At the Top of Their Game

Today's journalists take a multimedia approach in covering the world of sports -- in print, on air and online.

by Ryan Morton

In early June 2006, Dave Revsine (WCAS91) called his dad, the late Kellogg School of Management professor Lawrence Revsine (EB63, KSM65, 68), to chat. But his father was preoccupied.

"He said, 'Can I call you back?'" Dave recalls. "I was incredulous. What could be more important than talking to your son?"

Lawrence replied that he was watching the Northwestern softball team play in the Women's College World Series on television. Dave had no idea his father was a softball fan.

"I'm not a softball fan," the elder Revsine responded. "I'm a Northwestern fan."

Dave, now the lead studio host for the Big Ten Network, often retells this story as an example of how the world of sports journalism is changing. Years ago, before sporting events were available 24/7 on television and the Internet, sports enthusiasts were never able to follow so-called minor sports such as softball. For the most part, fans could only keep up with their local teams, the ones featured regularly on television and radio and covered at length in the local newspapers.

Today, however, with the Internet and cable television, opportunities have expanded immensely, allowing fans to follow as many teams or individual players as they want. A baseball lover in New York can read about, watch or listen to a Los Angeles Dodgers game almost as easily as a Yankees game. And if that fan misses even one out, there is an animated pitch-by-pitch replay on the Internet, the recap will be posted within 20 minutes, and the highlights will be on TV soon after.

The vast increase in sports availability has significantly altered the way journalists cover sports today, according to several leading alumni sportswriters and broadcasters interviewed for this story, including Christine Brennan (J80, GJ81), a sports columnist for USA Today; Brent Musburger (J61), a play-by-play broadcaster for ABC Sports; Pulitzer Prize–winning columnist and author Ira Berkow (GJ64); nationally syndicated sports radio talk show host Mike Greenberg (J89); and several others.

With fans awash in a flood of sports news and analysis, these journalists say they must work harder and dig deeper today to establish an angle and provide both analysis and entertainment.

All Sports, All the Time

Last December, during one week of primetime television, ESPN aired the Monday Night Football game, three college basketball games, four NBA games and the Poinsettia Bowl. Other sports networks provided coverage of poker, women's college basketball, golf, the World's Strongest Man competition and even a dog show — all in one five-day workweek.

"What ESPN definitely changed is it gave me more things to do," says veteran play-by-play announcer Brent Musburger with a laugh. "Somebody in my business, with all the games to broadcast, should never be without work."

ESPN debuted on cable television nationwide Sept. 7, 1979. For the first time, Americans could watch sports programming at any time of the day, all week long. Although it took several years for ESPN to establish itself as must-watch TV, its arrival on the scene signaled a new era for sports enthusiasts.

"There is absolutely no question that ESPN changed the way sports were covered and consumed in this country," says Mike Greenberg, co-host of Mike & Mike in the Morning, a nationally syndicated program on ESPN Radio.

In less than three decades, ESPN has met growing consumer demand by expanding to nearly every possible medium. In addition to several secondary channels, there is the radio network, a magazine, a web site and even a restaurant chain under the ESPN brand name.

Musburger says one of the biggest changes he has noticed with ESPN's rise is the never-ending analysis on television and radio about games and stories that happened earlier in the week.

The type of coverage is also changing. In their quest to fill their schedules, the around-the-clock sports networks provide fans with a larger variety of sporting events than ever before. Whether it's college volleyball or bass fishing, networks realize that there is always a group of people devoted to watching.

"ESPN has its finger on the pulse of what people are interested in," Revsine says. "They realized one year that college softball was getting better numbers than the NHL, so they made the switch."

Sometimes this coverage can create a nationwide phenomenon in the process. In 2003 ESPN decided to devote more time to the World Series of Poker than ever before. Within three years, 10 times as many people were participating in the No-Limit Texas Hold'em Main Event, the World Series of Poker's $10,000 buy-in championship event, as poker playing underwent a massive revival across the country.

