A sports enthusiast’s love for the game can include everything from the preparation and anticipation, to watching the actual game, enjoying replays and highlights, and discussing everything about the game afterward—including the teams, the coaches, and their favorite (and not-so-favorite) players.
Sports writing plays a huge role in stirring up expectations and giving fans the information they crave about the people behind their favorite sport.
What Is Sports Writing in Journalism?
Sports writing is a form of creative nonfiction or journalism that covers sports, athletes, or other sports-related issues. A journalist who reports on sports is called a sportswriter.
Glenn Stout, editor of The Best American Sports Writing 2015, describes a good sports story as one that “provides an experience that… takes you from one place you’ve never been before and by the end leaves you in another place, changed.”
In the introduction to the 2012 edition of The Best American Sports Writing, Michael Wilbon says that the best sports stories are those that come from conversations, and not from formal interviews. These people may be reluctant or poor conversationalists, but they often turn out the best stories.
What Are the Elements of Sports Writing?
Sports writing typically covers basic information, such as:
- highlights of the game
- the names of the teams involved
- the type of sport
- score or final outcome
- when and where the game was played
But in order to write a good sports article, remember to focus on what an athlete does. Because sports revolve around the drama of competition, spotlighting a single person gives your story a human side that your readers can relate to.
5 Types of Sports Stories
The following are the five most common types of sports stories:
1. Straight-Lead Game Story
The most basic form of all sportswriting, the straight-lead (also spelled straight-lede) game story is an article using a straight-news format. The article summarizes the main points of a game: which team won or lost, the final score, and what a star player did.
A straight-lead might look something like this:
Second-string quarterback Robert Jameson threw the game-winning touchdown with just 10 seconds left to lead the Mountain View High School Bears to a 21-14 victory over the Canyon del Oro High School Captains Saturday night.
After that, the story follows by giving an account of big plays, players who contributed tremendously to the final outcome, and after-game insights, quoting both players and coaches.
Many high school and college sports use the straight-lead game story, but sports writers for professional sports events have veered away from this format.
The reason is that TV already shows the entire game and fans usually know the scores and highlights before the article makes it to publication.
2. Feature Game Story
The feature game story is a favorite tool for professional sports writers because it gives fans and readers a different angle from the highlights they have seen on TV.
Here’s an example of an actual sports feature lead involving the Queensland Reds and their rugby coach, Tevita Koloi:
It’s the start of yet another season. The quiet of the night contrasts with the vibrant group gathered in the upper room of their local church, fervently praying. As the clock ticks closer towards midnight, the spiritual coach of the state’s professional rugby team receives an impression from God – “the last placed team he is mentoring will win the entire league this very year.”
It is a bold revelation, and he grapples with what to do with this.
After opening with this unique angle, the writer proceeds to describe the prominent rugby coach’s background, as well as what was going on at the time he had this unusual experience.
And, as is common trait of feature game stories, he only gets to the scores near the end of the article—which is fine because readers are not looking to read about the score, which they already know.
Instead, the story gives them a different perspective of the game and the people involved.
Whereas a feature game story spotlights a game, a profile features an individual character. This person might be a rookie athlete rising in the ranks, or perhaps an influential coach.
To show you the difference between a feature game story and a profile, here is an example of a real-life personality profile opening of the same rugby coach Tevita Koloi:
He stood on the bridge, pondering how everything in his life had gone wrong. After several years of depression, disappointment, abuse and separation, he had reached the end of his rope and was ready to end it all. He closed his eyes, readying himself to take this irreversible step. At that very moment, he heard a seemingly innocuous noise from below, “Beep-beep! Beep-beep!” He opened his eyes and reached into his pocket for his phone, intending to read this message before he went forward with his tragic plan. The words he read, sent from an acquaintance he was not even particularly close to, shocked him out of his stupor: “Jesus loves you. He will never leave you. Receive His love.”
The story then proceeds to describe his battle with depression and suicide, and how he used the same thing that saved him, text messaging, to help others in the sports world.
4. Season Preview and Wrap-up Stories
Every sportswriter needs season previews and wrap-up stories in their collection. These stories are published while the coaches and their teams are preparing for the upcoming season, or after the season has ended—whether in victory or in defeat.
These stories take a bird’s eye view of the season: they normally share the expectations that coaches and players have, or how they feel at the end of a season.
