Archive for April, 2007

A chance to dive into sports journalism this summer

April 30, 2007

There is only one week left before the application deadline for the Sports Institute at Boston University. This is a great opportunity to dive in more intensely into the craft of sports journalism. The Sports Institute also hosts interviews with professional journalists at the Sports Media Guide. You can contact Frank Shorr, the director of the institute, at fshorr@bu.edu for more information. If you go, send me a note on your experience.

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Softball — covering games

April 27, 2007


Softball is not just baseball played with a bigger ball. There are more than a few differences.

Obviously, the ball is much larger. As a result, the field dimensions are also significantly different. The outfield fences are not as deep since a larger ball does not carry as far, and the bases are 60 feet apart, thirty feet closer than for a baseball field.

The game is also played much more quickly than the three-plus hour games featured in the major leagues. Softball games go two fewer innings, ending after seven in college and international competition. Plus, the game moves at a faster pace. Pitchers do not spend time worrying about runners who cannot leave a base until the ball leaves the hand of the pitcher. So pitchers can just concentrate on batters.

Bunting is used much more frequently in softball. Unlike in baseball, where designated hitters and aluminum bats lead to high-scoring games and big innings, softball teams typically try to score a run at a time. Check out how often a team bunts when a player reaches base.

Softball also features the ‘lefty slapper,’ a batter who combines blazing speed with great bat control. The slapper can drop a bunt down the lines, slap a hit past a drawn-in third baseman, or hit from a regular stance. (Check out how frequently a third baseman plays in to defend against drag and sacrifice bunts. It’s scary to see a fielder so close to a batter, but it works very effectively.)

“We don’t always rely on the three-run homer like many baseball teams,” says Kelley Green, softball coach at Lock Haven College, the 2006 NCAA Divison II champs. “You will have more sacrifice bunts in softball than baseball to move runners into scoring position. Last year, my team led the conference is home runs, sacrifice bunts and stolen bases so I pride myself in building teams who have many different strengths.”

Softball also features a designated player (as opposed to a designated hitter) who is allowed to go in and play any defensive position. Softball also has a Flex player, who bats 10th and who can play defense or hit for the designated player. Plus, starters can re-enter the game once. “Many of the fundamentals are similar, but the philosophies can differ,” says Green.

Pitching is also vastly different. In baseball, teams require a rotation of three to four pitchers, who need much more time for recovery. Baseball pitchers rarely go beyond 100 pitches in a single game. In softball, that is not uncommon. Nor is it uncommon for a pitcher to go on consecutive days, if needed.

The underhanded motion does not put as much strain on the shoulders and arms. Although pitchers still need to make sure they do not overwork, the windmill delivery does not usually induce as much soreness. But this motion results in pitches that are just as fast.

The New York Daily News recently posted a story that breaks down the three parts of a softball pitcher’s rotation – the wind-up, windmill and release. Three top high school players explain the mechanics involved in firing a softball at speeds up to 60 mph. That might not sound like much, but consider that a softball mound is just 43 feet from the plate, nearly 20 feet closer than in baseball. So these pitches seem more like 80 mph. College and international pitchers can fire away at even higher speeds with their own slingshot motions.

“In baseball, your arm really isn’t moving normally,” Mike Pallisco, coach of Jamaica (N.Y.) High, told the Daily News. “In softball, your arm is moving naturally.”

As with anything, you need to fully understand a sport before you can properly cover it. You can learn much by reading the NCAA’s rulebook that can be downloaded as a PDF by clicking here. You can watch some practices and speak to coaches and players for background information. Obviously, the more you cover games, the more you will learn. If you do not know something, don’t be afraid to ask someone.

Softball and baseball are similar in many ways. But they also have their differences. Here are a few rules you might also want to know:
■ Softball has a new 10-second rule where a pitcher must be prepared to pitch quickly. Here is the NCAA’s rule: “The amended rule specifies that the pitcher and the batter are both responsible to be in position 10 seconds after the pitcher receives the ball (in the pitching circle) from the catcher. Once all players are in position — whether that is four seconds or seven seconds later, or 10 seconds later — the pitcher has five more seconds to start the pitching motion.”
■ The NCAA restricted bats a few years ago, citing safety reasons. “The newer composite bats were so light and quick that the ball was coming off very fast, and we thought they posed a dangerous situation,” said Lynn Oberbillig, a member of the NCAA softball rules committee. Right now, the NCAA is still testing even the approved bats to ensure that all bats within a brand are the same.
■ Right now, the NCAA is evaluating what is tentatively called the ‘mercy rule,’ says Oberbillig, who is also the athletic director at Smith College in Massachusetts. Under this proposed rule, games would be halted if a home team is ahead by 8 runs after 4 1/2 innings, or after 5 innings if the visiting team is ahead. The rules committee is awaiting response from its membership.

Here are some other things to consider when you cover a softball game.

LEAD ELEMENTS
Elements to put in the first several paragraphs.
■ Team names/nicknames
■ Score
■ Date
■ Team records
■ Location (specific name of fields, stadiums)
■ Game’s significance. Does the game clinch playoff berth or eliminate the team from the postseason? Is this a conference or district victory? Does this advance the team in a tournament?
■ What’s the ‘big picture?’ What does this game mean to the teams involved? How does it affect them? Why is the game important?
■ Look for a story. Do not automatically focus on a scoring play or some key stat.
■ For precedes, do not lead with the fact two teams are going to play one another; instead, find an angle that is more interesting. What’s the history between the teams? What’s the significance of this game (For instance, does it impact the conference or district standings?) Find something about the upcoming game to introduce the fact the two teams will be playing. Perhaps, this is the first game of a conference schedule.