"There's no way poker would be as popular as it is without the advancement of technology," says Irving Rein, professor of communication studies, referring to the concealed lipstick cameras that show a player's hand. "That adds drama to the game, exposing television viewers to something they otherwise wouldn't experience."

As a result of this added exposure, the popularity of and demand for nonmainstream sports increase. Rein, co-author of The Elusive Fan: Reinventing Sports in a Crowded Marketplace (McGraw-Hill, 2006), says these peripheral sports are making it much more difficult for executives from the major sports to hold fans' interest. (Rein wrote The Elusive Fan with Philip Kotler, S.C. Johnson & Son Distinguished Professor of International Marketing at the Kellogg School of Management, and Ben Shields [C03, GC04], a communication studies doctoral candidate at Northwestern with expertise in sports and technology.)

The same challenges also exist in the media. Rein says two different markets are developing: one for large sports like baseball and football, and one for the smaller sports like dodgeball.

"Whoever heard of such a thing?" asks Rein in amazement. "Dodgeball used to be just a game for playing in third grade. Now there are rules and tournaments and televised matches."

Because a network like ESPN covers a broad spectrum of sports across the country and even around the world, there is a limit to how much it can provide. As a result, specialized channels have formed, not to compete directly with ESPN but to offer more coverage of a particular sport.

"Our network is guaranteed to succeed," Revsine says of the Big Ten Network. "College sports fans have an insatiable thirst for more information on their school every single night, which ESPN simply can't provide."

The expanding menu of sports programming means there are many more opportunities for top broadcasters and reporters, but also that job security exists mostly on a national level. Local sports coverage, either on television, radio or in newspapers, has become a casualty of the expanding world of cable and Internet sports coverage. While around-the-clock sports stations have grown, the role of local sportscasters is diminishing, believe some alumni sports journalists.

Sports Not So Local Today

When Mike Greenberg was growing up in New York City, he relied on his local broadcasters to get the latest on the world of sports. Three to five minutes of sports news at the end of each newscast was all he needed. Today, though, viewers have already seen the game highlights before the evening news begins. They expect more.

"In some ways I feel bad about this because there are still great guys doing great work in the same business, just on a local level," Greenberg says. "But there's no question that most fans who want to know what's going on in sports will turn on ESPN before the local news."

Around-the-clock sports coverage has taken a bite out of the local sports pages, too.

"Unless you're not breathing as a sports fan, you've seen the highlights multiple times and have gotten every detail you'd ever want," says Christine Brennan. "What's the morning paper going to give you that you didn't already have?"

Brennan (see "Widening the Playing Field") sees the focus turning from the "who, what, where and when" to the "why and how." Columnists and beat writers receive top placement following games because they provide analysis to go along with the box scores. Since readers have already formed their own judgments on a game, they want to compare their opinions with those of the "experts."

Still, the analysis newspapers provide is dated. As soon as a game ends, sports fans can find a variety of commentary, reactions and analysis on TV and on the Internet.

"I thought I could end my career in the newspaper business," says Michael Wilbon (J80), a longtime columnist for the Washington Post. "I thought it would sustain my career, but that's just not the case anymore."

Wilbon, however, did not go looking for opportunities in television. ESPN found him. In 2001 the network proposed that he and fellow Washington Post columnist Tony Kornheiser host their own sports talk show, Pardon the Interruption. The pair have been debating hot-button sports issues every weekday since.

"Everybody has somebody they argue with about sports in their own lives," Wilbon says. "The audience sees themselves in Tony and me, and they identify with us."

"PTI is the greatest show ESPN's ever come up with," Revsine says. "There have been imitation shows, but no one cares what those hosts think. Viewers care what Michael and Tony have to say."

Although Wilbon (see "Widening the Playing Field") has been a featured columnist with the Post since 1990 (and a reporter at the paper for a decade before then), PTI brought him a tremendous amount of national recognition. He enjoys the perks (he owns a second home in Arizona and has the freedom to cover what he wants, when he wants) but also admits that fame is still a foreign concept to him. All he really cares about is telling stories that need to be told.

