If you’ve read my career story before, you know I started out as a blogger. My first sports blog was a Braves blog I wrote during my last year of law school (spring of 2007), which quickly turned into an opportunity to be a co-founder a larger Braves blog on a national blogging network. That blog actually still exists (although the national platform it was originally on does not), which is extremely gratifying… but not the point of this post.
After writing on the Braves blog for a couple of years, I started ItsaSwingandaMiss.com in early 2010, a blog where I could spend more time on legal and business issues in baseball and less on game recaps. From there, I began to write for SportsMoney on Forbes.com and Comcast Sports Southeast in May 2010. In April 2011, I decided the popularity of my business of college sports posts on Forbes.com might make for a nice new website for me, and BusinessofCollegeSports.com was born. Finally, in October 2011 I handed over the reigns of BusinessofCollegeSports.com, scaled back my job as an attorney and joined ESPN as a sports business reporter.
I tell you all that so you have a feel for my qualifications to write the following post on how to become a successful sports blogger. I’ve edited many writers on BusinessofCollegeSports.com, and few have lasted the test of time. I get frustrated emails all the time from writers who felt their career didn’t take off quickly enough. They all say they want to duplicate what I’ve been able to do, but I have yet to see anyone take the same approach. So, I’ve decided to give you the inside scoop on exactly what I did.
Find a niche.
You probably already have something you want to write about, but is it unique? Even if you’re blogging about a team or a topic that others cover, it’s important to find a unique angle that sets you apart from the crowd.
Perhaps you’re particularly well-suited to write about a topic because of your day job or educational background. My first niche was MLB’s collective bargaining agreement. I thought I was uniquely qualified because I was an attorney who’d been published in a legal journal for my work on breaking down revenue sharing and the competitive balance tax. I also had a publishing deal to turn that paper into a book. It was that pedigree, and an email to the editor of SportsMoney on Forbes.com, that elevated me from blogging on my own platform (with little audience) to writing for Forbes.com.
My time at Forbes led me to a new niche: the business of college sports. After seeing my posts on college athletics financials get more hits than anything else I’d ever written for Forbes, I decided to launch BusinessofCollegeSports.com. I quickly became the only person writing original content about the business side of college sports on a daily basis. It wasn’t long before I was getting linked to in articles on ESPN.com, CBSSports.com, FoxSports.com, etc. None of those people were linking to me when I was one of dozens of bloggers writing game recaps about the Braves.
Not convinced that narrowing your focus can expand your reach? Check out another post I did where several others chimed in on the value of having expertise in one area versus knowing a little about a lot.
One major reason most bloggers don’t become full-time sportswriters is that they don’t put in the time. Most start-up bloggers are really excited about what they’re doing for a few weeks. They might post 2-3 times a week for those first few weeks… but then it drops off. Everyone wants instant gratification. If they aren’t getting linked to by major sites or retweeted by the truckload or offered a paid position, they give up.
I ran some numbers on my own work. I wrote 178 posts for Forbes and BusinessofCollegeSports.com in the 16 months before joining ESPN. That’s an average of 11.1 posts per month, or 2.8 posts per week (and that’s not counting a blog a week for Comcast Sports Southeast most weeks). I believe I truly began to set myself apart when I started BusinessofCollegeSports.com. When I founded that website, I vowed to write a post every single weekday. I wrote 133 posts on BusinessofCollegeSports.com from April 18, 2011 to October 10th, 2011. That’s 133 posts in 175 days (while practicing law full-time, I might add). How many of you are writing that frequently?
The odds of getting noticed in your first few posts are slim to none. Getting a paid position after a handful of posts is also unlikely. Writing a couple of times a month isn’t going to cut it. There’s no shortcut. If you want to turn you blogging into a full-time job, treat it like one. I’m sure you’ve heard the saying about how you should dress for the job you want, not the one you have. The same is true for writing: write as if you have the job you want.
Promote your work – the right way.
