Inexperienced sports journalists tend to start at the beginning when writing game stories, offering information about the early innings before the key late-inning rally or about a play in the first quarter instead of the game-changing play in the final minutes.
Or they might instead offer a very general overview or some personal commentary.
In class last month, my students used information from a football game between South Florida and Kansas to write a game story. Two key plays led to USF’s upset victory – an interception with 41 seconds remaining that led to a 43-yard game-winning field goal as time expired. Several students focused more on total points scored in the game (71) or on total yardage, instead of on the key plays. Of those who did focus on these two key plays in the opening graphs, most then reverted to the opening quarter in subsequent paragraphs instead of going back to describe the interception and the plays that led to the field goal.
Unless the first quarter is decisive or includes an amazing play, put this information toward the end of a game story, if at all. Same goes for the opening quarters for basketball, the initial innings for baseball, the first period for hockey, or the opening holes in golf. Mostly, focus on key plays down the stretch first — and then work backward from there.
Attribute this to ingrained traditional narrative techniques where one begins a story in the beginning before building to climactic events and the denouement. But, in sports journalism, that is rarely the way one writes a game story. Instead, sportswriters need to focus first on key plays, significant trends, and remarkable stats.
More than anything, sports writers need to find a storyline to wrap around these plays, stats and trends. Take, for instance, several stories written about Josh Hamilton’s four home runs for Texas last night. It would be easy to state that Hamilton hit four homers before describing each one. A good reporter digs deeper, tying an event in a game to a storyline. That’s what USA Today’s Bob Nightengale did, explaining how Hamilton’s spectacular performance creates a dilemma for the Rangers: Do they sign the oft-injured Texas outfielder or do they allow one of the game’s best players to walk away during free agency?
The AP’s David Ginsburg, meanwhile, focuses first on Hamilton’s final home run by interviewing Baltimore pitcher Darren O’Day who sure the hell would have liked that final 0-2 pitch back. “Worst pitch of my life,” O’Day said. Later in the story, Ginsburg notes some other performances and details the Rangers’ strong start this season. But that information is secondary. When you cover an event where something spectacular happens, fully dive into that subject.
At times, you might also find a more subtle game-changing play, such as a slide that breaks up a double play in the middle innings that allows a decisive run to score. You can blow up that play by describing it, by interviewing players on both teams and by explaining the play’s significance. Don’t be afraid to go big on consequential plays.
Regardless how you focus your stories, though, one thing you do not want to do — and that’s starting at the beginning.