THINGS TO FOCUS ON
■ How teams scored. Each inning write a few sentences describing how each team scored so you will have this when you write the gamer later. (Make sure you also keep a good account in a scorebook.)
■ Runners each team leaves on base. You will see the stat ‘LOB’ in many box scores. Some box scores now break down LOB for each individual player. This number can be perceived at least two ways. On the one hand, a team with many runners left on base (say, 10 or 12) must have hit pretty well to get so many players on base. Even teams that score eight or 10 runs will leave higher numbers of runner on base. On the other hand, a team may have hit poorly in clutch situations. You’ll notice this when a team has left many runners on base but has scored far fewer runs (perhaps two or three). In addition, look for specific examples from the game to illustrate this, perhaps by focusing on an at-bats where a hitter failed to drive in runners already in scoring position (second or third base) with fewer than two outs.
■ Sacrifice bunts. Determine when (and how often) a team uses the sacrifice bunt in a game. In softball, you will usually see more bunting and slapping than in baseball. (Look for trends during the season, if this is your beat.)
■ Be a stats geek. Go through box scores to analyze stats. Look for trends in hitting and pitching stats for individuals and teams. For example, you might find that a team has left more than 10 runners on base over the past six games, or that the team has averaged 2.1 runs per game during the past two weeks. (Ask high school coaches, or their team managers, if you can review their scorebooks before games. That means arriving to the game much earlier, when the teams are warming up.) You might also notice that a pitcher has not walked a batter in his past three games or that a hitter has gone nine-for-12 in his past four games.
■ Hitting streaks. As you look through stats, check for hitting streaks such as those listed above, so you can ask questions afterwards that focus on why players are doing so well. Also, check for streaks where players are struggling. Check to see if a player has gone hitless in his last nine at-bats or if he has managed just two hits in his last 19 at-bats. It is particularly interesting when excellent players struggle (in a long season, every hitter struggles at some point). Do not be unfairly harsh on players when this happens, but citing stats that reveal a hitting drought is not a problem.
■ Pitching streaks. Check to see how a pitcher has performed during the past several games or weeks. In softball, pitchers will throw many more innings than their counterparts in baseball. Has this pitcher won or lost a number of games in a row? Has this pitcher struck out 10-plus hitters a game or walked four-plus a game? Also, see how many unearned runs this pitcher has allowed recently (or for the season). Errors cause pitchers to work harder, and, as a result, to often allow more runs to score. You can also check for other stats, such as ERA and number of pitches per game. You can also check into how many runs this pitcher typically allows in the first few innings against the last few innings, or how a pitcher does after 80 or 90 pitches. These are more detailed stats that will be harder to get at the Little League or high school levels unless you are charting every game. But as you get to the higher levels, these stats are out there – typically compiled by sports information or the major-league clubs. Make sure you speak to pitching coaches, catchers and managers to get more insights into these stats. Stats alone do not always tell the story. A pitcher might be throwing through injuries or may have lost his mechanics. Ask these questions to determine the reasons for pitchers’ performances.
■ Key plays. These plays are not always as obvious as a game-winning single in the bottom of the ninth or a grand slam in the sixth inning. Look for the less obvious plays as well, such as a hard slide in the fourth where a runner broke up a double play that, in turn, allowed the inning to continue and a run to score in a game determined by a single run. Or look for a batter who fought off a tough pitcher for a 10-pitch walk late in the game that forced the starting pitcher out of a game and allowed his team to score against the reliever. Or look for a successful hit-and-run that confused the defense and allowed an easy grounder to short to roll into left field – and sending a runner in for the decisive score. Learn the game by speaking with veteran coaches and players, by reading reports on games by regular baseball beat writers, by listening to baseball announcers, and by reading the rules book, among other things.
■ Ground balls vs. fly balls. Determine how many outs a pitcher records from fly balls compared to ground outs. Pitchers and managers prefer ground outs. They can lead to more double-plays and are less likely to go for home runs. You’ll also find these outs reflect the types of pitches thrown. A sinker ball pitcher is more likely to get many more ground outs than a pitcher who relies on a fastball. Of course, any pitcher can hang a curveball that floats to the plate softly with nary a break. That’s a nightmare for all pitchers. Determine when this happens as well. The more you watch and listen, the better you will get at analyzing the game.
■ Isolate a moment. Look for the turning point in the game.
■ Mini-streaks during games. Did a pitcher retire nine batters in a row across four middle innings, or retire the final eight batters? Did a team score a run in five straight innings, or connect for eight straight hits? Look for these ministreaks as well. They might not be the lead, but they are interesting to note elsewhere in the story, especially if you can connect the streak to the bigger story.
■ Play by play. Start by focusing on the key plays. After that, you should usually focus on scoring in the later innings before the first few innings, the same way you would focus more on the final quarter of a football game or a basketball game. That’s when the game is much more tense and likely to shift in one team’s favorite, if the game is relatively close. For games that are blowouts, focus more on key plays.
■ Injuries – were any key players hurt or did any player recently return from an injury. (Read stories on the teams and check with coaches to determine this.)

THINGS TO KNOW
■ Stealing is allowed so long as batters do not lead off. They can leave base as soon as the ball leaves the pitcher’s hand,
■ Like in baseball, pitching is an art. They do not just fire fastball after fastball. Even Nolan Ryan got shellacked when he tried that. Softball pitchers throw rise curves and flat curves, rise balls, screw balls, change-ups and two kinds of drop balls that are like nasty sliders. There are very few saves in softball since starters usually go the distance. Teams usually stick with their top pitcher, even at the end of the game, instead of relying on their No. 2 pitcher. Most softball teams retain three pitchers on staff unlike baseball rosters that are filled with about four to five starters along with some middle and late relievers. Softball pitchers can throw many more innings and can pitch every day, if needed.
■ Scoring is typically low, especially between two top-rated teams. That’s why you will see much more bunting, slap hitting and stealing to manufacture runs. You can focus on these key plays. Softball has evolved more into a power game on some levels, where many runs are scored. But, like in baseball, fewer runs are typically scored when the top teams face off.
■ The softball mound is 43 feet away from the plate. That’s three feet farther back than in the 1980s. This change was prompted by those who wanted more scoring in games. Most youth and high school mounds are still at 40 feet.
■ Bases are 60 feet apart, which is 30 feet closer than in baseball — probably because it is more difficult to throw the bigger ball as hard or as far.
■ Use earned-run average in first reference. You can use ERA in subsequent references.
Double plays are less common in softball than baseball, mostly because runners can cover the shorter distances faster. Check out this story to learn more about the challenges of turning two in softball.
■ Use RBI in first reference. Still, find other ways to cite them. For example, you can also write that a player “drove in three runs,” not just that “he had three RBI.”
■ Batters go 2-for-3, not two for three.
■ You can put records in parentheses, especially when they also reflect conference or district marks. For example, you would write that Eastern Illinois (18-10, 12-2 in the Ohio Valley Conference) is one game away from earning an NCAA bid. If you have mentioned that the game is a conference or district game, you do not need to cite that information in the parentheses. For example: Lake Brantley (15-3, 9-1) drilled four home runs to rout Lyman (14-4, 8-2) in a key district game.

CLICHES TO AVOID
■ These are games, not “contests.” That’s true for any sporting event. Pie eating? Now that’s a contest (and a tasty one at that.)
■ Runs are not “plated,” they are scored.
■ Check the Associated Press Stylebook for the spelling of key words, such as home run (being two words) and left-hander. The section is in the back of the stylebook, entitled SPORTS GUIDELINES. Keep it with you at all games.
■ Yes, we call softball players ‘man,’ when it refers to positions, as in first baseman. These terms could change in time, but there are no replacement terms right now.
■ Avoid leads and angles where you refer to players as ‘girls’ or as ‘demure.’ These young women are trained athletes. Treat them as such.

