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There was a time when sports journalism was dismissed as the 'toy department' by some disparaging news desks. Yet ever since television began beaming sports events into people's homes the sector has grown in relevance and with it the importance of the sports writer.

Fans spend thousands on travel and season tickets; companies spend millions on advertising or television rights; governments spend billions on infrastructure for international events. And the sports journalist? All they have to do is turn up and write. Right?

That is the misconception which Keith Elliott, as head of careers at the Sports Journalist's Association, spends a lot of his time correcting.

"A lot of it is helping them [aspiring sports journalists] not to have unrealistic expectations that they're going to walk into The Times sports desk just because they're interested in sport," said Elliott.

"Far too many think 'just because I like watching football, I'll make a good sports journalist won't I?' And it's about educating them a little bit on that and making them aware that they will probably have to learn to be a journalist before they learn to be a sports journalist."

In this 'how to' guide we gather advice from leading editors, educators, broadcasters and freelancers on getting into sports journalism.

  • 'Sport is news'
Sports writers work to some of the tightest deadlines in journalism and are still expected to uphold all the same professional, legal and ethical standards, so having that solid foundation of what it means to be a reporter is fundamental. Sports reporting could take a journalist anywhere.

James Toney, managing editor at Sportsbeat and author of 'Sports Journalism: The Inside Track', has reported on eight Olympic Games. At his first, Atlanta in 1996, he found himself having to report on the Centennial Olympic Park bombing as he was the only correspondent from his newspaper in the area. Then, in covering London 2012 from the initial bid to the closing ceremony, he reported on topics far beyond the field of play in order to give the full story.

"When you're covering that story [London 2012] you were covering council planning meetings, you had to understand how to read the balance sheet, you were looking at the politics behind it," Toney said.

"It was a showbiz story, it was a royal story, it was a diplomatic story. Would 'X' be invited? Were we going to have anyone coming across from Syria? So you were a sports journalist but you were covering lots of different facets of the industry and the Olympics is bringing all those thing together."

Covering the event itself is the cherry on top, said Toney, while much of the job is in going out and finding the stories.

In uncovering the truth about the Lance Armstrong doping scandal, the Sunday Times's chief sports writer, David Walsh, spent 13 pursuing the story. That kind of tenacity is key to being a successful journalist; anyone can write up a match report but it takes more than eyes, fingers and a love of the game to sniff out a scandal.

  • Read everything
If you want to end up as a sports journalist or, to be honest, any type of journalist, listen to the radio, watch telly, read the papers with as professional an eye as you canNick Powell, Sky News
So how are those skills acquired? Nick Powell, as sports editor at Sky News, advised that sports writers should devour all the best work in that area.

"If you want to end up as a sports journalist or, to be honest, any type of journalist, listen to the radio, watch telly, read the papers with as professional an eye as you can," said Powell.

"Work out what it is that the guys that are good and the girls that are good are doing. Why are they good?  What are they doing? What can you learn from that? Who's better than somebody else? Why are they better than somebody else?"

Absorbing the styles and techniques of the best writers will not only help to influence your writing style and structure but also help to develop that eye for a story, of what is newsworthy and how to pursue it.

  • Get the skills
The skills and knowledge for journalists are exactly the same as sports journalists. In fact, according to James Toney, some are even more relevant when writing about sport.

"Media law and shorthand are both vitally important in my opinion for sports journalism," he said. "There's rarely one part of the book that's sued as much as the sports pages – mainly because football chairmen have a lot of money and some of them are serial litigants – and the shorthand is really important because you're turning round so much quick copy."

Why not teach yourself things like InDesign? Do you know about search engine optimisation? This is what today's journalism needs. The old skills, are going, going, goneKeith Elliott, Sports Journalists' Association
These traditional skills will always be relevant but there are always more ways to make your CV stand out in the changing world of modern journalism, as Keith Elliott explained.

"Why not teach yourself things like InDesign? Do you know about search engine optimisation? This is what today's journalism needs. The old skills, are going, going, gone. We need to introduce new skills and if you come to me with new skills you're certainly more attractive to me than just saying 'I want to be a journalist'."

And, as Sean Ingle, sports editor at the Guardian website put it: "The basics are the basics no matter which area of journalism you're in: speed, accuracy, diligence, hardwork."

