annoyed by people who are fans of the same teams I’m still a fan of. I find myself taking the opposite point of view simply because I think most fans can’t be practical.

Take the Charlie McAvoy hit, for example. I thought it was clearly a hit to the head. Ninety-nine percent of Bruins fans disagreed. I laugh at [reactions] like that now, whereas 20 years ago I would have been the guy on social media defending the hit.

Eric Russo: I am certainly more level-headed. That comes with being a professional in the dressing room and in the press box, but being around the team as much as I am, you’re able to understand far more what these guys go through on a daily basis. I absolutely still react to certain things as a fan would, but having the insight and access that I do allows me to take a step back and view every situation with a bit more leniency.

Matt Zemek: Great question. I realized very quickly that if I wrote articles from one and only one perspective, in such a way that it seemed I was mad that one team won or lost, readers would notice and call me out on it. I had to make sure I could push aside personal feelings and write a glowing article about a team whose coach I might have had a strong disagreement with. I had to give credit for what actually happened and not project personal desires into my analysis of games.

The next key on this point is that if I wanted to write stories people could trust and respect, I had to start watching games through this prism, asking myself questions in an adjusted mental or intellectual framework.

I had to start processing and wrestling with on-field events (and off) in a way that a neutral observer would do. This doesn’t mean I didn’t have a bias — we all have our own biases — but it DID mean that my biases could coexist with an acknowledgment of how actual events cut against my biases, interpretations, or leanings. One thing I always tell readers who are surprised by something I write is that “The results don’t allow me to make certain conclusions. I can’t automatically impose a given view on an event when the outcome doesn’t allow for or warrant that particular opinion.”

Alan Saunders: I was always the kind of fan that tried to approach things more analytically and figure out why things happened, so I don’t think that much changed for me.

Jeff Pearlman: I stopped rooting. 100 percent. No cheering in the press box is something I take very seriously. So no more Mets rooting, Jets rooting. Turned it all off, like a light switch. People say that’s impossible. It’s not. It’s easy.

Trisha Blackmar: It’s hard to watch an overtime game and not think of the writers and editors trying to make deadlines. I also think about all the reporting that is sometimes rendered unusable at the last minute if something unexpected happens.

When I watch college basketball or tennis, my main beats, I’m always looking for storylines or trends in addition to following the action.

Do you still enjoy sports today as a spectator? Does it feel the same as it did when you younger? Why?

Bryan Curtis: Oh, yeah. I enjoy watching almost any big game. I’m much less emotional than when I was younger, though I still pick my spots.

As a kid, sports seemed like this incredibly vivid world of heroes and villains, geniuses and idiots. After you’ve seen a few decades worth of sports, you realize it’s sort of like that but also involves a lot of luck and a lot of moral shades of gray. It’s not exactly the Marvel expanded universe.

Moreover, the genius/idiot-hero/villain cycle repeats itself so often that what happens on a given week no longer seems world-historic. “We’ll never see another QB like Joe Montana” took all of a decade to be proven false. Now, we’re saying the same thing about Tom Brady.

Mike McMahon: No, it doesn’t feel the same whatsoever. In part, when you do it long enough as a job, it starts to feel like work. No job is ever perfect. Even in sports jobs, which most people would kill for, there are good things and bad things. Like I said, I can’t defend guys like Brad Marchand anymore, when 20 years ago I would have like crazy. I think the job has forced me to become less emotionally-invested in my teams.

Eric Russo: My enjoyment is still the same, but I have to admit I’m not as in-tune with things going on in the rest of the sports world. I guess that comes with being an adult and having far more to worry about. But really, my job is to be so zoned in on the NHL and hockey that it takes away from my ability to follow everything else at that level (although, being on Twitter 24/7 helps keep me in the loop). It also doesn’t help that Bruins games often overlap with the Celtics and at times the Patriots and Red Sox.

Matt Zemek: I cover sports in and through TV. I have never had a big travel budget for covering sports. I have been a columnist and commentator, not a beat reporter. So, my life as a “spectator” is through TV, not on site.

I have to admit that while going to a minor league baseball game was a sweet taste of childhood, going to big-time college or pro sports events — while occasionally thrilling — was not something I felt I had to do in my relationship with sports. I enjoy taking in a game from my home, where I can go to the bathroom easily, fix my own (cheaper) food, and listen to great broadcasters. TV is the best way to follow sports. It offers a much lower carbon footprint and is so much less stressful than flying. I hate flying.

Within this context, though, the experience of watching sports on TV has become so much worse over the years. Part of this is that the great broadcasters were from the 1980s and 1990s: [Dick] Enberg, [Pat] Summerall, Keith Jackson, [Brent] Musburger. Today’s broadcasters are competent and professional, but the resonance of the legendary broadcasters isn’t replicated today. Also, 1980s and early 1990s sports broadcasts had much better theme music. There were more times when, late in games, the network showing the game would stay in the arena instead of breaking for a commercial. Those things helped fuel my love of sports, and they aren’t nearly as commonplace today. Sure, we have replay and score boxes, but what we have lost is greater than what we have gained purely in terms of production values. In terms of being able to watch a LOT more games, today is better than 30 years ago.

