What It Takes To Be A Data Journalist In Today’s Sports World

Every year nearly 40,000 men and women apply to work as data journalists for Sportradar, the sports data and content company. Only 1% of those applicants are ultimately offered the position.

Data journalists are responsible for transmitting live data via mobile devices to the Sportradar servers in real-time. The job is all about speed and accuracy, and requires undivided attention and commitment.

That’s why all applicants undergo expansive training. First, they practice inputting data through a series of pre-recorded matches. Next they participate in an online tutorial. All the while, Sportradar supervisors are providing immediate feedback and evaluating an applicant’s potential. Finally, a select few applicants are sent into the field.

“We are constantly monitoring the output of the data journalists,” said Alexander Inglot, Sportradar’s director of communications.  “It’s absolutely critical to make sure that the speed and accuracy is there because that’s what our clients rely on. Their businesses rely on our speed and accuracy.”

Sean (this is a fake name provided as the data journalist did not want to share his identity), a data journalist in Ireland, clarified just how arduous the job can be and explained why the training process is so necessary.

Before each match Sean has to beat the traffic, find his seat, hook into the stadium WiFi (which isn’t always easy) and ensure that the correct lineups are entered in the system. After kickoff he needs to keep an eye on every play. Where is the ball on the pitch? What is the referee signaling? Are there any penalty advantages, line breaks or scoring opportunities? Any substitutions, injuries or changes?

Sportradar’s training modules prepare data journalists for the particulars of the job, but being a good data journalist also requires an understanding of just how important the position is for the world of sports.

Sportradar clients rely on precise, real-time information from global sports matches. Whether a client requires raw data or already-interpreted statistics, it’s a data-journalist’s job to provide that initial information.

But, as we elucidated in a previous article, Sportradar is one of the most technologically advanced data companies out there – why do they rely on humans to gather their data?

“The reality is all of those hi spec infrastructures used by the biggest leagues are expensive,” said Inglot. “It has to be done manually across the majority of sports because it’s the only cost effective way to do it.”

In other words, for a lot of lower-tier sports (think Finnish Handball instead of the NFL) it’s more affordable, and effective, to use data journalists to gather match information.

As technologies become more affordable, the data journalist position may evolve, explains Ian Moriarty, product development manager at Sportradar.

“I think over the next 10, 15 years we’ll see a shift which maybe goes away a little bit from the traditional way in which we’ve collected data via somebody collecting data points at a venue, going to something which is more closer and akin to what we and our partners are currently doing with the NFL games,” Moriarty said.

That doesn’t mean data journalists will be obsolete, though.

Moriarty explained that in the future Sportradar plans to send more data journalists to each event.

“Instead of having one scout, we’re going to see if we can have two, three, four, five scouts who are all recording different information from that same event,” Moriarty said. “That means that the client will have a much deeper pool of statistics and data. It won’t just be one person’s worth of data that is focused on top line data: goals and corners and fouls; he’ll be able to record left foot, right foot, all kinds of extra layers of data which will hopefully enrich not just the raw data but the product. Fans want that granular detail and our job is to ensure our clients get it.”

Image and thumbnail via Sporttechie.com

Alex Siegman