QUESTIONS TO ASK PLAYERS AFTER THE GAME
As you review the following questions, make sure you realize your approach is as important as the questions you ask
■ Ask players what they were thinking (during a key point in the game)?
■ Ask players to comment on the opposing pitcher.
■ Ask players and coaches to react to key plays
■ Ask managers/coaches to explain reasons for recent trends. (Do you know what has caused your pitcher to struggle recently? Do you know what has caused your shortstop to go on a hitting streak lately?)
■ Ask how the team has played recently.
■ Ask catchers about their pitchers – specifically about ball movement, mechanics and location.

photo/Jay Grabiec

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Dad, thanks for a love of games

April 26, 2007


Sports to me mean much more than who wins and who loses. Sports are my connection to my roots, to my family – and, most of all, to my father, a man who bestowed on me a love for games. Unfortunately, I can no longer speak with him. He died two years ago today. I can no longer call him when the Yankees play poorly, as they have the past five days, and discuss which bums need to be traded away. And I can no longer ask him for advice about coaching.

Sports are a natural connection between fathers and sons – and, more and more, they are an important connection between dads, moms and daughters. That’s true for me and my girls. My father taught me many lessons about life – and a few more important ones like how to lay down a great drag bunt or how to roll my wrists when I made contact. Those days spent playing with my father were some of the finest in my life. So let’s not forget why we love sports – for the enjoyment of the game and for the time spent with those we care about.

I recently completed an essay about my father and sports, a piece that explains why I have always been so fascinated with the games we play. I offer a brief excerpt below in honor of my father, a man whom I miss dearly, and in honor of the sports that gave him so much pleasure.

Frozen Rain
“You might also want to freeze a repeated moment, like when you played catch with your father on Sunday mornings, holding the rough rawhide ball in your hand and wondering whether the world produced anything more beautiful and perfect as a baseball – and a father. (And not understanding that these thoughts were merely senses and impressions at age six, but that they would grow into the thoughts of a man many years later.) You feel the cool Jersey breeze blowing in from the woods as you hit ball after ball after church, pounding knuckleballs and curves and fastballs and off-speed pitches. You could handle anything. Even at age six, you knew this was the place where you would pray to go someday after death, not some stuffy place filled with harps and clouds and classical music and angels. Hell, you preferred Yankees anyway. This was your church, where pitches from your father were served like Eucharist and where the bases were rosaries that you rubbed against with your feet. Each time, you took off, you eventually returned home. You did not care if you are a poor banished child of Eve. There are no sighs or tears weeping for the Holy Mother on this day. Instead, there is only the sacrament of the game, the rite of the pitched ball, and the divinity of the moment spent with someone you adore. I’ve never been sure whether I was worthy of forgiveness, mercy or salvation, but I always knew I had the love of the man who adopted me as a child and played ball with me, on and off the field, for more than forty years.”

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Halberstam will be missed

April 24, 2007


David Halberstam, one of America’s best writers, died earlier this evening in a car accident near San Francisco. He was in California working on his 22nd book, this one on NFL hall of famer Y.A. Tittle who now lives in that area.

Halberstam, 73, won a Pulitzer for international reporting in 1964, when he covered the Vietnam War for the New York Times. A few years later, he quit full-time journalism to write books on a variety of topics. His 2002 book, “War in a Time of Peace,” nearly earned a second Pulitzer (it was runner-up for non-fiction.)

“I think that he was the nation’s premier journalist,” said John Seigenthaler, Tennessean chairman emeritus and a friend in an article in the Nashville Tennessean.

I know Halberstam best for his sports books that includes “Teammates,” which is about several Boston Red Sox teammates driving to Florida to see Ted Williams before he died. A few weeks ago, I finished “The Education of a Coach,” a book that every football beat writer should read. The book, which focuses on Patriots coach Bill Belichick, reveals how a coach in the NFL thinks – and offers lessons everybody covering football should seek. A great read from a great writer. He will be missed.

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Tennis — covering matches

April 19, 2007


When Sports Illustrated’s Jon Wertheim covers a tennis match, he goes old school, breaking out pen and paper to take notes midst the aisles of laptops. He divides the page into two vertical halves. On the left side, he scribbles about on-court actions, writing notes like “lots of double faults,” “lost four straight after streaker cross the court,” “looks heavier than normal. On the right side of the page, Wertheim writes what he calls ‘atmospheric jottings’ that include anything from the words on a fan’s banner to the weather to the music played on the public address system during breaks in the action. Says Wertheim: “Basically, anything you wouldn’t necessarily pick up watching at home on TV.”

But once he starts developing the game story, Wertheim is clearly not stuck in the past. He does not merely offer play-by-play. Instead, he focuses on themes, trends, and news, something he does exceptionally well. Wertheim’s work has been featured in The Best American Sports Writing anthologies in 2005 and 2006, and he has been nominated for a national magazine award. In addition, he has written several books on sports, including one on tennis, Venus Envy. Currently, he also writes the Tennis Mailbag feature for SI.com.

“Any fan with broadband access can follow the action in real time and knows who scored the touchdowns or how many second-half points the Bulls scored or how many winners [Roger] Federer hit,” Wertheim says. Fans today can watch (and review) games on ESPN’s SportsCenter and YouTube, among other places. So covering tennis has changed. He looks for off-beat stories, comments on trends, and develops themes.

“In some ways,” Wertheim says, “when I cover tennis, the match itself is the least important part of the day. The crucial part of button-holing the coach in the hotel lobby or observing the mannerisms of the losing player as she walks off the court makes the job more challenging, but, ultimately, it’s more satisfying than sitting in the press box.”

San Francisco Chronicle columnist Bruce Jenkins also eschews play by play in his tennis gamers. On his notepad, he jots down details about key plays, like service breaks, great shots, changes in momentum and displays of emotion. Jenkins, who won five U.S. Tennis Association awards this past year, also remains acutely aware of the scene around the courts – so he notes reactions in the stands, noteworthy people in attendance, and players’ body language.

“Tennis is a wonderful sport in that way, a bit like boxing, in that you’re out there one-on-one against another person, and nobody else can really help you,” Jenkins says. “It’s always interesting to watch someone rise to the occasion, or fall apart, under severe duress.”

Jenkins has watched plenty of highs and lows while covering the U.S. Open and more than a dozen Wimbledons. Jenkins, who twice was nominated for a Pulitzer, has won countless national awards, and has authored four books, including the most recent In Search of Gordon Jenkins.

“I think the most important thing to know about covering tennis is that – at least in my opinion, as a columnist – it’s about style, personality and human behavior, not the specifics of technique,” says Jenkins. “That’s why fans tune in, for the most part, and I find that’s what they want to read about.”

