The stories behind the stats

When I was a kid, one of my dreams was to become a sports anchor.

I devoured sports. I collected complete sets of trading cars. I subscribed to a half dozen magazines. I culled stats from the early, clunky versions of NBA.com. I watched some iteration of ESPN every day. And I would watch the NBA finals on TV, mute the sound, and record my own play-by-play.

To me, being a sports anchor seemed easy. I loved to talk about sports, so it would be a dream come true to get paid to talk about them. Sit courtside, call games, yell “booyah” over the highlights, and shout my opinion via splitscreen with Tony Kornheiser. To my younger self, being a sports anchor meant being a fan, except on TV.

But as I learned, it takes much more than that.

Sports are about so much more than stats or dunks or touchdowns. The people wearing the uniforms are not above reproach. The people supporting the teams are not faceless.

In short, you still need to tell stories.

The best sports reporters take readers, viewers and listeners beyond the stats page and beyond the highlights. If you want to get a job as a sports anchor, reporter, or announcer, you need to show that you are more than a pretty face behind a desk. You need to show that you can shoot and edit a package. You need to connect with people, ask tough questions and get answers, and capture the emotions of the people involved.

I asked several sports anchors to share some of their best packages as examples of how to use sports to tell unique, personal stories.

The first is from Chris Breece, sports director with KFSM in Fayetteville. This package makes use of some clever shooting and editing to give the viewer a surprising story about a tennis champion. It shows that meaningful stories don’t have to just be about the biggest teams or best players.

Here’s another quick one from Breece, who showed that by being in the right places and talking to the right people, you can find some fun stories. He did his legwork as a reporter to find his subject, instead of just repeating what was on Sportcenter or on the front of the sports section.

This next story from WFAA’s Jobin Panicker will likely make you tear up a little, but there’s more to it than just the emotional subject matter. As a reporter, a powerful story can be made spectacular by the way you shoot and edit it. Look at the way Panicker shoots his interviews with family members in the stands, using long lenses, wireless microphones, and objects in the foreground. It really gives you the feeling of being at the game under the Friday night lights, which makes the big moment at the end of the story all the more poignant for the viewer. Check it out here on WFAA’s web site.

Here’s a short one but a good one from Kelly Burke at WSIL in southern Illinois about the groundskeeper of a college softball team. It shows that there are more to sports than what happens on the field. Being a reporter means being a voice for the voiceless. If it weren’t for Burke and WSIL, I don’t know if Groundskeeper Wright’s story would ever have been told. The story may not win any awards, but it probably made a lot of people happy. Watch it on WSIL’s site.

OK, I’ll put one of my own stories in here, but only because it illustrates my next point: a sports story can still be a news story. Sports journalism isn’t all profiles and highlights; sometimes there are things happening that need to be reported on, questioned, and brought to light. In this case, the International Olympic Committee recommended that wrestling be taken out of the 2020 Olympics. For wrestlers, it was a devastating development. That same day, there just happened to be an Olympic wrestler holding a training at a local high school, so I spoke to him and some high school wrestlers about the IOC’s decision and what they were going to do about it.

And finally, one of the most memorable sports packages I’ve seen in years. This one, from reporter Tom Rinaldi and editor Robert J. Labay, aired on Sportscenter in 2008, and told the story of Louis Mulkey, a high school basketball coach and firefighter who died in a fire in 2007. The story is an emotional powerhouse, and it also contains great elements of visual storytelling – characters, pace, foreshadowing, great editing, misdirection, and letting the subjects carry the story. It’s beautiful.

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