In the last 25 years working in sports, I have seen three distinct decades of how Olympic sports are covered in the media. My kids call it old. I say perspective. At worst, it’s a #TBT. The evolution of Olympic sport media coverage has been dramatic (some of which was pre-Internet and cell phones!) since my days as the USA Swimming communications intern to now. Olympic athletes have a unique opportunity to capitalize, if they play the game the right way.
First, some perspective:
1990s: The “Answer the Phone” Decade: There was a domestic Olympic Games (Atlanta 1996) and newspapers were at their peak with most outlets having their own Olympic beat writer. Internet news started in the early-to-mid 90s and was primarily generated by traditional media companies such as Sports Illustrated or USA Today.. In the USA Swimming communications department we worked hard just to facilitate incoming requests from media.
2000s: The “Phone Dialing” Decade: This was the beginning of cutbacks at major news outlet editorial staffs and fewer outlets had dedicated Olympic beat journalists. Instead of answering the phone, the Communications department reluctantly realized the phones had a key pad and we had to pro-actively “pitch” stories to shrinking news staffs.
2010s: The “Social Media” Decade: The line is blurred on journalism, blogs and news sites and social media allows us to become our own outlet. Never before have we had more voices in the market. Traditional news outlets are now competing with the likes of TMZ, blogs, Deadspin and more. Even the distinguished New York Times and CNN announced layoffs recently.
Here are 10 things Olympic athletes need to thrive in today’s media:
- Make Yourself Available. Journalists are now asked to write a story, tweet events live and maybe even capture video reports while on-site at events. Deadlines used to be at 10 pm EST. Now, they are rolling 24×7 deadlines, so even quick comments from athletes (with the promise of more later) can help relieve the deadline pressures.
- There is No Such Thing as Local. The concept of local news is gone. Athletes can have a global platform no matter what media outlet they are talking to at the time.
- Journalists Are Also Promoters. Media outlets are under more pressure to drive traffic. Just being a good journalist isn’t enough. They have to build an audience and drive traffic to their own stories. Athletes can help with a friendly RT of news stories.
- Boring is the Enemy. The pithy quotes of “I just tried to swim/run/flip my best” don’t cut it. Attention-grabbing 140 character tweets and headlines drive interest, so athletes need to eliminate sport’s jargon and give a unique perspective on the event or themselves.
- Being a Great Athlete is No Longer Enough. Accomplishments on the field of play aren’t enough to break through the media clutter and simply the ante to the conversation. Journalists want to know your story and “hook” to make it interesting for followers.
- NBC is Not Just NBC Anymore. It used to be that getting an interview request from NBC (or other major conglomerate networks) just meant NBC. Now it means NBC Universal. Requests could come from the TODAY Show, Nightly News, NBCOlympics.com, Bravo, Telemundo or even E!. These are independent news entities and staffs, who share the same corporate parent, but not the same content. Athletes have to adapt to each audience. See #4 and #5.
- “Gotcha” is Growing. TMZ broke stories on Ray Rice, Donald Sterling and Jameis Winston vs. traditional news outlets. Athletes are public figures and anyone with a cell phone camera can become a paid source for TMZ or others. Athletes are in a global fishbowl. Just ask Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler’s character) on Parks & Recreation.
- Athletes are the Media Too. Athletes should build their own social media presence to differentiate themselves, communicate what they are about and in times of crisis have it as a tool to share their side of the story first-hand. Rory McIlroy made a comment about Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson being on the “back nine of their career” and then went to Twitter to defend his comments.
- Generalists vs. Specialists. With the reasons above, more news outlets are requiring journalists to cover multiple sports stories and events. That means they may not always be an expert in each sport and ask seemingly simple questions. The cop out is to brush it off as a dumb question, but the smart play is to take that interview and lead it to what interests you (and what makes you interesting). Be ready for the general “What should my readers know about you?” question.
- Other Athletes Are Your Competition. You already compete on the field of play and make no mistake you are competing for share of the media attention as well.
The athletes who adapt to the changing media will win gold in the media also.