LEAD ELEMENTS
These are elements that are included in the opening few paragraphs.
■ Can lead with a decisive play.
■ Can lead with major upset.
■ Name of the event.
■ Day
■ Location (city and stadium)

STRUCTURE/LANGUAGE

■ Read through as many tennis stories as possible to learn the proper ways to cite scores, points, terms, and elements of the game. This research will also reveal how to describe the action on the court and to better notice when someone hits a backhand passing shot, a putaway or a cross-court forehead for a winner. Overused, these terms can lead to clichéd writing. But used well these terms can help paint a picture of the action on the court. I strongly recommend John McPhee’s Levels of the Game, a book that will teach you much about the game of tennis and – even more so – how to then write it. This book chronicles a match between Arthur Ashe and Chuck Graebner. I cannot say enough about this fine book, which is both instructive and a compelling read.

THINGS TO FOCUS ON
■ Breaking news. Did anybody get hurt? Were there any upsets? Was anyone fined? Did anything happen off the court between matches? First, determine if anything newsworthy happened.
■ Trends. This can include trends in a game, match, tournament or player’s performance. This can include a look at serves, double-faults, return winners and number of backhand shots, among other things.
■ Body language. Watch players as they compete and as they walk off the court, regardless if they won or lost. On the court, watch to see if a player hunches over after a bad play or whether she smiles and jokes. Does a player bounce on his toes before a shot. At what point does the player seem less bouncy? You might want to describe the player’s game early, then do the same halfway and near the end of the match to see how this player’s body language, and perhaps her attitude, has changed through the match. This can also reveal something about the player’s personality, something readers like to know more about.
■ Themes. Look for something off the court, you do some research to determine if this player has faced personal challenges. Or, this can focus on a clash of styles between two players. Here is Jenkins’ take on the 2005 Wimbledon:

The women’s draw lost more than a feared contender when Justine Henin-Hardenne was knocked out in the first round Tuesday. It lost the element of contrast.

Henin-Hardenne, upset by 76th-ranked Eleni Daniilidou 7-6 (8), 2-6, 7-5, is the only elite player to fashion a one-handed backhand and take pride in an all-court game. To the shock of a Court 1 crowd, her virtuosity wasn’t enough against a powerful, 22-year-old player with a fondness for grass.

■ Displays of emotion. Did a player react to a certain point? Did the player react emotionally to a series of points, or actions, on the court? Describe this. Speak to this player (and this player’s opponent) after the match to get more insights.
■ Change in momentum. Look for a key play (or string of plays) that changed the course of the match. This can be a point in the final game, or it could have been set up by a point in the first several games. Clearly, the more you cover tennis, the better you will be able determine these swings of momentum, but still give this a try in your own coverage.
■ Great shots. Describe especially great shots, especially if these are in pivotal moments. You can also describe these when the player makes the same type of great shot throughout the match. Read Bruce Jenkins’ award-winning story on a player who relied on a one-handed backhand, “A Match that Sweetly Recalls an Earlier Time.”
■ Write a few sentences describing a player in general and a few sentences on a few plays. Trust your observations. Here’s how McPhee does it: “Left arm up, fist closed, index finger extended, he continues to point at the ball until he has all but caught it. His racquet meanwhile dangles behind his back. Then it whips upward in the same motion as for a serve.”
■ Court surface. Outdoor courts are either hardcourt, grass or clay. Players typically perform a little better on certain surfaces. A person with a strong serve typically does better on grass and hard-court surfaces while a better baseline player might do better on slower clay surfaces. That’s why it is difficult to win tennis’ Grand Slam, which includes each of these surfaces.
■ Early-round matches. Focus on major upsets or top local performers, especially when writing about tournaments.
■ Records. You can cite records for the season, or cite a player’s record against an opponent, on a certain surface, or in a specific stadium.
■ Improvement. Determine if the player has played better lately by checking his/her record in recent events, whether that is in professional tournaments, matches or conference tournaments.
■ Next opponent. Cite who a player faces next, especially if you are covering a tournament. If this is part of a college team, can look ahead to the other team’s same-ranked player. If your team’s No. 2 player has won eight in a row, check the record of the No. 2 player on the next college team. You can usually find records and results on a college’s athletic web site.
■ Tournament wins. If you are covering professional tennis, cite the number of tournaments a player has won if the person is entering the final rounds. If this player has not won a tournament, cite the best previous finish even if that is 10th or 20th. That would be a great angle for a person competing in a semifinal or final.
■ Length of rallies. Matches between serve-and-volleyer tend to have shorter rallies than those between two baseliners. Count how many times the ball went over the net in longer, or pivotal rallies, something you can include in your game stories. “Andre Agassi fired a backhand volley down the right side to culminate a nine-shot rally that left Sampras trailing 4-1. Games between players with different style are always interesting. Which player, for instance, will assert her personality on the court, the volleyer or the baseliner?
■ Scoring. In tennis, scoring is counted a bit differently than one might expect. Scores go from 0 (called ‘love’) to 15-30-40. A player must win by two points, so games that are tied 40-40 force an extension of play that results in scores called ‘advantages.’ A player who wins the first point after 40-40 has the ‘advantage,’ sometimes called ‘ad-out’ and ‘ad-in.’ Ad-in refers to the person scoring. If the server loses the next point, the score is back to ‘even.’ In tennis matches, players must also win by two – until the score hits 6-6. At this point, players typically play a tiebreaker, whose scoring method is cited below. The winner of the tiebreaker would win the set 7-6. Wimbledon does not have a tiebreaker system, so players at the All-England club must win by two games. That might mean a player wins 9-7, not 7-6.
■ Tiebreakers. Typically, these are played and scored differently, but most are determined by seeing which player wins seven points first (best of 12). The winner of the tiebreaker gets the final game and the set.
■ Left-hander vs. right-hander. See how this affects the game. Ask players and coaches about this afterwards.
■ Clashes of style.
■ Weather. A blustery afternoon can cause more problems for a baseliner than a serve-and-volley player.
■ Research. Check the background of key players before heading out to the matches. Read about hometowns, experience, and recent performances through the season. If this is a youth tournament, go early to speak with officials, coaches and parents.
■ Recent injuries. Observe how injuries affected play on the court.
■ Winning streaks. Check on these for both individuals and teams.