The last mistake I see people making is with regards to how they promote their work. Social media is an amazing tool that allows you to be “discovered,” but it’s not as easy as sending out scatter-shot tweets to everyone in sports media hoping they notice you or your work. Nearly every day I receive a tweet from someone who wants me to read a post on their blog (or sometimes their whole blog). I click on very few of these. Between ESPN, my freelance work, keeping up this website, editing two books for publication this year, co-hosting a weekly radio show and spending time with my fiance, I simply don’t have the time.
That doesn’t mean I never click on blog links tweeted at me, however.
Which ones do I read? The ones that are relevant to me or seem really unique.
Let’s start with unique. I recently wrote about a high school freshman who emailed me. Before the email, she tweeted me a link to a sports business piece she wrote. In the tweet she told me she was a high school freshman. I’ve never had someone so young send me their work, so I was intrigued. That’s the kind of unique thing I’ll click on to read.
Probably more useful to you is my advice on how to target the right people. The number one mistake I see being made is people tweeting me blogs that have nothing to do with what I cover. For example, if you write a blog where you do game recaps, I’m not going to click on it to read unless we already have an existing relationship. I cover sports business. It really doesn’t matter to me who won a AAA baseball game last night.
On the other hand, if you write a blog about a AAA baseball team and cover a successful promotion the team had or a consecutive game sell-out streak, then I’m more likely to read your work, because that’s something I might cover.
The only advice I know to give you is to share with you how I used social media to promote my work early on. I’ve given this advice to at least a dozen start-up bloggers, and most aren’t willing to do the legwork. All I can say is that I did it, and it worked for me.
Let’s say I wrote a piece about FSU football. I would look up the beat writers who cover FSU for the Tallahassee paper and probably other big papers in the state like the Orlando Sentinel, Miami Herald, Florida Times-Union and Tampa Bay Times. Then I’d find the Twitter handles for those beat writers. (I recommend starting a spreadsheet so you don’t have to look all this up every time you write about FSU.) Then I’d find the sports radio station(s) in Tallahassee and any other major market that might cover FSU on the air. I’d look up the Twitter handles for the hosts and/or producers. I’d look for writers on the big FSU blogs or anyone who has an FSU podcast. Then I’d tweet a link to my article with a catchy hook to all those folks.
The key is to help these people do their job better. They’re going to click on your link and read it if they think they might get material that furthers their own work.
This isn’t a five minute project. It takes time. It’s easier if you’re only writing about one team, but if you’re like me and write about dozens of teams, it’s a process. I kept a detailed spreadsheet (that I unfortunately lost in a computer crash last year) where I added all these contacts as I wrote about each new team. When I wrote about an entire conference, I looked for the top beat writers and radio hosts for every school. I also added in the writers at ESPN.com on the conference blogs. It’s a lot of work, which is why most people aren’t willing to do it and never end up with the success they want.
My approach led to me being quoted and linked to by newspapers all over the country. It also led to radio interviews in dozens of markets. None of this would have happened if all I did was tweet out my links to the 100 followers I had before I joined Forbes or the 1,000 followers I had in my early days at Forbes.
Don’t make the mistake of sending links of all your work to national writers. Unless it’s a subject that’s the writer’s cause du jour, odds are they aren’t going to read it or retweet it. You’re wasting your time. Spend that valuable time sending it to more local or regional sports media. I can tell you that if I write about Memphis, I get more mileage out of a Chris Vernon (a Memphis radio host) tweet or radio appearance than if I go on Tim Brando’s national show. Why? Because a large percentage of Chris’ listeners care about what’s happening at Memphis. The same can’t be said of Brando’s listener base. The bottom line is that you get more out of something targeted.
Is this process easy? To quote Jimmy Dugan from A League of Their Own, “If it wasn’t hard, everyone would do it.”
UPDATE: You don’t have to go at it alone! I’ve launched new services specifically for sports bloggers if you need advice or someone to help you carry the load: check it out here.