Getting Started In Sports Writing
Lately I’ve received a lot of emails from individuals looking to get into sports writing. Many of them ask me how I got my start and what advice I have for others looking to begin writing in sports. While I’m not sure that my path is the best to follow, there are a few ideas that I’ve picked up along the way that may be useful to others.
1. Just start
I had the idea to start a place like RulingSports.com, the sports law website I began on July 1, 2011 which really launched my sports career, for nearly two years before I sat down and actually created it. Over that period, I had various reasons as to why I would never actually pull the plug and create the site. Looking back, the biggest reasons were that I did not have a clear vision for what I wanted the site to be or what I wanted to do with it and fear of the unknown.
As for a vision, I didn’t want to start a website and put myself out to the world as a writer before I had a consistent and developed enough vision of what I wanted that website to be. I was afraid that if I entered the scene before I clearly knew what I was doing, that I would fail.
For the reasons above, I say that I was afraid to start the website. The unknown and possibility of my site tanking stirred fear within me. For a long time, this fear prevented me from doing anything.
If you’ve followed along with my blog or Twitter account for any period of time, you know that a chain of events finally pushed me to the point of taking the plunge and starting RulingSports.com in 2011. Looking back, the day that I launched the website, all fears faded. I had the chance to hear one of my favorite sportswriters, USA Today’s Christine Brennan, speak today. She talked about starting her career at the Miami Herald in the 1980s as one of first female sportswriters. In her discussion, she said that two things propelled her success: Her naivety and belief that she could do anything.
When she described her early career with those two descriptors, I chuckled, because I would also use them to describe my early days with RulingSports.com. I was fearless and I truly believed that anyone should want to talk to me for stories. I emailed leagues and teams and introduced myself and presented opportunities for me to tell their stories. I reached out to Division I athletics directors and did the same. I obtained my first credential–to cover the Manhattan Beach Open–one month after getting started. Once I had pushed down the fear, the training wheels came off and I truly believed there was no limit for what I could accomplish. If RulingSports.com was going to fail, it was going to be because of me. Not because of a lack of readership or an inability to access stories. Rather, if RulingSports.com failed, it would be because I didn’t stick my neck out far enough.
So, my first piece of advice is start something. It won’t be perfect at first. It won’t be big for awhile. Yet, by actually taking a risk and pursuing something that you want, you are moving many steps ahead of those who are too scared to tackle their dreams.
2. Find a niche or a topic that makes you stand out
Everyone wants to work in sports. And everyone that can write wants to write about sports. It’s sexy. It’s fun. And you get to access one of the greatest things this world has to offer in one of the most unprecedented ways possible. In the last three years, I’ve covered the Super Bowl, NBA Finals, NBA All-Star Game and Final Four. I am credentialed for the Miami Heat. I wouldn’t have had these opportunities if I didn’t break the fear discussed above. I also likely wouldn’t have these opportunities if I didn’t make an early strategic decision to cover sports in a way that most others weren’t.
I studied the blogosphere pretty heavily before I decided to jump into it. In doing so, I quickly learned that there were few that were comprehensively covering sports law. At the time, Sports Law Blog was arguably my biggest competitor. What made me stand out from that site was that I contributed all of the content for RulingSports.com in its early days and was also female. These factors made me stand out and I believe provided me with an interesting speaking piece when I reached out to others for interviews.
Serendipity worked in my favor a bit, too. When people ask me how they can start a successful blog, I honestly cannot provide them with a realistic or hard answer. I am a very religious person, so for me, I truly believe that this is all part of the plan God carved out for my life. Some may call it luck, and I’m willing to attribute some of the opportunities that have come my way to being in the right place at the right time. For instance, on the day I kicked my fear and launched RulingSports.com, the NBA decided to lockout its players. Thus, my little sports law blog was in a position to make a splash by covering a difficult legal topic in a way that no other site really was. Within my first week, I booked two radio shows and had hundreds of Twitter followers.
While God, serendipity or luck–depending upon which dogma you follow–played a role in my break, I truly believe it’s important for writers starting out to do something that separates themselves from the pack. What insight or experiences can you bring to the blogosphere that nobody else can? There are already so many great writers and journalists out there. In a world focused upon supply and demand, what can you do to make your writing in demand?
This point ties into how I began writing for Forbes. I love when people ask me how I gained my opportunity writing for Forbes. I wish the story was more grandoise, but it goes like this: My editor, Dan, emailed me and asked, “Would you like to write for Forbes?” I wrote back and said, “Absolutely.” We signed a contract a couple weeks later and I’ve been with the site now for two years.
Why do I think Dan reached out to me within one year of my blogging? A large amount of it has to do with the fact that I was covering sports from an angle different from others. Along with RulingSports.com, I had taken over for Kristi Dosh and her website, BusinessofCollegeSports.com when she moved to ESPN. So, I was able to provide Forbes with analysis beyond statistics or game recaps. I believe that was appealing to them.
