Backwards and in High Heels: The Life of the Female Sports Writer

By Christine Davey

So you want to be a freelance sports writer! Great. After all, if you love sports, then it’s the perfect job. Just think—you’ll get to travel the world, bask in the sunshine, and sip cocktails by the water’s edge at the end of the game. You’ll experience the rich tapestry of exotic locations. You’ll meet sports stars who are considerate of your journalistic requirements and willing to answer your in depth questions. You’ll deal with editors who provide constant feedback on the brilliance of your writing. You’ll get paid oodles of cash just for watching a sport you already enjoy. You’ll come home to a ticker-tape parade, and your friends and family will praise your efforts. Back in the office, you’ll check your e-mails, only to find the next seven assignments waiting for you in the potentiality of cyberspace.

Now wake up and smell the lineament. Sports journalism is hard slog. It’s airport lounges at 4 a.m. and endless hotel rooms. It’s dirty washrooms and overdue deadlines. It requires a sharp business acumen and effective research-on-the-run techniques. Yes folks, this gig’s about as glamorous as a rainy day in Pittsburgh (not that there’s anything wrong with that). If you’re a woman, in this predominantly male domain, you can multiply the difficulty factor by plenty.

Just as Ginger Rogers had to perform the same dance steps as Fred Astaire—except backwards and in high heels, female sports journos face a similar predicament. We’re a rare species in the press box. We’re subconsciously “on show.” We often feel the need to work harder, look better, and earn our place in an area that has for so long been out of bounds. We sometimes have to deal with die-hard machismo attitudes. We may even find ourselves justifying our writing credentials. And, in many cases, we are excluded from the “old boy’s club” that has, for decades, existed in sports journalism.

Still undeterred? Terrific, because apart from the downsides, this job is rewarding, and those of us who take the challenge wouldn’t wish to do anything else. Here are ten tips to sort the fact from the fantasy, as well as make the transition from “wannabe to “bona fide” a little easier.

1. Be willing to start somewhere.

Where do I start? I can hear the yelling already. Sports freelancing is a competitive industry and every woman and her cat wants a piece of it, so start where you can. There are many sports web sites screaming for good writers. They may not pay megabucks, but will serve to help you learn your craft through constructive practice. If you don’t believe me, just type “sports web sites” into a search engine such as www.google.com and see what you find. I guarantee you won’t surface for days.

Find a site you like, contact the editor, suggest a story idea and off you go. Alternatively, contact your local newspaper editor and pitch some concepts. They key is building up a folio of good work that you can then submit to higher paying publications. Be aware of your femaleness in pitching ideas. Think of angles the guys aren’t touching. Is there a female sports star living in the vicinity? What about an interview with her and her mom for a Mother’s Day feature? The trick is believing in, and enhancing, your individuality as a female writer.

2. Be a good worker.

Once you’ve landed that first assignment, make sure you fulfill your end of the bargain. Meet your deadlines and word lengths. If an editor asks for 1000 words, don’t provide 1500. By overindulging, you’ve wasted your time and only succeeded in annoying the boss. Most publications pay by the word, so you won’t be paid for the add-ons. Check your spelling and grammar and don’t rely on a computer program. Use a dictionary. If you’re writing for overseas publications, make sure your spelling is appropriate to that country. Read your work aloud to judge the flow and pace. Make sure you meet the publication’s accepted house style, and if you don’t know what it is, find out. Most editors would rather answer questions than be given unacceptable copy. As a woman you’re more than likely used to multi-skilling on a daily basis, so take advantage of your powers.

3. Be a good marketer.

In this gig, possessing a genuine love of sport is not enough. To succeed you’ll need genuine self-belief. Statistics show that women find this more difficult than men. Embrace the challenge. Learn to market yourself and your work in a constructive way. Don’t rest on the laurels of your first few stories. The days are gone when a writer could sit in her garret and wait for the descending muse. Be motivated and energetic. Send out ideas constantly. Try for ten a week. Try goal setting (there are websites/books/professionals to help you with this). Try rewarding yourself when you’ve submitted those ten pitches. Chocolate is always a good option. Remember too, that you’re often working months in advance, so think of future sporting fixtures. There’s no point pitching an idea about the Athens Olympics in July, when the event begins in August. Contact editors and make yourself known. Be pleasant, but businesslike. Spell their names correctly. Send clips of past work and follow up with phone calls or e-mails. Scour the Internet for future markets. If you’re targeting a specific publication, make sure you read back copies, investigating word length, tone, format, and advertising.