THINGS TO KNOW
■ Unforced errors. These are shots where a player makes a mistake that results in a point for the opposing player. A point can end three ways – in an unforced error, a forced error or a winner. According to Dr. Leo Levin of IDS Sports, who is credited with creating this term in 1982, an unforced error: “is when the player has time to prepare and position himself or herself to get the ball back in play and makes an error. This is a shot that the player would normally get back into play. The real keys here are time and position. When the opponent takes away time by hitting the prior shot with extra pace this can result in a forced error. Also, when the opponent forces the player out of position with placement (depth and/or angle) this can result in a forced error.” A double fault is an unforced error.
■ Forced errors. These are the results of excellent shots from an opponent who has forced the player out of position or by hitting the ball with extra pace. A missed return off a first serve is usually a forced error, but a missed return on a second serve is usually unforced since second serves are not usually hit with as much pace and speed.
■ Ace. A serve that is not returned and results in a point. Count how many aces a player tallies. Also, determine the percentage of first serves that land in and the number of points won off the first or second serves.
■ Rankings. You write that someone is ranked No. 31 or that the person is 31st ranked.
■ Seedings. Players are seeded before a major event, like Wimbledon, from 1 to 64. You do not need to cite these unless they are significant, such as when the 24th seeded player defeats the fifth-seeded player.
■ Grand Slam. This consists of the four major professional tennis tournaments: Australian Open (hard court), French Open (clay), Wimbledon (grass), U.S. Open (hard court).
■ Game scores. Put the match winner’s scores first, even if they have won fewer games in a match. For example, if Serena Williams defeated Maria Sharapova in three sets, you would write: “Williams rallied to defeat Sharapova, 1-6, 6-4, 6-3.” Williams only won one game in the first set, so that score is posted first.
■ Baseline player. This is a player whose strength is staying back and returning volleys.
■ Serve-and-volley player. This is typically someone who has a great serve. This player gets the net quickly after firing off a solid serve. This person might have a higher number of aces but could also have a higher number of unforced errors.
■ Double faults. When a player fails to get two consecutive serves into play, resulting in a point for the opposing player. An official can call ‘net’ on a serve, meaning the serve touched the net when it landed in the proper service area. This is essentially a ‘do-over,’ meaning the player gets to take the first serve again.
■ Defaults. A player is given two attempts to serve the ball over the net into the service area. If both serves fail, this is considered a double fault and the receiver wins the point. Click here for a glossary of tennis terms.
■ Lucky loser. A player who loses in qualifying for a tournament but who gets a spot in the tournament after another qualified withdraws for injuries or personal reasons.
■ Make sure you know the rules. You can click here to learn more about NCAA tennis news, rules and guidelines.

QUESTIONS TO ASK
Ask questions that add more depth to your observations and notes. Players’ insights into key plays, emotional displays and other aspects of the game can be illuminating, more so if you are talking with high school and college players. Pros tend to be more guarded (although this does not apply to players like Andre Agassi.) “Afterwards, when the interviews are taking place, you basically get a lot of nothing,’ Jenkins says. “Players tend to be guarded and cautious, and with good reason. So many stories run worthless quotes like ‘I was serving well,’ or ‘He (she) played better on the important points.’ I try not to use quotes unless they are funny, off-the-wall or especially revealing or relevant.”

So always ask follow-up questions. If a player says he served well, ask how he knows this. What about the serves felt particularly good? Had he been concerned about this before the match? And if a player says her opponent played better, ask for more details. How in particular did the other player perform better? With returns, footwork, serves? Then, follow up on this as well by asking for more explanations on these specific areas.

Too often, sports reporters allow a first response to serve as the answer. These questions are just the starting points. Lob questions back to players/coaches and continue to do so until you learn more details and gain more insights. Remember, we ask questions for information, not quotes. Don’t worry: The quotes will surface if you continue to ask pointed, specific follow-up questions.

Here are a few places to start:
■ Ask a player to describe her opponent’s game. What were the person’s strengths and weaknesses? What did she notice most about the other player’s game plan or skills? (You can also ask these questions of a coach. Try to speak with both player and coach.)
■ Ask a player to describe her own game.
■ Ask how players felt during key moments of the match.
■ Ask players about key injuries.
■ Ask players questions related to your descriptions and notes and observations. Don’t be shy. Then, listen and ask more questions. That’s what we do.

photo/Eric Hiltner

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What role does sport serve when tragedy strikes?

April 17, 2007

I have been invited to blog for the Journal of Sports Media, which focuses on sports media issues. The JSM is an academic journal published annually by the University of Nebraska Press and the University of Mississippi Department of Journalism. The Journal also publishes academic research that “adds to the understanding of sports media in terms of their practice, value and effect on the culture as a whole.”

I just posted some commentary on the role of sports when a tragedy, like the shootings at Virginia Tech, strikes. You can check it out by clicking here.

Here is the beginning:

On a day like this, it is difficult to think about sports. Nothing much matters when you hear 31 people have been massacred on a college campus. Nothing matters except taking care of family and connecting with friends. So your school softball team wins 3-2, or the local high school takes the conference title. That doesn’t mean much on a day like this. Instead of worrying about pitch counts or golf strokes, we’re too busy counting blessings. Thank God for the people who survived the shootings. We give thanks for the nurses and physicians who plugged and sutured and saved the lives of bullet-riddled young (and old) bodies and for the people we know in Blacksburg, Va., who were not injured and for the police and EMTs who rushed in to save so many others.

You can click here to read the entire posting at JSM. Our thoughts are with the Virginia Tech students, faculty and their families.

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Don’t be a Jennie: Get your sports terms right.

April 14, 2007


Talk about a tenacious, aggressive defense. Oklahoma’s basketball players used their feet to cut off angles and their hands to knock passes away to limit Marquette to a single free throw in the final four minutes of a recent NCAA tournament game. The 10-1 run enabled the Sooners to complete a 78-47 rout and reach the Sweet Sixteen for the fifth time.

How did the Oklahoma women’s team do it? “I would like to play man-to-man defense the whole game and just dog teams,” said head coach Sherri Coale, “but you can’t always do that.”

Some would argue her team could never do that. How can women play man-to-man defense? That’s a question worth investigating.

A college journalism adviser recently asked me a similar question. How can we call infielders first, second and third basemen when they are clearly female? She suggested several options, including citing players in this manner: “Jane Smith, first base, hit a home run.” This could create more confusion than clarity. We have changed the names for many terms during the past two decades – and for good reason. A police officer, board chairperson and firefighter are more accurate than their counterparts that used to end with ‘man.’ Women also work in these professions. Retaining ‘man’ insinuates that only men can do these jobs.

In baseball, first baseman is accurate. Man-to-man defense is equally correct in men’s basketball. Most sports positions, though, are more neutral: center fielder, catcher, forward and guard, among them. In this case, I believe readers understand these terms transcend gender. Clearly, women can play just as aggressively on defense as men, and women can play equally as well as softball position players. (Just try slamming a shot down the third baseline against some women’s team – that is, if you can even connect with a pitch from the likes of Jenny Finch.)

More troubling for me is the use of adding ‘Lady’ to the names of school mascots. This is much more demeaning – and, in some cases, they are also illogical. (Lady Bulls? Lady Rams? C’mon.) We have Lady Tigers, Lady Bulls, Lady Eagles, Lady Panthers and Lady Cardinals, among many others. These ‘lady’ tags are like pats on the head, something that patronizes the efforts of talented athletes. A female alum of Clemson is not a lady alum. So why is a female athlete there a Lady Tiger?