3. Be consistent
One of the biggest reasons why I believe writers do not achieve the success they desire is because they are inconsistent or give up too quick. When I started RulingSports.com, I knew that if I wanted to gain a following that I would have to have fresh content up on the site three times a week. This was not easy and it nearly killed my social life for a year.
I was practicing law when I started the website at a mid-size firm in Orange County. When I finished my billable hours, I would head to the Starbucks in Laguna Beach on the Pacific Coast Highway. I spent nearly every day from July through December of 2011 in the back corner of that Starbucks building up my little site. I passed on dates, happy hours and crazy nights out in Hollywood to make sure that the website had fresh content up. It was a sacrifice, but it was worth it. It was worth it, because the time I spent early on allowed my dreams to come true.
If you want to be successful at anything–whether it’s blogging or a career elsewhere–you need to be consistent. I always tell my students that hard work pays off. And it does. Truth be told, I am not the best writer out there. I don’t always see stories perfectly. Yet, one thing that anybody will tell you about me, is that I am dedicated and get the job done. And I believe that quality is one that has propelled me the furthest.
4. Do not be afraid to ask
As noted in #1, I was naive and believed I could do anything when I started RulingSports.com. These qualities were good, because they allowed me to ask people for things that looking back, I probably shouldn’t have.
In my first week of blogging, I read Sports Illustrated’s George Dohrmann’s “Played Their Hears Out” about NCAA basketball recruiting. I then emailed George and asked if he would let me talk to him for my story. He politely got back to me a few weeks later apologizing for missing the “opportunity.” (That was very kind of him, as looking back, there really was no “opportunity” to be gained for an S.I. writer to be interviewed by someone who had been blogging for a week).
Undeterred, I wanted to move forward with my story. So I went back through his book and remembered that one of the main character’s mothers was a California licensed attorney. As a California licensed attorney, I knew I could search the California State Bar’s website and get her email address. I emailed the woman, Carmen, later that day. She not only gave me one of my first interviews, but would become my friend. Two years later, I would attend a UNLV game with her to watch her son, Justin. Afterward, I emailed Dohrmann, who I had not communicated with since my interview request, a picture of Carmen, her son and I. His second email was even kinder. He told me how awesome it was seeing the path that my career was on.
I believe that I have covered the stories I have and have been given the opportunities I have because I am not afraid to ask. I was invited directly by the NFL to cover the Super Bowl after I reached out to one of their head PR people asking if I could write a story about their breast cancer initiatives. They were so pleased and surprised by my ability to a) care about what they are doing to help others and b) delve deep into the story, that we have since built a very formidable relationship.
The same goes for the NBA. When I started at Forbes, I reached out to the league office introducing myself to them and did the same for all 30 teams. I told them I was interested in stories that others weren’t–stories about athletes giving back and interesting activation campaigns. While I must maintain editorial dignity and use common sense in deciding what stories to cover, I feel lucky that I have built solid professional relationships with these two leagues. I moved to Florida this August and individuals from both leagues’ offices were some of the first to check in on me during my first week in Miami to make sure I was doing ok. Those gestures make the long nights and extensive days that I am away from family and friends worth it.
That brings me to how I began writing for the Huffington Post: I asked. I wanted to expand my brand of writing to focus more upon philanthropic efforts by athletes, teams and leagues. Forbes was not the best outlet to do this. So, I brainstormed other possibilities, and I kept coming back to the Huffington Post. I found an editor on Twitter, connected with him and reached out with a question of whether they were looking for new writers. He reached out to the person above him and within days, I was set up on the site.
5. Have fun and try new things
I truly believe that you shouldn’t do anything if you do not think it’s fun. I learned this from my mom, who is one of the most fun people I know. My mom made raising me and taking care of our family her job. She held other jobs throughout my life, but I remember once giving her a hard time asking her why she wasn’t working. She looked at me dead in the eye and said, “I will only work a job if it’s fun.” I scoffed and said, “Must be nice!” In reality, though, she has a point. And a really good one, at that. Life is short. You should be having fun. Always.
When I started RulingSports.com, I wanted my writing to focus entirely on sports law. This was great as it let me make my break into the industry. In all honesty, though, it got boring at a point. There is so much more to me than sports law. I love music. I love fashion. I love eating out. I love God. I love figuring out why my love life is a roller coaster.
About two years into RulingSports’ existence, I took a risk and created this website. I wanted to expand my brand image. I wanted the world to see that Alicia Jessop is a person, and not just a machine who can analyze case law. It was a risk, as I knew I may alienate some of my more scholarly followers. Yet, it has paid off. My following has grown substantially and, most importantly, I am having fun.
So, each day, make sure that you are having fun. If you aren’t, try something new. The biggest thing I can tell you, is there is no right or wrong way to do this. Each journey is different. You just need to begin yours.