Why (and how) datatainment is the future of sports writing

Richard Ayers once coined a term to encapsulate a new departure in sports journalism – for him ‘datatainment’ revolves around presenting fans with intelligent data in a visually engaging way. Here’s why it matters.

Once upon a time Oscar Madison represented a hero (of sorts) to sports writers – the irascible middle-aged bachelor in Neil Simon’s play embodied the quintessential sports writer; feckless, playful and yet somehow still competent at his chosen profession.

Oscar Madison made sports writing look easy, but it’s not. Oscar spends his time smoking cigars and drinking beer. Oscar blithely writes about yesterday and gets away with it. The modern sports writer enjoys no such luxury. For the modern sports writer yesterday does not (or rather should not) matter.

In 1991 GQ published an article headlined “the death of sports writing” – on that occasion Alan Richman lamented the days when the newspaper landscape was littered with literary giants.

Corporate belt-tightening and a talking head culture has left us with a (largely) bland, decrepit, depressing and unrelenting sports news culture with the push for the inside scoop often reducing coverage to mere gossip.

The vast majority of football commentary is embarrassingly childish – check out Rory Smith’s cracking article which asks whether football is a soap opera or a sport? Has sport become the latest victim of the public’s insatiable need to be entertained? Have we reached a saturation point where the sporting public pre-emptively tires of a story before it is even published?

In the struggle to remain relevant sports writers are in a tizzy – disoriented and confused by the fact that what used to work now does not.

However, one way that sports writers can get reach beyond commodified content is via datatainment.

For the new-age fan statistics represent the key to the sports-obsessed lifestyle. So, by feeding this appetite sports writers can use data not just to inform, but also to entertain.

Sports writers like the magnificent Kieron O’Connor and Michael Cox already occupy this very space, but there are many more piecing together material that will peel the very skin off your eyes. Once this content is added to the work of outstanding writers like the peerless Jonathan Wilson it is hard to imagine a better time to be a consumer of sports journalism.

But in spite of such developments a large portion of the legacy media still do not appear to understand that a growing percentage of the sports-loving public wish to read and consume sophisticated journalism. Indeed, Jonathan Wilson described best the situation modern sports writers find themselves in when he said: “this great angst that journalism’s going through, it’s not about the death of journalism, it’s about the traditional form of journalism and having to adapt, and the leviathans of traditional journalism have been struggling with that”.

Sports writers should not see this as a threat to their existence.

This is a great time to be a sports writer – as Jason Fry writes: “if there’s an upper limit to the desire for sports news, we haven’t found it yet”.

There is still a vast appetite for the work of writers who are able to piece together stories packed with both important and intriguing information – real journalism that is readable, informative and edifying. There will always be a market for trusted commentary, a trusted filter and behind-the-scenes in-depth reporting.

Sports writers who endeavour to present such a product will survive since they will present the fan with a priceless counter balance to the persistent hype of television and offer a means for fans to place an event in meaningful context.

And, perhaps most crucially of all the most successful sports writers will concentrate all of their efforts in offering fans an insight into tomorrow.

The game story, for example, is increasingly an anachronism in situations where most of the audience already know the outcome of the game and can access highlights whenever and however they want. Too much of modern sports writing is still geared towards telling sports fans what happened, even though that has less and less value.

The sports writer of tomorrow must base his work on the assumption that the reader already knows the result, has seen the game/event on television and now seeks insight into what can, could or will happen next.

Further Reading
What’s wrong with Sports Illustrated and how to fix it by Josh Levin.

Who to follow?
Rory Smith – an enlightened football writer with The Times.

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