Don’t Do It … Unless …

In the wake of the recent round of firings at ESPN, I see plenty of hot takes.  Some are better than others (anything saying ESPN had this coming for its liberal agenda immediately goes into the “shit take” category), some are well meaning and some aren’t.  But it’s a public business, so invariably people want to sound off on it … regardless of how much understanding of the situation they personally have.

I can relate to the folks who’ve been laid off, the people who survived and have survivor’s guilt, the ones who received the extra special “gift” of demotion, and even the fortunate climbers who might somehow benefit from these moves.  I can relate because I “enjoyed” each of these experiences throughout a 15-year run in the sports communications business.

And this isn’t a woe is me tale, because for whatever it’s worth, I’m very much at peace with where I am right now (which is out of sports entirely).  I don’t blame any former employer or hold any grudges, because that would be stupid (and I really, really don’t believe in burning bridges … finding work is hard enough).  Moreover, I feel as though I’ve been more fortunate than most.

But I’ve seen one particular refrain in the aftermath of today’s carnage that I thought I could and should address, because maybe my own experiences in the business can help someone.

That sounds nice.  And it’s a convenient thing to say to someone if you want the conversation to last 140 characters or less.  But as with most things in life, the reality is much more nuanced than that.

Right now, as I type, there is work available to young journalists with a digital focus who want to live in a city.  And yes, there are even jobs that don’t fit that set of criteria, but that’s the primary model.

That there’s a model at all means things aren’t quite so dire as people like to paint it.  My reality is I had to spend nearly four years grinding away as an intern and freelancer before I landed a full-time position as a sports producer at CBS.  (Part of the reason that break came is I shared an area code with a major media company … so file that away as you decide where you might want to live.  It helped me make the right friends, but it also made me a more convenient hire.).

Talk to most any sports journalist and you’ll probably get a similar story, that of a grind that eventually ended in them getting a break.

So if waiting nearly half a decade to start making any money sounds horrifying, then yeah, maybe you should look at a different path.

But that was the trick back then, and that remains the trick now.  Be stubborn as heck and wait for your break.  Intern where you can, freelance, and diversify.  You will more than likely find some kind of living in sports, whether it’s a full-time gig or just enough freelance/part-time work to get by.  Either way, you’ll find yourself honing your craft and progressing along a career path.

However, there are caveats.  I glossed over that word “diversify” in my previous paragraph, but there will be no avoiding it in the current media world.  You will need to be able to write, to edit, to take photos, to shoot video, to produce polished work, and maybe if you’re (un)lucky, to be an on-air talent of some kind (podcasting, radio, TV, etc.).  You will need to be business-minded, at absolute minimum in an attention to driving traffic/gaining audience, but perhaps more than that even.  You may even have to “sell your soul” and produce sponsored pieces.  In fact, in the current climate, I can guarantee you will at some point find yourself at odds between an editorial mindset and a money-making one.  You will have to wrestle with those ethical concerns yourself, because very few people will sympathize with your plight (they’re all too busy trying not to lose their jobs).  You will not be a “writer.” That romantic notion is gone, just as the concept of “TV guy” or “videographer” are essentially dinosaurs now.  So put those ideas out of your head.  You will need to do a lot.

I also have much worse news:  It probably won’t last.  Those jobs I outlined earlier – digitally focused in metro areas – often go to young people because they’re cheaper.  This is not unique to sports of course, but sports isn’t immune to it either.  As older journalists get phased out, inexperienced kids who can do the job of three former full-timers (diversify!) will find themselves in demand.  Well, more in demand anyway.

Which probably sounds pretty great to a 25-year-old who has been grinding for a few years now.  That break is coming.  But it doesn’t take long for the shoe to switch to the other foot, and after enough time, you will be either considered for dismissal or actually let go.  This much I can guarantee.  And then finding another sports gig in those circumstances is very, very difficult.  Virtually impossible, even.

So to sum up what we’ve covered so far … if you want to pursue a career in sports, you will need to master a set of diverse skills that might be beyond your capabilities, you should expect to grind away with long hours for no money for years before getting a decent break (probably in a high-cost city that no doubt will be unfriendly to your lack of income), and many of your friends and colleagues will be laid off during the course of your own abbreviated run that will inevitably end before you’re fully ready for it to.


(and here’s the real crux of the issue)

I wouldn’t trade my own experiences for anything, and what’s more: No one can take those experiences away from me.  I got to cover two Super Bowls, a BCS Championship Game, several major bowl games, a Final Four, PGA tour events, NBA playoff games, and an NFL Draft.  I made some of my best friends I still have to this day.  My career path enabled me to meet my future wife, gain a self-confidence I didn’t have before, and provide so many “that’s cool!” moments, I’ve probably lost track of them all.  I participated in “breaking news” stories that offered real change.  I provided opinions and advice to a large audience on a myriad of topics.  I oversaw continual traffic growth throughout my run while providing various audiences news, entertainment and understanding.  My set of skills gained and achievements during that portion of my career enabled me to find work outside the field later on, and I feel fortunate to be able to continue to evolve and learn more today while continuing to work in the field of mass communications.  Like a former pro athlete who has to transition to something else in his mid-30s, I’ve moved on.  But I’m happy.

For me, the tradeoff of “this isn’t going to last and may eventually really suck” was worth it.  Because at the end of the day, I look back at myself as a 21-year-old with very little direction, but who settled on one clear dream: I wanted to work in sports.  And I achieved that goal.  And NO ONE can take that away.  It happened.  I did it.

I can’t decide for you how badly you want it.  Do you want to put up with all of that?  Does any of that sound good or appealing?  Does the downside look worth it to you?  I mean, if you’re still interested, and if you still want it after reading all of that, I can encourage you to go for it.  Which is important, since probably everyone else on Earth is telling you not to do it.  And maybe you need to hear that it’s okay to do it.

It’s okay to do it.

Just have your eyes wide open going in (and have that exit plan ready as well).


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