Some nicknames are a little absurd like UMass’s ‘Minutewomen,’ Central Arkansas State’s addition of ‘Honey’ to its regular nickname of Bears, and Northland College’s ‘Lumberjills.’ (Yes, I know female lumberjacks are called lumberjills, but it still seems as ridiculous as calling blackjack dealers blackjills.) Central Missouri State is much more creative, using ‘Jennies’ to counter the regular nickname of ‘Mules.’

Certainly, we all need to be more sensitive. As journalists, our words carry more power than we know (just ask Don Imus). We need to recognize and alter gender bias whenever possible, regardless if we report on TV, print or online. A recent study reveals that female athletes are frequently called ‘girls’ and ‘young ladies’ on televised games, whereas broadcasters typically call male athletes ‘men’ or ‘young men.’ Education can help alter those equally patronizing labels.

But when it comes to man-to-man and first baseman, I do not know what can be done. Perhaps, I’m wrong (or hypocritical) in my assessment, but I believe these terms are fine to use in sports stories. It would be fun, however, to see a sports reporter write about her team’s tenacious woman-to-woman defense. But remember, you read it here first.

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New student-run football poll might be fun

April 12, 2007


There’s an interesting poll set to kick off next football season, one where college students determine the rankings.

The founders of this poll seem like spirited fans who want to do something for the fun of it. Isn’t that what sports are all about?

Polls used to be a way to debate the best football teams in the country, prompting fun-loving discussions in bars and dorm rooms – until these polls were co-opted to determine who would play in the Bowl Championship Series. Everybody else then scrambles to find the highest-paying bowl game instead of working toward earning a national title. The BCS is fueled by the greed of major sports conferences.

So now two former students – Igor Khayet and Daniel Singer – have started a poll run exclusively by college students. Studentwriterpoll.com might add some fun back into the college football debates.

But do not take it too seriously. Despite what the founders believe, this poll will not be more informed than those run by the Associated Press, USA Today and others. The Associated Press poll includes professional writers who have much more experience, insight, and contacts than college reporters. I knew one sports editor who even ranked every football team in the country that included key stats and explanations – all off the top of his head. Now that’s impressive.

Khayet told the Georgetown Voice: “I think it is arbitrary to have coaches and AP writers do the rankings. Students are the ones who wait in line for hours to get tickets, who wake up and drink before 10 a.m. games on Saturday mornings and who follow a team for four years in a row, and not just in March. They are the ones with the knowledge.”

Drinking, waiting in line and watching one’s home team hardly makes someone an expert on college football. How does this inform perspectives on other teams across the country? More likely, these drinking, rooting fans will be ‘homers.’

Readers often believe their hometown paper’s reporters are biased toward certain teams, like the man who called our office at the Orlando Sentinel several years ago to complain that we must not like the Big 12 teams (when, in fact, our writer had actually graduated from Kansas State.)

So far, the website’s founders say they have secured 30 students. They say another 20 schools have verbally committed. (So far, our college newspaper, The Daily Eastern News, is not a voting member.) In addition, the site includes blogs, stories and a question of the day.

“In terms of how the website got started, the idea actually originated simply as a weekly poll, similar to the existing AP and Coaches polls,” Singer told me. “We then realized the greater opportunity here to create something of a hub for sports discourse from a student journalist perspective. That we are both political science students is fairly tangential, as what really motivates us here is little more than avid college sports interest.”

Ultimately, the poll will probably be nothing more than entertainment, which, really, is how any poll should be viewed. So why not another poll voted on exclusively by college journalists? Perhaps, the site will gather college sports journalists (and fans) together for some spirited debate.

For now, our newspaper’s sports writers do not blog or write stories for this site, seeing as they are way too busy doing this for beats on our daily and online publications (and doing a fine job, by the way). But studentwriterpoll.com might engage writers at other college papers who publish less frequently – or for sports reporters who want to do more than their publications offer.

Check out the site for yourself and let me know what you think (by posting some comments here.) If all goes well, the site could be fun to follow. I wish them luck.

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Track & Field – covering meets

April 10, 2007


Track and field is not a major beat in the United States; instead, it’s a sport that garners more interest in the years preceding and following an Olympics. Otherwise, it is relegated to second-tier, or fringe status, by most editors and writers even though it an exciting sport to cover.

Covering a track meet is like reporting on 14 (or more) little stories. It’s just a matter of which events to focus on – the 100 meters, 1,500 meters, the long jump? Most of these choices are made before the meet begins.

Fewer readers understand the rules or know the athletes in a sport like track. That means a reporter needs to find a human interest angle that even non-track fans can enjoy.

“When you cover track and field and swimming, maybe two out of a hundred readers are really devoted to the sport,” says New York Times sportswriter Frank Litsky. “You can’t write for two people. You have to pull in the others by focusing on people. Like the swimmer with the defibrillator or runner recovering from cancer. If you tell stories, you can get people to read them.”

This is more likely to happen if the reporter has done his homework, says Litsky, the author of eight books on sports – including one on track and field.

“When I go to a meet, I do research ahead of time. Who’s in the meet? What’s the biographical information? There are usually certain people I want to watch because they’re world class. I never want to go to a meet cold. You can’t cover everything at a track event. You can’t watch it and interview people at the same time. You have to interview after events have ended and when other events are taking place.”

So you need to choose which athletes to cover before most meets. Once you do find the main angle, speak to as many coaches and athletes as possible to tell the story, which might be on how high jumper returned from a broken foot to win the high school district meet. You can speak with the winner, of course. But you can also speak with the other competitors, asking them to describe this jumper’s technique and mental toughness, and asking them how they approached their own jumps — especially the last few when they were eliminated. Show this tension in your story. Add commentary from coaches as well.

Then, you can focus on another story, if you have space, before jumping into a quick overview where you list the other significant results. (See the example below.)

In other events:
■ Clearwater High’s Shawana Smith ran 12.21 to win the 100 meters by one-hundredth of a second over Tampa Catholic’s Molly Clutter.
■ Dunedin’s Marlise Davidson set a district record in the 800 meters, clocking in at 2 minutes, 12.29 seconds.
■ Countryside’s Kandace Arnold set a personal best in the shot put, heaving it 42 feet, 6.75 inches.

Go to the event as early as you can. Typically, field events and prelims start much earlier. Field events for a high school district meet might begin at 4 p.m., followed by finals at 6 or 7 p.m. Preliminary races also start earlier, but you can usually avoid these and focus on the field events. Check out these early events for stories or sidebar notes before the meet gets harried.

