Dec 1, 2020 - Sports

Sportswriting evolution speeds up

Picture of Reggie Jackson talking to reporters

Reggie Jackson talking to reporters in 1978. Photo: Bettmann/Getty Images

Sports media is facing an inflection point, spurred both by threatened access and the rise of automated coverage.

Why it matters: The delivery of information — and the content therein — will continue its rapid evolutionary process and fundamentally change the way readers consume sports.

The big picture: The rise of automated game stories has all but rendered reporters' original jobs obsolete, allowing technology to play to its strengths and humans to theirs.

"If your job is to report on the larger implications of the game ... that's ideally suited for people and is extremely hard for automation to do. I think the main focus should be that we keep [writers] doing the things they're good at."
— Robbie Allen, founder and CEO of Automated Insights

Rewind: American sportswriting has been practiced since at least the mid-19th century, but as culture and technology have evolved, so has the medium. Here are some of the big changes over time.

Just the facts: The Great Depression turned sports into a needed escape for Americans, but they couldn't exactly fire up Twitter or ESPN to check in on the action.

  • In other words, you didn't open the newspaper for analysis, but rather to simply learn what happened.

The sea change: In the late-40's, with WWII in the rearview, sports began occupying more of the leisure economy. The hunger for coverage grew as watercooler talk turned to last night's game.

  • Dick Young of the Daily News removed the barrier between athlete and reporter, gathering postgame quotes straight from the locker room to add more color and substance to his stories.
  • Throughout the 50's, Young's method became the norm as fact-finding yielded to genuine insight, and athletes were suddenly expected to answer real questions.
Picture of Muhammad Ali sitting among reporters
Muhammad Ali with reporters before 1975's "Thrilla in Manila." Photo: Nik Wheeler/Corbis via Getty Images

A new era: The paradigm shift spurred by Young's cohort grew in the 70's and 80's with industry titans like Bob Ryan. Quotes alone were no longer good enough.

  • "If you don't have a point of view, why don’t you just run the [Associated Press] story?" Ryan said.

Analytics movement: The rise of analytics further blurred the line between reporter, fan and athlete.

  • A smarter, more engaged fan emerged who both expected and required far more "how" and "why" than "what."
  • Meanwhile, prepared reporters could bring their own findings to athletes, who might elucidate on the technique powering their results.

The bottom line: We've already begun the next phase thanks to the explosion of social media and resulting athletes-as-storytellers model.

  • That, combined with the way COVID-19 has restricted access to outsiders, should make for a very interesting next stage in the evolution of sports media.

Go deeper: Shifting sports media landscape (The Cauldron)

Go deeper