4. Be a good business person.

Freelancing is about self-employment. Women often find it challenging to “go it alone,” in a business sense, and sports freelancing is writing’s equivalent of walking the tightrope without a safety net. If you feel you don’t have a good business head, cultivate one. Learn to balance books, keep track of receipts and factor in various taxes. Keep receipts for everything, from photographic equipment to paper clips. Freelancing may be a liberating career alternative, but it has its pitfalls. You can’t rely on anyone else to make the arrangements. All accreditation procedures, flight bookings, hotel inquiries– the nuts and bolts of the job—are your responsibility. If you don’t have a good accountant, phone one tomorrow. If you aren’t familiar with sports administration bodies, contact them immediately. If you’re not connected to the Internet, do it yesterday.

5. Be willing to say “yes.”

If an editor e-mails at 3 a.m. wanting a story by 5 a.m., say “yes.” You’ll be fine. After all, women have been performing short notice miracles for centuries. It’s amazing how adrenaline and the fear of failure activates the brain. Besides, saying “yes” also lets the editor know you’re a spontaneous team player. Chances are that editor will utilize your services in the future and that’s a win-win situation for everyone. More work means more payment, publication and profile, while the editor recognizes that you’re reliable.

6. Be adaptable.

Sports journalism has niche markets. It isn’t all about scores and statistics. Find the “otherness” of the story that is enhanced by being written from a woman’s point of view. Rather than treading on the well worn path—match play, or performance reports—investigate the saleable idea that is left of center. Perhaps it’s a pro footballer who writes poetry, an athlete who collects Barbie Dolls, or a basketballer who spends his Saturday nights boot-scooting. Whatever the “otherness” of the idea, it will make your story appealing to a wider audience, allowing you to target non-sporting publications. Again, rather than back away from the fact that you’re female, use it to your advantage.

7. Be a good traveler.

If your sport is international, chances are you’ll need to go with the action. You may be venturing into underdeveloped countries and for women this can be difficult. Remember you’ll more than likely be alone, so be prepared to learn about local customs, traditions, foods and dress codes. Not every country approves of women wearing bikinis in the hotel lobby. Before you go, research any no-go areas or dangerous sections of the town in which you’re staying. Do you need vaccinations? Are there social or religious elements you should observe? What is the caliber of Internet connection? Check how your editors wants copy delivered. If it’s by e-mail, carry floppy disks in case you need to send attachments. If it’s by phone, research international dialing codes and time zone variations. Get used to airports, strangers, long queues, customs officials and coffee lounges. Carry good novels, notebooks and music. Learn to love the wait.

8. Be a good researcher.

Keep up to date with trends, views, opinions and other peoples’ articles. Stay on top of past and present writings on your sport. The Internet is an indispensable research tool, but don’t forget newspapers, magazines, radio, television and word of mouth. Remember, you’re competing with every other freelancer, and as a woman you’re doing it backwards and in high heels, so you need to be informed. Subscribe to appropriate publications (keeping the receipts of course) and read, listen to and watch all you can on your chosen sport. Learn the correct pronunciation and spelling of the names of players, coaches and administrators. Keep track of rule changes, controversies and political elements affecting your sport. The more you know, the more you can adapt your stories, impress editors, and mix it with the “big boys.”

9. Be prepared for anything.

Sports journalism is like life; it’s the journey, not the destination that counts. Be mindful that it can also be tedious and isolating. Women who are used to having a regimented routine may find it frustrating and disruptive. You’ll have to write stories that don’t excite you. You’ll have to become accustomed to rejection. You can forget about a regular social life. You need to allow your family and friends the luxury of not understanding your career choice. You must place that sign on the office door that reads “do not disturb” and get on with the job. You even have to get used to sitting in front of the computer when everyone else is out partying. Yes ladies, prepare for the loneliness of the long distance sports writer.

10. Be persistent and be yourself.

If you’re still undeterred and sports freelancing seems a fabulous proposition, I wish you the best of luck. You won’t make oodles of cash. You won’t receive a ticker-tape parade and you definitely won’t have time to sip any cocktails at the water’s edge. But you will experience the benefits of a remarkable career. Freelance sports writing success depends on your individual persistence level, so keep at it. Keep pitching, writing, and improving the craft. Keep reading about your sport, playing it, investigating it from every conceivable angle. Most importantly, however, be yourself. No one can write like you, so don’t be afraid. No one can completely understand sports from a woman’s point of view except a woman. Find your voice, choose your sport and go for it. See you in the press box ladies, and don’t forget to bring the chocolate.

Christine Davey is an Australian freelance sports writer who specializes in cricket (yes, that strange game which, according to Bill Bryson, is the only sport to share its name with an insect). She has written for national and international publications on everything from athlethics to swimming, and archery to volleyball.