How you acquire these skills is up to you, whether you teach yourself, get a post-graduate qualification or do a degree in journalism. Ingle studied politics. Sky's Nick Powell studied German and Russian.

So it's not necessarily important that you spend three years at university studying the journalistic greats as long as you...

  • Get the experience
Both Ingle and Powell are now in a position to hire aspiring journalists but neither place any greater importance on whether an applicant has done a post-graduate course or a journalism degree.

What they are looking for is evidence on a CV that you have the motivation that journalism requires. By picking up experience along the way, whether that's on a student paper, helping out at a local paper or doing strings of work placements. 

A case in point is that of Jonny Lally, who got a job as a new media journalist at Norwich City FC straight after getting a degree in sports journalism, before moving on to becoming media officer at Leicester City FC. He put this down to the fact that he got a job as a media assistant while he was studying.

"Experience is the key to it," he said. "So many people have done the same course as me but got no experience and applied for the job that I just left, so they're still at the same place they were."

When you get work experience you're not just sitting there in the corner looking at the internet. You're going to the editors and saying 'can I do anything for you?'Jonny Lally, Leicester City FC
Then, of course, you have to make the most of that work experience by doing everything to 100 per cent of your capabilities. If you don't, someone else will.

"When you get work experience you're not just sitting there in the corner looking at the internet," said Ingle. "You're going to the editors and saying 'can I do anything for you?' When you're given that first piece you do it as well as you possibly can and then you ask for feedback and then you try to get another piece."

You might not get a job out of your first piece of work experience, but that's just a step along the way.

As Nick Powell said, if you do more work experience then you meet more people and the more people you know "the more chance you have of getting your foot in the door because you know more doors where your foot might just hold something ajar."

  • Develop a niche
At the Guardian, Sean Ingle referred to the route of his colleague Sid Lowe, a regular contributor on Spanish football to the Guardian and other publications. According to Ingle, Lowe was working on a PhD in history and Spanish in Madrid when Ingle asked him to do some writing on football for the Guardian.

Due to his knowledge of Spanish and the city he was able to make better contacts and get better interviews than other English speakers. Now, more than 10 years later, he is an established columnist specialising in Spanish football.

Finding a niche or a specialism can make the difference in a competitive world because if you can show that you are as knowledgeable as anyone else in your field – be it tennis, golf, formula 1 or football – then you have more chance of getting commissioned or getting that first job.

Love rugby? Semi-professional and lower division rugby leagues are often under-reported in local newspapers and if you can regularly report on local matches that may be a route in to your local paper.

  • Stay 'match fit'
Musa Okwonga had published two books on football by the time he started getting commissioned for articles, as well as winning the WH Smith Young Writer's award in 1996, and as a life-long writer he says you have to constantly stay in that writer's mindset.

When you're blogging or when you're tweeting always try to make sure you're saying something as you would if you're a journalist. Always be in that headspaceMusa Okwonga, freelancer
"When you're blogging or when you're tweeting always try to make sure you're saying something as you would if you're a journalist. Always be in that headspace. It's like if you're a footballer always try to be match fit because you never know when Chelsea are going to call you for a trial."

So by all means maintain a blog where you can practise your writing, but remember that it's a public record, that employers and editors will look at it and that you should always try to write to the best of your ability.

"You're always a writer," continued Okwonga. "You may not be at the New York Times or whatever, but you're a writer. You've got to behave as though you're just a writer that no one's found out about yet. You're a brilliant writer and you're just one feature away from people going 'ah wow that person's fantastic, they've got authority'. If you're a really good writer then you'll be discovered eventually."

  • Motivation, determination
What separates your sporting heroes from the run-of-the-mill also-rans? Nine times out of 10 it will be their passion and drive to succeed.

"That's the most important thing," said Ingle. "Willingness to do anything and lay yourself on the line to become a journalist. You need the skills behind that too but you need the motivation and the desire most of all."

Nick Powell agreed: "Anything you can do to a) give yourself the experience and b) convince a potential employer that you don't just say you have this burning desire but you can prove that you have," he said.

"If I had a pound for everyone who's tried to tell me they are a sports expert and have always had this burning desire but actually haven't then I could have retired yesterday."

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