Day 1: Writing the game story

Today’s Agenda

Understanding what sports reporters can bring to fans through a written game story

Angles as critical to good game reporting

Good lede writing elevates the story

Strategies for writing on deadline

Assignments for students

1. Fans will likely already know the outcome of the game before they read the actual story

Sports scores scroll on the bottom of outlets like ESPN nonstop throughout the day. Fans share news instantaneously over twitter. Teams and leagues often provide “live-stats” online, which allow fans to follow the game by watching a graphical display of the game that keeps them up to date on not only the score, but key statistical information. Because fans will likely already know the outcome of the game, we can say that they already know the answer to the “what” journalistic question. It is critical, then, that sports reporters provide fans with something new and fresh in their stories.

In approaching a game story, it is helpful to think of the actual contest as simply a newspeg. A newspeg is the reason a story is assigned. In other words, an editor will assign a story because a game is being held at a particular time and place and is important to the community. It is the reporter’s job to find the “story” to hang on to that newspeg. From this perspective, then, the news is never that one team beat another team. Writing a story from this perspective privileges the “what” journalistic question.

Instead, sports reporters should privilege the “how” and why” journalistic questions in their stories. In doing so, game stories should focus on explaining to readers how a team won or why a particular team played well. This type of analysis is key to providing fans with something new and fresh that they have not already seen on the ticker or through twitter.

Example: Click on the link to a story about the 2009 NCAA women’s basketball national championship game between UConn and Stanford. Notice the attention given to how UConn came back from a miserable first half to win the game.


2. Finding an angle is critical to good sports reporting

In privileging the “how” and “why” questions, reporters are essentially finding an angle to covering the game story. It is important to underscore that the game story is never really about one team beating another team. Rather, the story is “why” or “how” one team beat that other team. Asking either of these questions is a good way to start developing an angle.

The angle is also the “meat” of the game story. After identifying the angle and key how/why questions, reporters should build their story around answering those questions and providing detail related to that angle. Examples include statistics that help show a reader the answer to one of those questions, or quotes that also provide evidence or explanation to the bigger point in the story. Thus, a game story should never be a chronological account of the game. In contrast, the substance of the game story is often explanatory in nature. In other words, the writing should expand on the “how” or “why” questions that are raised in the story. We discuss the balance between assessment/explanation and objectivity in sports writing more on day 3: covering live events.

Example: Download the file Jets-Patriots and consider the following questions in relation to the two stories that covered the same game:

1)    What angle did each reporter use for covering the Jets-Patriots game?

2)    What information did the reporters use to answer “how” and “why” questions?

3)    What game action is reported, and in what order?


3. Good lede writing elevates the story

There are several types of game story ledes. I have broken them up into two categories: 1) direct ledes; and 2) delayed ledes.

Direct ledes: The Associated Press (AP) has perfected the direct sports lede and uses this lede in short (no more than 150-word) stories that its reporters file immediately following a game. This lede is also a good choice for reporters doing a “roundup,” which is essentially a story that includes information from several games in brief form. The AP calls its direct ledes “hero ledes” because these ledes contain the score and information about how a key player – the “hero” – helped his or her team win. Below is an example from Knoxville-area AP writer Beth Rucker, who wrote a basic hero lede for the Vols’ Jan. 26 2010 men’s basketball game vs. LSU:

Scotty Hopson scored 17 of his 22 points in the first half as Tennessee routed LSU 75-53 on Wednesday night.

Although the hero lede is a basic lede, it still privileges the “how” or “why” journalistic questions by giving readers a preliminary reason as to why the Vols were successful that night. Similarly, the AP provided this lede in a Jan. 19 NBA roundup article:

Jason Kidd broke out of an awful shooting slump to score a season-high 21 points, helping the Dallas Mavericks beat the visiting Los Angeles Lakers, 109-100, on Wednesday night and end an ugly six-game losing streak.

This example also shows how colorful writing can elevate what is often a formulaic lede. Descriptions such as “ugly six-game losing streak” and “awful shooting slump” provide color and insight to the reader.

Delayed ledes: Ledes are called “delayed” when the newspeg is not revealed right away. They hold the reader in suspense, raise interesting questions, set a scene and/or provide an anecdote that is emblematic of a bigger theme in the game.  Delayed ledes are followed by a nutgraf that answers basic journalistic questions such as who, what, where and when. The nutgraf is very similar to a direct lede. Most final versions of sports game stories use a delayed lede.

Delayed ledes often begin the  “story within the story” by identifying the key actor (player/coach, etc.) and putting the story in motion in relation to that key person. In doing so, the lede should raise questions for the reader. Consider this example by Knoxville News-Sentinel reporter Jesse Smithey; the lede includes a character (Scott Meadows) and raises questions for the reader (what happened in the first half? How did the team turn things around so well in the second half?). Notice the nutgraf at the end:

The way his Catholic High School football team played in the first half Friday, coach Scott Meadows had no choice but to chew out his players at the half.