"I still describe myself as a sportswriter," Wilbon says. "ESPN came to me because that's what I am. I don't need to be a celebrity."

Many Ways to Tell a Sports Story

Alan Abrahamson (J80), a classmate of both Wilbon and Brennan, recently left his job at the Los Angeles Times to write columns for and NBC Sports. Like Brennan, a sports commentator for ABC News, ESPN and National Public Radio, Abrahamson also makes regular TV appearances to discuss the biggest sports story of the day. He still recalls a conversation he and Wilbon had at the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney.

"He said, 'There isn't just one way to tell a story anymore,'" remembers Abrahamson, who adds, "The values of 'newspapering' that we got at Medill continue to serve us as we explore how to do this on a variety of platforms."

Abrahamson is enjoying the challenge of telling stories not just with words but digitally and with photos. However, not all sports content available online is produced by trained journalists. With the expansive reach of the Internet, blogs and message boards tend to release much of the sports news and gossip first. This allows any person with a computer to "report" on whatever he or she pleases, with little to no oversight.

"If you've bought a newspaper, it's in your hands, and you know who produced it," Brennan says. "But you go to the Internet, click on a few links, and you may end up on a blogger's site who hasn't had one day of journalistic training."

Brennan's concern is not that bloggers are unable to write. She's worried that consumers will struggle to know what is credible and what is not.

"It's the Wild West out there," Brennan says. "We have to make sure those people who have worked as journalists for years are not all of a sudden lumped in with someone sitting in a basement all day blogging off a television set."

Greenberg sees this problem carrying over into broadcast journalism as well.

"Too many people these days get into the media business by majoring in communications, where they teach you to look into a camera and read from a prompter," Greenberg says. "But they don't teach you anything about actually gathering and delivering news. An understanding of the basic fundamentals of journalism is critically important, whether you're covering sports or anything else."

Much of the old-fashioned legwork has faded away now that reporters can simply search Google for facts and figures. Some journalists, such as Pulitzer Prize–winner Ira Berkow, worry that this approach will cause reporters to miss the real stories.

"As a sports journalist you have great access to these athletes," says Berkow, who worked as a sports columnist for several decades at the New York Times. "You can actually sit down with someone who is in a slump, push the right buttons and get them to open up."

For that very reason, Berkow thinks newspapers and their beat writers still hold an advantage over national reporters. They can actually attend games regularly, visit the locker room and speak personally with players away from the cameras.

Many athletes, however, are starting to use the Internet to avoid these situations. Boston Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling, Washington Wizards guard Gilbert Arenas and golfer Tiger Woods are just a few of the superstar athletes who operate their own web sites or blogs.

"Golf writers will occasionally have to go to Tiger's web site to see what he's doing," Brennan points out. "A lot of athletes put the big news on their web sites so they can control the message and know that their quote is not being misconstrued."

Journalists also face accessibility issues when coaches close practice to control information surrounding their teams. "This is not good," Brennan says. "I worry about our ability as journalists to do our jobs properly if we are shut out.

"I believe strongly in the independent observer and the role we play," she says. "It's very important for us to be there."

Sports News or Entertainment?

Some say it's an unfortunate reality that the biggest and brightest stars of the game get more ink than they should.

"We live in a celebrity-driven culture, a society fascinated by stars, and the sports world has some big ones," says Greenberg. "The starting left guard of an NFL team might be the glue that holds the whole thing together, but everyone's paying attention to the quarterback."

Greenberg points out that sports are part of the entertainment industry. As such, media outlets provide viewers and readers with stories about the entertainers that interest them the most in order to turn a profit. It's part of a larger trend away from hard news and analysis in favor of entertainment.

"There is less and less news we pay attention to," says Northwestern emeritus sociology professor Bernard Beck, who places sports journalism in the same niche as fashion and arts and leisure. "What used to be routinely needed info doesn't sell well anymore. Instead, things that keep people delighted, like sports, sell."

