What’s wrong with our sports writing? What, not why. 

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October 5, 2016 by dannybishopcreative

For a while now I’ve been lamenting the state of the average sports writing in Australia. This has come about as I’ve become more and more exposed to the US sports writing scene. As with most things over the past 15 years or so, the Internet has disrupted our ability to consume content from International sports. As a younger man I would regularly make the trip into a specialist newsagent in Melbourne (anyone remember McGills?) to scan the pages of US papers that were, by the time the arrived, often more than a week or two out of date and to flick through the latest Sports Illustrated (always for the articles.. no, really.)

Now I can not only watch my sports of choice online (MLB and NFL), but I can also read the latest reports moments after the game is won.

But it’s not just ESPN where I can get the scores. It’s everywhere. I can get play-by-play on Twitter, scenes from the post-game Gatorade bath on Snapchat. It’s a-la carte and pervasive.

We live in a world where everyone has seen the highlights moments after they happen, has read the post-game press conference answers from the coach as he utters them.

In Australia the average sports article still acts like this isn’t the case. Most often we are treated to a Readers Digest match summary. The writer condensing the play-by-play into something with more structure and adding some comment along the way.

To a new generation of media consumers this offers nothing. Nothing new at least.

A decade ago I began working with the Essendon football club on its digital offerings. One of my regular tasks was to attend the post-match coach press call. At the time those press conferences were not broadcast by the major media. At first it felt like I was part of the true inner sanctum. But very quickly I formed another opinion. The media who attended asked questions that to me felt incredibly dull. They would ask questions that I eventually realised, were asked to elicit a response so that the writer could enter a quote into the story they had effectively already written. A story that was crafted as the game unfolded, mimicking the play-by-play.

There was no real investigation of why something happened. Just what the coach thought about what happened. Anything else might have required rewriting the whole story that was sitting on the journalist’s laptop waiting for a quote before it could be filed.

And that’s the rub. Talking about ‘what’. Not ‘why’.

fry.png

Fry knows what happened. He’s not sure WHY it happened though.

Perhaps it’s just a function of deadlines, and the fact that long-form sports writing doesn’t appear to have a profitable outlet unlike in the US. So as a result our writers dissect what happened over and over again, but rarely explore why it occurred.

As the Bulldogs took their first AFL flag in 62 years we’ve been offered huge amounts of writing on how Liam Picken turned the game, on Tom Boyd earning his paycheck and on ‘Bevo’ handing his medal to the injured heart and soul of the current list.

Compare this, and the reams of similar writing throughout the AFL season to this article by Bill Simmons. I’ll wait here for a while…

Grantland – Tom Brady and Peyton Manning Are Cheating

Okay? Do you read it beyond the headline? All the way to the end? I’m patient… go on, go back and read it!

The thing that sticks out here is that Bill has taken a question from a reader that could have been a please-deliver-me-a-quote-so-I-can-file-this-and-get-home-or-to-the-bar easy answer, but the exploration becomes something much more interesting. Instead of just repeating Manning’s stats and quotes from his coaches he explores the rivalry between Manning and Brady and what does he come up with? That Peyton is a result of being a middle brother and son of a famous football dad, and that Brady grew up among sisters. Hands up if you saw that coming when you read the clickbait title? Anyone? I didn’t think so.

The writing itself isn’t necessarily brilliant, unless you are a fan of writing that feels like you’re sitting at a bar and both Bill and you are onto your fourth beer and he can really open up about something a little nuts without being shouted down (“I’ve got this idea…” [swigs beer] “Yeah, mate.. that’s right, that’s RIGHT!”). But it’s the ‘How‘ in this that sticks out like a lighthouse. He’s not just talking about what happened by just repeating stats and quotes. He’s talking about the unseen forces that have shaped two men and defined the NFL’s rise from big time sport to behemoth. He’s talking about a team widely regarded as the best team of the past decade as having faults and failings that have kept them from greater success BECAUSE THE QB HAS THREE OLDER SISTERS!

It’s a piece of writing that must have taken a decent amount of time to write, but much longer to formulate in his head. It’s something that must have been banging around in Bill’s brain prior to the email landing in his inbox.

And it ends with Bill giving his tip for the upcoming game. In the end it’s an amazing insight into NFL masquerading as footy tipping.

Do our media outlets allow for this sort of writing? Do they encourage it? Or has the slow decline of print shackled our writers into repeating the status quo? Sure, there are writers who go above and beyond, like Martin Flanagan, but Martin isn’t writing this sort of stuff often, reserving his best for occasional longer form and books.

There’s irony in that I don’t know enough to be able to define the ‘why’ for this. But I do believe that without a change that sports writing in this country won’t be the savior of the written media. But sites like Grantland and its newest incarnation The Ringer have shown that there’s another path that can be taken, and perhaps it leads somewhere more interesting and maybe even to something more prosperous.

And like the Dogs this past weekend, maybe the person to lead a team that has suffered for so long without reaching greatness is Bob Murphy. Look beyond the medal handed from coach to captain and read his pre-match article from The Age…

Our Western Bulldog Clan is uniting and the pain is fading

Maybe Bob will lead us all to the promised land. And when we get there we will all know why, not just how, we got there.

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