A fictional example of a lead for this kind of story is:
Coach Sandy Miller has high hopes for the Bannerview High School women’s volleyball team this year. With the Royals being the county champions last year, led by dynamic team captain Serena Delgado, who continues to lead the team this year as a senior. “We believe she’ll bring the team to greater heights this year,” Coach Miller says.
A sportswriting column is the place where a sportswriter shares their opinion. Sometimes these columns may include venting when a team, player, or coach doesn’t meet expectations. Other times, they may write about what they admire in a team, player or coach.
A favorite subject is a coach who is able to direct a weak team to an unexpected championship, or perhaps an underdog player who demonstrates unusual determination and teamwork.
Here is an excerpt of a column from The Sports Column:
For me, head-to-head competition is the most significant indicator for seeding, but not to EIWA coaches.
When coaches use rules/regulations to protect their interests, then athletes suffer. To make a three-time All-American–a proven wrestler–a 4-seed behind an opponent he has defeated…well…that’s bad for everybody. And to make things worse, the only other seeded wrestler who has qualified for the Nationals (Jared Prince of Navy), is seeded #5, opposite Kolodzik. None of the other six seeds have had such success this year.
Sports Writing Examples
The best sports writers are able to convey the sense of awe readers feel when watching a game.
However, sports writing is not limited to simply describing a game: it may also profile an athlete or unveil important news surrounding a key character in a sport, such as reports of abuse.
Example #1. From “Roger Federer as Religious Experience” (2006) by David Foster Wallace:
A top athlete’s beauty is next to impossible to describe directly. Or to evoke. Federer’s forehand is a great liquid whip, his backhand a one-hander that he can drive flat, load with topspin, or slice — the slice with such snap that the ball turns shapes in the air and skids on the grass to maybe ankle height. His serve has world-class pace and a degree of placement and variety no one else comes close to; the service motion is lithe and uneccentric, distinctive (on TV) only in a certain eel-like all-body snap at the moment of impact. His anticipation and court sense are otherworldly, and his footwork is the best in the game.
Example #2. From “Most Dominant Athlete of 2018: Simone Biles” by Danyel Smith:
The only thing greater than the legendary, genius, paradigm-shifting athletic status of Simone Biles is the degree to which so many don’t know or can’t understand what it is that she actually does. Even if you’ve seen Biles doing a split leap on a box of Special K, you likely don’t know the depth of her determination to dominate. Some of it is that Biles competes in an odd, ancient Greek sport based in “disciplined exercise” that conquering Romans militarized and people now barely pay attention to outside of Summer Olympic years. More of it is that it’s the American female gymnasts who excel.
Example #3. From “Everyone Believed Larry Nassar” by Kerry Howley
It has by the fall of 2018 become commonplace to describe the 499 known victims of Larry Nassar as “breaking their silence,” though in fact they were never, as a group, particularly silent. Over the course of at least 20 years of consistent abuse, women and girls reported to every proximate authority. They told their parents. They told gymnastics coaches, running coaches, softball coaches. They told Michigan State University police and Meridian Township police. They told physicians and psychologists. They told university administrators. They told, repeatedly, USA Gymnastics. They told one another. Athletes were interviewed, reports were written up, charges recommended. The story of Larry Nassar is not a story of silence. The story of Larry Nassar is that of an edifice of trust so resilient, so impermeable to common sense, that it endured for decades against the allegations of so many women.
How Do You Write a Good Sports Lead?
A lead is the introductory section of a news story, intended to hook the reader into reading the full story.
To write a good sports lead, first pick which of the 5 types of sports stories you would like to write. The type of story you choose will determine the lead you write.
If you opt for a straight-news story, pick a highlight from the game you are writing about and focus on that in your first paragraph.
If you choose a feature or profile, pick something that stands out about the team or person. Think of a scene that best describes the characteristic you want to highlight. Do you describe a practice session? A game huddle? Or an after-game interview?
For a season preview or wrap-up story, pick a sport you love and describe a broad perspective of an upcoming season or the season that just wrapped up, beginning with the best teams.
For or an opinion column, find one angle that you would like to express your opinion on and that you feel passionate about.
Writing About Sports
Writing about sports is not only exciting, but it also gives us a chance to get to know the people in our favorite sport and share those findings with our readers.
Excellently written sports stories make these characters come alive, letting fans connect to their favorite teams in a more meaningful way.
Which sport would you like to write about? Share your thoughts in the comments below!