Alan Saunders: The big difference is that it’s harder for me to just go watch and enjoy a game now. I can’t really turn work totally off. I still enjoy it, but it’s different now. I’m also so busy that I very rarely get an opportunity to go enjoy a game.

Jeff Pearlman: I do, but for me it’s about sitting at an Angels game with my son, chatting over food, walking around the stadium, having quiet time to ourselves. The outcome doesn’t matter 1 percent to me.

Trisha Blackmar: Yes, very much so, especially now that I have kids and can introduce them to my favorite teams. It’s really fun to experience live games with them. It can be hard to truly enjoy a game I’m covering but there are plenty of other sporting events.

What don’t fans understand about working in sports?

Bryan Curtis: Fans have a wonderful way of seeing sports purely through their own eyes. When I mention to friends or my uncles that I talked to a ’90s Cowboys eminence, their first question is, “Did you tell him you’re a lifelong fan of the team?!” Well, no, I didn’t. Or if I did, there was some strategic reason why I did. This isn’t Ready Player One for me.

My friends/uncles can’t imagine leaving that information out, because that’s only the frame through which they see the guy. By the way, there’s nothing wrong with that.

I also think some fans (not all) think sports jobs are easy. I have heard a couple of versions of: What’s so hard about watching games all the time? I’d love to do that! I’d never claim my job is particularly hard, but I also hear that rap about play-by-play announcers, as if anybody could walk into a booth announce a game with the smoothness of Joe Buck or Al Michaels.

Mike McMahon: You make no money. Like ZERO. It’s a job a lot of people want, so the big companies don’t have to pay people much to do them. Supply and demand. There was a big bubble that burst a few years ago, and now with almost everyone’s content being essentially free, it’s harder for companies to pay their employees. The general audience got used to not paying for content, and now they refuse to, oftentimes. It’s not as black-and-white as that, but if there are two media outlets reporting the same story, and one is behind a paywall and the other one isn’t, which one gets more traffic?

Eric Russo:  I think fans view it as all sunshine and rainbows. And for the most part it is, but it certainly has its downfalls. The pay is not astronomical and the hours are long. There are a lot of sacrifices that have to be made, and your friends and family aren’t always going to be happy that you’re missing out on holidays and other events. But in the end, it’s all worth it. You won’t hear me complaining about working for my favorite team in my hometown.

Matt Zemek: The most central thing fans don’t understand about working in sports is that writers and commentators have to look at the whole sport, not just the way one team or one athlete views a situation. Fans of a particular team might know more about that team than a writer or commentator does, but the national writer or commentator usually writes or speaks on a broader level.

Phrased differently: Writers might comment about a team or athlete in a not-very-intimate way. That should not be interpreted as having a personal distaste for that team or athlete. It’s just business. It’s not personal.

When a commentator truly has a grudge toward a team or athlete, you will know what it looks like (Skip Bayless toward LeBron or Mark May toward Ohio State football). Usually, writers and commentators aren’t trying to promote this athlete or denigrate that team. They are trying to see and comment on the whole landscape, which is very different from processing situations through the lens of one and only one perspective.

Alan Saunders: A lot. I don’t think fans really understand the mindset of the players and what it means to work in professional sports. They try to compare it to their own athletic experience, but it’s different when it’s a career.

Jeff Pearlman: It’s a grind. A beautiful grind, but a grind. And the whole, “Wow! You get to meet the athletes!” Well, they fart, burp, walk around naked, hairy asses in your face. It’s not—in that regard—what it’s chalked up to be.

Trisha Blackmar: I don’t think fans understand how much time and research goes into the work we do. And we don’t have it in for your favorite team.

After having covered so much, what do sports mean to you now?

Bryan Curtis: I don’t have a great answer for this. I guess I would say, in the least cynical, burned-out way possible, that I see sports more and more as simply a subject. As the small part of the universe that a bunch of us have chosen to cover. A really fascinating part of the universe, but that’s about it. Nothing more or less than that.

Mike McMahon: I’ve rekindled some of that childlike feel watching my kids watch their teams, which is fun. Watching Game 2 of the Eastern Conference finals with my 9-year-old, and him exploding off the couch for every goal in a 6-2 win for the Bruins, made me remember what that felt like. Hanging on every second. That’s definitely something I lost, and I don’t know if I’ll ever get it back. Maybe? But I find myself watching sports more analytically now. When I was younger you watch the game like that 9-year-old kid, so emotionally invested and hooked into every shot, check, save. Now I watch the game and think to myself, “I wonder if they’re going to change their forecheck?” I get enjoyment out of that, and it is still an escape from reality, but in a different way for sure.

