As a financial journalist, I always resented the sports section. After all, we cover the most important stories for individuals and communities, about their jobs, livelihoods and economies. But who gets the biggest budgets and largest number of pages? Sports. On reflection, however, there’s much we can learn from sports.
• It’s about competition, the thrill of victory, the agony of defeat.The same is true of business journalism. We write about competition: Companies vs. companies, cities and states vs. cities and states, people fighting to land a limited number of jobs. This is never dry stuff in the hands of a gifted sportswriter, and the same should be true of our stories. Who’s on top? Who’s falling? What are “the standings,” the “pennant race,” the “playoffs” the famous rivalries and where is the search for redemption on your business beat?
• Personalities bring readers. Every sports town has its favorite or infamous players, coaches and owners. Sportswriters help us get to know these people as if they were friends, neighbors and even family members. It’s not just about games and stats, but the individual’s tics, fears, arrogance, past glories, potential, disgraces and great quotes. Translate that to your most important and eccentric CEOs, entrepreneurs, managers in the firing line, union bosses, up-and-comers and the same magnetism is yours for the taking.
• Inside baseball stories are actually interesting. If, that is, they are told by expert reporters, offering insider knowledge and new information about a game you already saw and thought you knew. Yes, they primarily appeal to baseball fans (or football, basketball, soccer, etc.), but this is a large and — importantly — fanatical audience. Writing about what’s going on inside your local employers has the same appeal.
• Expertise matters. The best sports sections have expert journalists on every beat, from preps to professional. When a city lands an expansion team, the newspaper typically recruits a major league-level journalist as the lead writer. He or she brings the skill and seasoning, knows the game in and out, is on first-name terms with the players and coaches. In business, this brings a level of sophistication that produces stories that nail the sport and game with authority, tell insiders things even they didn’t know and makes them so riveting that even people with little interest in that company or industry will be drawn in.
• Great writing matters. Sports Illustrated made its name not with the swimsuit issue but with some of the finest writing anywhere. Especially in its glory days, this drew in people who didn’t really care about sports. The great journalist A.J. Liebling covered wars, McCarthyism, politics, life in New York — but he was also a sportswriter, especially in his timeless essays on boxing. At its best, sportswriting tells stories of eternal human dreams, dilemmas, mysteries and allegories. We should be writing this way, too, because the messy business of making and spending money is one of the most compelling human stories (see Gatsby, The Great).
• Destinations and community. Sports sections offer columnists with strong voices, insights and opinions — love ‘em or hate ‘em, you’ve still got to read ‘em. It also offers a chance to create reader forums, Letters to the Sports Editor and hundreds of reader comments on stories. Business sections may never reach this level of fanatical reader interest, but we should try. We’re writing about (or should be) money, power, the chance to get ahead, the intersection of big money and its influence on government, huge corporations that influence our lives and society much more than nine ballplayers.
* Stats. Newspapers long ago did away with pages of stock listings — not a smart thing considering the many older readers who didn’t have Internet access or preferred to read them on dead trees. But the stats are some of the most read items in any sports section. It should be that way for business, too. Now, both in print and online, a host of business information can make for customized tables (and graphics).
Don’t expect the same money or space. But sports still has much to teach us.
And for more about the sports and business, the Reynolds Center has a Beat Basics written by the Arizona Republic’s Craig Harris: Business of Sports, an introduction.