And talk with coaches before the meet, if possible. Introduce yourself as you arrive as well. Ask them which athletes you should follow. This is a better time to talk since they will be busy timing and cajoling their runners during the finals. Do not wait to speak with the coaches until the end of the meet, though. Pick spots between races for some comments. If this is your first meet, ask a coach if you can watch some of the events with him. You can learn much just by watching and listening.

THINGS TO FOCUS ON
■ Focus on the top athletes, those who have a chance to break a record at the state, college or world level. If you are covering a high school or college meet, you can focus on the person who is a serious contender for a state or national title. This means you need to do check out the best times of those scheduled to compete. Check times on newspaper, conference and school athletic web sites. Most NCAA conferences post their schools’ best times as either best of the week or as individual performance lists. “Prepare for any assignment,” says Litsky. “If I have an interest in some athlete, I’ll Google them and then do some other research on my own. That way I can have questions drawn up. I then listen to their responses to questions. You can’t just go up and say, ‘Tell me about you.’”
■ Wind – a tail wind can make a big difference in times. Wind over 2 meters per second (roughly 4.7 mph) nullifies most world records.
■ Track materials – check to see what type of track, such as rubber or synthetic. Certain materials can lead to faster times.
■ Pace – check on the pace for several reasons. First, some runners do better when they go out fast and push the time the whole time. Second, some runners do poorly when they are forced to go out too fast, especially those runners who have a very strong kick. The term “kick” varies depending on the length of a race. A miler might kick the final 200 meters, where a 5,000-meter runner might kick for the final quarter mile. Record quarter-mile splits for races that go from 800 meters and up. (Bring a stop watch, if you can. If not, stand by the starting line to record times – and verify these with coaches later.)
■ One-on-one battles – Take notes as runners battle one another during the race and down the stretch. Cite when the runners begin their kicks, for example. What runners had the best times entering the race? (Ask runners to walk you through their races later.)
■ Check on records before a race whenever possible at the Track and Field News site. You can also learn much about the sport by reading this publication in print and online.
■ Check out the NCAA’s web site for rules, records and other college track news.
■ Talk to the field athletes. Most of the time, these athletes compete rather anonymously. Says Litsky: “There are three events where people are the most interesting – the hammer throw, pole vault and shot put. Here’s what they have in common: the public doesn’t understand what they’re doing. That’s a fact. They all talk. And they are usually interesting.”
■ Hand-offs. See who gains (or loses) the most ground during hand-offs for relay events. Runners have a short area where they are allowed to pass along the baton. Hand-offs become more significant the shorter the distance. For example, hand-offs for the 4 by 100 meters are even more important than for the distance medley because a half-second can prove the difference between winning and fifth place. Ask the runners and coaches about them after the event.
■ Comparing times. You do not have to cite every runner’s time when you are covering a single race. You can refer to other times in other ways. For example, you can write: “Jane Gooden clocked in at 2 minutes, 10. 3 seconds to win the 800 meters, beating runner-up Felicia Smith by 2.4 seconds.” (The reader can easily do the math to determine the time here: 2:12.7). You can also offer space as a determinant: “Marion Jones flew past all competitors to win the 100 meters in 10.1 seconds, two full steps ahead of her nearest rival.”
■ Comparing distances. You can do the same here, citing lengths and heights instead: “Frank Smith leaped six inches farther than his nearest competitor to win the conference long jump title. Smith soared 24 feet, 11 inches for his second title, followed by John Jones (24-5) and Fred Short (24-1).”

THINGS TO KNOW

■ Scoring – Varies depending whether this a meet among four or fewer teams or whether this is an invitational or championship meet. For meets with four or fewer teams, scoring varies. Check out the NCAA rule book to verify scoring for meets with two, three or four teams. For bigger NCAA meets (invitationals, championships), winners earn 10 points followed by 8-6-5-4-3-2-1. If the meet has fewer than six teams, scoring changes to 10-8-6-4-2-1. Check with race officials to verify the scoring format when you arrive.
■ Distances – Use numerals to cite distances but separate them by commas. A long jumper would leap 19 feet, 6 inches.
■ Meters. All world and collegiate running distances are in meters, not yards.
■ Times – Spell out minutes in first reference. You should write that a runner won the 1,500 meters in 5 minutes, 9. 4 seconds. After this, you can say the next runner finished in 5:10.23. That way readers understand we are speaking about minutes in first reference. Denote the time in all race stories. On another note, you would write that Bill Rodgers won the Boston Marathon in 2 hours, 10 minutes, 23. 2 seconds, followed by Alberto Salazar in 2:11:02.9.
■ PR – Abbreviation for ‘personal record.’ This is a runner’s personal best time.
■ USA Track & Field (USATF) – This is the National Governing Body for track and field, long-distance running and race walking in the United States.
■ Qualifying – in larger meets, runners need to qualify for the finals in sprint events since the lanes limit the number of participants to eight. Typically, this is required for races that go 400 meters and less. Distance races do not have this same limitation, so race above 800 meters do not typically have qualifying. The field would have to be very large to require this.
■ Provisional qualifying – The NCAA sets times and distances it believes will limit the field for the national championships at the beginning of the season, meaning athletes who reach these levels can qualify. However, if too many athletes surpass the prescribed levels, the NCAA will reduce the number, meaning some who qualified are no longer eligible. Hence the reason for the term ‘provisional.’
■ Automatic qualifying times – These are times and distances that give an athlete an automatic berth in the national championships, regardless how many people reach this level. These levels are more difficult to reach. For example, in 2007, a 60 meter time of 6.62 seconds earned an automatic berth. That’s .12 second faster than the provisional time of 6.74. A tenth of a second is significant in short sprints.
■ Banked tracks – These banked lanes usually yield faster times, allowing runners to accelerate even faster around turns. The automatic time for 200 meters this past season was .25 seconds slower for non-banked times. Those qualifying on banked tracks needed to run 20.83 seconds, compared to 21.08 for non-banked races.
■ Last Chance meets – these are meets held toward the end of the season for the main purpose of helping athletes qualify for the NCAA championships. Team points and trophies are not usually awarded.
■ FAT – Refers to fully automated timing, as opposed to hand-held timing. Most meets do not use FAT systems, so they cannot be measured in hundredths. Instead, hand-held times are rounded up to the next tenth of second. So a hand-held 10.89 100 meters should be recorded as a 10.9.
In addition, .24 seconds are added to hand held times shorter than 300 meters. So a 200-meter hand-held time of 22.9 would equate to 23.14 for any honor roll lists. Add .14 seconds for distances more than 30 meters.