Eric Russo: Sports mean everything to me. It’s literally my life. If I’m not working, I’m watching one of the other teams, going to a game, or listening to sports talk radio. I can never escape it. But, as I said earlier, now that I’m working in the industry I view it all from a different perspective.

Matt Zemek: After nearly 20 years of covering sports, I appreciate sports more than I used to. Sports remain one of the few areas of life in which people who would otherwise NEVER want to talk to each other can find something that brings them together over a common interest and a shared passion. Other aspects of life have lost that cohesive, unifying element. Sports hasn’t. Sports have endured in ways other parts of American culture have not.

Sports are also really good at showing people the importance of never giving up. Cleveland won a sports championship. The Cubs won the World Series. The Eagles won the Super Bowl. The Capitals and Blues won Stanley Cups. Virginia won the basketball national title. Leicester City won the Premier League a few years ago. You really never know. This doesn’t guarantee success, but sometimes, hard work does indeed pay off. See what happens when you make an effort in anything. Sports continue to teach this simple but profound lesson.

Alan Saunders: To me, I think the biggest things sports do is bring people together in different ways.

If you look at the crowd of a major sporting event, there will be people of all races and ages, die-hards with face paint, casual fans, grandmothers and babies, rooting for players that might be from any numbers of countries, financial backgrounds, creeds, etc. It’s one of the places where America is still a melting pot.

Jeff Pearlman: Not a ton, to be honest. Mainly they’ve given me a chance to live a blissful life. But the whole live-and-die with sports thing is dead to me. Climate change—terrifying. Mets-Dodgers—good time, then it’s over.

Trisha Blackmar: I don’t know what my life would be like without sports. I’ve played, watched, and/or covered various sports for my whole life.

If you could change one thing about sports media what would it be and why?

Bryan Curtis: This one’s easy for me, but I want to pick two: more jobs and more diversity. At the moment, the sports media sorely lacks both.

Mike McMahon: This is going to sound selfish … but sports media needs to tighten up its access. The reason I think it’s easy for bigger companies to not pay people to do the job is because so many people and outlets are granted access and are giving away coverage (sometimes poor coverage) for free, and the average reader doesn’t know the difference.

Not every fly-by-night website should be credentialed. I’m sorry.

I see this a lot in college hockey, especially. I also see a lot of people in college hockey get credentialed, go to a game, and never provide any coverage. This job isn’t a way to get free tickets. I hate to sound like the old guy who wants people to “pay their dues,” but really, that needs to happen more. Right now anyone can start a blog or website and have a seat in an NHL press box. There’s something off about that. Tightening up access to working professionals limits where the information is coming from, and it might mean that consumers have to pay (subscribe) for that coverage.

Years ago, the industry would provide a select number of people a living wage. Now, the number of people drawing money from the industry has rocketed through the roof, but the money available hasn’t.

So, we’ve gone from providing a select few with a living wage to providing a big group with nowhere near a living wage.

Eric Russo: There are a lot of things I can’t stand about sports media, but I’ll try to brief. I know I’m far from the only one on this, but I can’t stand the headline-grabbing, click-baiting mentality. And I certainly understand that kind of thing appeals to people and generates traffic, which ultimately generates revenue and salaries for the people creating the content. But when it comes to opinion-based content, the industry can be far better. Stop pandering and just write or say what you actually believe. If you’re good at what you do, you can make even the most boring take sound interesting.

Matt Zemek: The biggest thing which needs to change in this business is the worship of Google, which flows from the prevailing business model at sports media companies. Google rules the world as long as pageviews are the basis for the business model at sports media companies.

Every sports media company which might start out with a fresh vision quickly turns into a clickbait-seeking entity because of what Google says, and because of how central Google is in shaping the visibility of links and page placements on the internet. Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is so dominant in this industry that sports media companies very easily abandon their original (fresh) ideas and become like everyone else, cranking out stories about the Patriots, Cowboys, Warriors, Yankees, Red Sox, Cubs, and few other topics.

The industry needs a better model which will make companies less dependent on Google and SEO. Companies need to believe in original content, good storytelling, fresh ideas, and diversified approaches to sports content.

Alan Saunders: Only one?

We need to get back to a place where teams and players value a relationship with the media.

That doesn’t mean we all need to be homers, but it doesn’t need to be an adversarial relationship if everyone understands what everyone else’s job is and how they’re going to go about it.

Bonus one, because I’m a writer and we can’t be helped. We need to do a far better job of distinguishing hard news from analysis and opinion. People don’t understand the difference between the jobs of a columnist, analyst, and reporter.

Jeff Pearlman: Now it’s OK to be cheering for teams. To have rooting interests. That infuriates me.

Trisha Blackmar: More women in positions of power throughout the industry, I think for obvious reasons.

 

 

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