The way they responded, though, left him with nothing left to shout about.

Catholic rallied from a 12-point halftime hole and a four-point, fourth-quarter deficit at home to knock off Farragut, 21-18.


Below is a second example of a delayed lede. The character in this instance is the entire Vikings team. The lede raises questions for the reader that invite him or her to keep reading: (How did the team go from playing so well one week to playing so poorly? What went wrong against Chicago?)

The Vikings earned a reprieve from what appears destined to be a lost season last week when they staged a furious rally to beat Arizona in overtime.

That came to a crashing thud on Sunday at Soldier Field.

The Chicago Bears became the latest team to add to the Vikings’ 2010 miseries, cruising to a 27-13 victory before an announced crowd of 62,206. The magic purple pants that worked so well against Arizona brought no luck this time.

Both of these examples raise questions for the reader. This strategy is critical to holding reader attention throughout the story.

Sometimes delayed ledes set a scene; these ledes are often called “scene-setters.” A scene setter lede is dependent on specific description. Reporters should use what I call “banana words”; banana words evoke a concrete image in one’s mind akin to a banana when saying the word. Read the example below from New York Times writer Greg Bishop. Notice the descriptors and related nutgraf at the end:


The Jets sprinted through the tunnel at Gillette Stadium, arms extended, as if flying. They shouted. They screamed. They yapped the way they yapped throughout the past week, the way they yapped throughout this season, the way they plan to yap all the way to the Super Bowl next month.

The Jets do not love to talk so much as they live for it, live by it. All week, they trafficked in hyperbole and lobbed insults at New England, as if convincing themselves they stood a chance. But by Sunday night, after the Jets followed bark with bite, it seemed they knew what everyone else missed.

In a game few expected them to win, in the same stadium where the Patriots humiliated them by 42 points last month, the Jets bullied New England, battered Tom Brady and advanced to the A.F.C. championship game with a 28-21 triumph.


Case study: Evaluating Jets-Patriots game coverage

4. Strategies for developing the story on deadline

When Associated Press (AP) reporters cover games, they produce three versions. The first is a story filed no more than five minutes after the game ends. It includes the game score and key information, such as high scorers or important statistics. It is usually about 75-150 words long. Thirty to 40 minutes later, the reporters file a second story that expands on the first one by including more statistical information. Both of these versions usually feature a hero lede. The third version includes quotes from players and/or coaches. The direct lede is replaced with a delayed lede. This final version is filed 90 minutes to two hours after the game ends.

In order to file a short story just minutes after deadline, or even an hour or two after deadline, reporters begin writing it during the game. Thus, it is standard practice to bring a laptop to games; some reporters even file short game stories on their mobile phone devices. In order to do this well, it helps to pay attention to storylines within the game. If someone is having a big game, for instance, the reporter may write a basic hero lede with a placeholder for that person’s final statistics and the game score.

In writing during the game, it is helpful to be aware of key turning points. Because turning points usually provide the meat of the story, writing a short narrative as they happen – or shortly after they happen – will ultimately help fill out your story quickly before the game ends. This narrative should include the key players and statistics and description of that key play/turning point.

For example, read the paragraph below from Rucker’s LSU-UT basketball story. The graf describes a run by LSU late in the first half and includes the key players and statistics specific to that run:

A 3-pointer by Matt Derenbecker and a pair of free throws from Malcolm White helped LSU cut Tennessee’s margin to 31-24 with 3:35 in the first half, but it was as close as the Tigers (10-10, 2-3) would get.


Below is a second example from a recent football game between Boise State and TCU. This graf appears near the end of the story. Boise State ultimately lost the game, but forcing a turnover and putting together a drive at the start of the second half to reclaim a lead represents a key turning point. A good reporter would write this during the game. Had the Broncos won, this graf may have been moved up earlier in the story

Boise State came out strong in the second half, forcing a TCU fumble on the first play. Defensive end Tyrone Crawford picked up the bouncing ball and ran 32 yards for a touchdown. The extra point gave the Broncos a 21-20 lead.

Example: Click here to download a file to Beth Rucker’s coverage of the Jan. 26, 2011 LSU-UT basketball game. The file includes all three stories as they moved across the wire.


5. Assignments for students:

  1. Lede writing assignment
    1. Assignment includes a handout for students
    2. Game coverage assignment
      1. Assignment includes a handout for students and instructor links


Links to examples and assignments

Case study: Evaluating Jets-Patriots game coverage

AP game story writing: 3 game stories

Lede writing assignment

Game coverage assignment

Get a FREE copy of Kill the Quarterback

Get a free digital copy of Jim Stovall's mystery novel, Kill the Quarterback. You will also get Jim's newsletter and advanced notice of publications, free downloads and a variety of information about what he is working on. Jim likes to stay in touch, so sign up today.

Powered by ConvertKit

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.