EVENTS

■ Field events – athletes usually have three attempts to reach each set height. Number of attempts come into play to determine final place if two or more athletes stop at the same distance. So a pole vaulter who makes 12 feet, 6 inches on his first attempt would be named the winner.
■ Medleys – these are relays where runners cover different distances. Unlike the 4×400, where each runner covers 400 meters, medleys rely on athletes with different specialties. For example, the sprint medley requires short and middle-distance sprinters to cover 200-200-400-800 meters in that order. The Distance Medley relies more on long sprinters and middle-distance runners to cover 1200-400-800-1600 meters in that order.
■ Indoor meets are a little different. Tracks are typically smaller for indoor meets so some of the distances vary. For example, the 100 meters is replaced by the 60 meters and the 110-meter hurdles is replaced by the 60-meter hurdles. In addition, indoor meets also have relays (4 x 400 meters, 4 x 800 meters). Some races have a distance medley where runners run three separate distances – 1,200 meters, 400 meters, 800 meters and 1,600 meters.
■ Decathlon – male athletes compete in 10 events that cover sprints, middle-distance runs and field competition. The events include 100 meters, long jump, shot put, high jump, 400 meters, 100-meter hurdles, discus, pole vault, javelin and 1,500 meters, usually in that order.
■ Heptathlon – this is the female version, where athletes compete in seven events that include the 100-meter hurdles, high jump, shot put, 200 meters, long jump, javelin and 800 meters.

The following are standard USA Open and Junior Outdoor Track and Field championships:
• 100 meters
• 200 meters
• 400 meters
• 800 meters
• 1500 meters
• 5000 meters
• 10,000 meters
• 20,000 meter walk
• 110-meter hurdles
• 400-meter hurdles
• 3,000-meter steeplechase
• High jump
• Pole Vault
• Long jump
• Triple jump
• Shot put
• Discuss throw
• Hammer throw
• Javelin throw

QUESTIONS TO ASK ATHLETES

Give athletes some time to catch their breath before you ask them questions.

■ What were you thinking during the race (or as you leaped, threw the shot, etc.)?
■ What was your strategy going into this event?
■ How did this performance prepare you for the conference (or state) championships?
■ Have you ever competed against any of the other athletes before? Follow up: Ask for stories about the previous competitions. They may have even grown up together (if so, gather stories about this.)
■ Was there a point in the race (or field event) where you felt particularly strong?
■ Was there a point where you felt weaker?
■ Were you watching, or focusing on, any competitors? Which ones and why?
■ How had you thought you would do before the event started? What were your goals entering this event?
■ What surprised you the most?
■ Gather information more than quotes. For example, if you ask how they felt before the race, follow up with questions that reveal particular details you can use to tell a story. Don’t worry, you’ll get more then enough quotes as you talk with people. Then, tell this story by piecing together these details. You can pepper a few quotes in a well.

QUESTIONS TO ASK COACHES
■ What was your pre-race strategy?
■ Did runners follow your pre-race strategy?
■ What were your goals for the race?
■ What types of workouts had the team go through the past week to prepare for this race? Were these workouts different from training the previous few weeks?
■ Ask coaches to explain anything that you are not certain about, meaning anything you cannot write with an authoritative voice.
■ Did you notice anything different about your team during the race?
■ Ask coaches to explain strategy and techniques. Sometimes, it is better to put down your notepad and just listen at these points, especially if you plan to cover track again. Absorb the information so you can observe events better down the line – and so you can ask better questions. There is nothing wrong with writing some of this down. Or, you can tape this conversation to listen to later (WARNING: As always, make sure anybody you interview knows you are taping the conversation. I always ask if they mind. Most do not, but they will appreciate your honesty.)

Do not limit yourself to these questions, though. Listen and respond to what people tell you during your conversations at these meets – and do not be afraid to try something non-traditional in writing your stories, especially if you are writing for a high school or college publication where sports writers need to take chances in order to grow as reporters. You will fail at times, but often you can learn from these mistakes to get better. Basically, learn as much as you can about the events and athletes so you can tell well-informed stories. Research before you arrive. Then, watch, listen, observe and interview. Covering track can be busy. But, like a 5,000-meter runner, pace yourself so you can finish strong on deadline. Good luck.

photo/Eric Hiltner

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Frozen 4 coverage reveals sad trend

April 9, 2007


In case you haven’t heard, the Wisconsin women’s college hockey team won its second consecutive NCAA title. Badgers goalie Jessie Vetter stopped 32 shots for a 3-0 victory over Minnesota in the championship game.

Sadly, most sports fans did not know this. As I mentioned last month, women’s sports are merely a second thought to most sports editors (see “Frozen Four gets frigid reception in most sports departments” under commentary on this blog). That became even clearer this weekend when another Big Ten team (Michigan State) won the men’s college hockey title in St. Louis. CBSsportsline.com, ESPN.com and USAToday.com devoted considerably more space to the Spartans winning their second title in 21 years than they had to Wisconsin’s winning its second title in a row last month.

The Badgers posted the better record (36-1-4), but Michigan State (29-11-2) scored more coverage from national media outlets. We’ll see how much space USA Today devotes in tomorrow’s editions, but bet on more than the five graphs they buried on page 10 last month, especially if the 700-plus word online story by Andy Gardiner is any indication.

CBS Sportsline posted a game story and a column by veteran columnist Dennis Dodd, both well done. ESPN rolled out senior coordinator David Albright for a nice 1,000-plus word piece that focused on fourth-line winger Chris Lawrence. In addition, ESPN has an index of game stories and previews from the Frozen Four, along with a photo gallery and a lengthy list of stories from regional tournaments. As always, ESPN does a terrific job covering a sports event. But even ESPN dropped the ball (or the puck?) when it comes to equitably covering men’s and women’s sports.

Yes, yes. Men’s college hockey has a bigger following – or so it seems based upon the coverage. I’ve heard the arguments against wasting space on female athletics in more than a few news rooms. (I must confess: Years ago, I was among those fighting such coverage.) But how can women’s hockey build up a following if nobody knows about it? Why not also send these talented sports writers to the women’s Frozen Four? The major media outlets should rethink how they cover women’s sports before somebody steps in and does it for them.

Not sure if having daughters or gaining experience covering other women’s sports have changed my mind, but I do believe women’s sports deserve more coverage – not just because more female readers are heading to sports sections or because many more fathers are coaching and pushing daughters in sports. But because, frankly, some women’s sports are pretty damned entertaining. That’s what nearly two million viewers who turned in to see the NCAA women’s basketball semifinal between Tennessee and North Carolina thought last week – and that was about double the viewers from an NHL Stanley Cup final game in 2006 and a higher rating than some NBA games receive.

I’m not professing the NCAA women’s Frozen Four deserves as many inches online or the same prominence on the front pages of newspapers, but it certainly deserves more coverage than it has received. And, who knows? Perhaps, if ESPN and other major media outlets give the sport the big-time treatment they gave the men, the sport will grow as women’s basketball has. More readers for news outlets in this day of declining readership? That’s just crazy talk, I guess.

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