Wilbon sees that reality in the sports pages he reads.

"There's an obsession with certain teams, like the Red Sox and Yankees, and it gets tiring," Wilbon says. "I write more on the issues surrounding the games, the people who play them and the cultural aspects of why sports are important to people. Some writers don't want to take on those topics."

Those worthwhile subjects are often lost as editors and producers focus instead on telling the sensational stories — the stars' sky-high salaries and off-the-field exploits — that the audience demands.

"Some people find these stories interesting, and that's fine," Berkow says. "But sports editors don't have to follow along like lemmings. There are adult readers who do enjoy a strong story not on these hot-topic personalities."

Berkow retired from the New York Times last year after writing on a variety of subjects, primarily sports. He has also written 18 books, allowing him to delve deeper into subjects that interest him.

Berkow's current book, The Corporal Was a Pitcher: The Courageous Story of Lou Brissie, due out later this year, details the career of a war veteran who nearly lost his leg in World War II. He made it back to the majors with a large brace and earned a spot on the 1949 All-Star team as a pitcher for the Philadelphia Athletics. Even with his distinguished reputation, Berkow struggled to find a publisher.

"It was not an easy sell," Berkow says. "Brissie is not well known, so it was tough to get it published by a good publisher. If you write about an athlete more than 40 years old, it seems like fewer companies are willing to publish it."

CNBC sports business reporter Darren Rovell (C00) makes a living by finding the unique twists to a story. Ever since he hosted his own sports business show on WNUR — Northwestern's student-run radio station — Rovell has had a knack for pushing the boundaries. When Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban made a derogatory remark about managing a Dairy Queen in 2002, Rovell thought of the perfect angle. He convinced the billionaire entrepreneur to work for one day at the franchise's ice cream shop in Coppell, Texas.

"I always tell kids if they want to be a sports columnist, find some sort of niche," Rovell says. "There could be a lot more people doing things in sports besides your standard game recaps and analysis."

Some areas of the sports journalism industry are delving into more in-depth reporting. ESPN recently devoted more resources to investigative journalism, hiring several new writers and producers to make it happen. One of those new employees is Mark Fainaru-Wada (J89), who spent several years investigating steroid use in sports, leading to his much-heralded book, Game of Shadows (Gotham, 2006), co-written with his former San Francisco Chronicle colleague Lance Williams (see "Inside Sports: The Untold Stories"). Fainaru-Wada made the move to ESPN for several reasons, including the chance to do more stories on a national platform.

He says the sports landscape is rife with opportunities for investigative journalism.

"If you look at sports pages and media across the country, 99.9 percent of the stories are positive or neutral features," Fainaru-Wada says. "This is an opportunity to shine a light and uncover things that are going on every day that people don't talk about."

Wilbon says there are more investigative pieces being written today because of the number of voices that get to be heard. He still worries, though, that students now entering the field will take too many shortcuts and go for the easy stories because of technology's availability. He encourages aspiring sports journalists to look at the bigger picture, not just, for example, the number of touchdowns superstar Tom Brady threw in a season.

"Know what Otto Graham [SESP44] did before you say Brady is the best quarterback of all time," says Wilbon, referring to Graham's record of leading the Cleveland Browns to a league championship game every single year of his career. "Too many sportswriters think just because it happened today, it's better than anything in history. That lowers the bar for sports reporting and discussion, but that's the culture we live in. People want it instant and easy."

In this new era of immediacy, Greenberg believes it's more important than ever to maintain a sense of history about the world of sports journalism.

"The media, from where it was 10 years ago to where it is now to where it will be 10 years from now, is, like most things, very fluid," he says. "But being a sports journalist will always be a wonderful way to make a living."

Ryan Morton, a senior in the Medill School from Schaumburg, Ill., broadcasts Northwestern athletic events on WNUR. He also hosts his own Broadway music program on the student-run radio station.

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