Covering Sporting Events in Real Time: What Brands Can Learn From CNN, Sports Illustrated and Reuters Live

By Stephen M Zorio

The World Cup, and events like it, provide opportunities to show what you can achieve in real-time -- but there are challenges inherent with those opportunities.

Nobody knows those problems (and the solutions) better than journalists who have covered sprawling events. Their lessons are invaluable to anyone who might be considering whether live event coverage is something they can pull off.

We gathered some sports media veterans to ask about the challenges they faced and how they overcame them. Our panel included Brendon Hanley, a veteran football reporter; James Bass, a live content specialist and Josh Clarke, social media manager for sports site Snack Media; Sports Illustrated writer Richard DeitschRachel Clarke, senior producer for CNN and Brian Tracey, US managing editor for Reuters.

They shared what they've learned from covering events that include World Cup, the Olympics and even armed conflict. You can find the chat in its entirety here, but we've condensed it to the five best moments below.

Read on to learn why planning matters, why flexibility should be part of that plan and what the difference between good and bad live coverage is.

1) Planning and preparation are essential

On FootballFanCast.com (the flagship football site for Snack Media) we work very closely with our editorial team, probably about two weeks prior to any sporting event we're looking to cover. We look to preplan and have engagng content set up to cover any eventuality of the game. If we're working with a client on a campaign, this would also involve a lot of thought about how best to implement that client's brand values into our coverage. -- James Bass and Josh Clarke

At Sports Illustrated we plan months in advance for mega-events such as the World Cup and the Olympics. There's the content part (writers, reporters, photographers), logistics (housing, credentials  etc..) and infrastructure concerns (IT, connectivity). Most importantly on the content end: Have a day to day plan blueprint well in advance and then react when news changes it up. -- Richard Deitsch

SI.com recently underwent a massive overhaul and its dedicated Planet Fútbol section is evidence of that change.

For the bigger organizations I've worked for, the planning can begin as soon as you have time. That's especially true for tougher locales. Best practice is to split it up along party lines.  In some cases, it's possible to overplan, so the flexibility is important too. It also depends on the quality of your editorial team, whether they can take care of themselves, etc. -- Brendon Hanley

We at Reuters.com began our planning in January. I had just got back from the World Economic Forum in Davos where we live-blogged there and formulated some best practices we thought could work at the World Cup. My colleague Ben Walsh and I were given hostile environment training in case we had to cover any protests or civil unrest which so far has been minimal. -- Brian Tracey

2) Flexibility is fundamental too

Having an editorial road map helps the overall thinking of the group but ultimately we react to the news. For instance, you can't plan for Neymar to be out of the World Cup -- and all the stories that go with it -- but you can plan to have the Brazil-Colombia game staffed onsite and at home. That sets you up for success across your platforms (In SI's case here: digital and video). -- Richard Deitsch

We try to find the happy medium. It was most difficult to be flexible in the group stage because so many matches were occurring every day for three weeks. Now that we are in knockout stage we can be a little more creative. Another example of needing to be flexible: Luis Saurez. That blew up instantly on social media, and we relayed that to reporters immediately. -- Brian Tracey

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You always need a certain about of flexbility, as you never know what is going to happen during the 90 minutes. Speed and originality need to go hand-in-hand to ensure and this is why pre-planning and working closely with the client ahead of the event is so important. Creative brainstorms are essential. That gag that got left of the no pile might actually re-surface in real time as it suddenly works in the context of what has just happened. -- Josh Clarke and James Bass

3) Where the challenges lie

I'm a reporter and writer so my challenges at something like the Olympics -- I've been assigned to the Games since 2002 -- are about access. I think fans would surprised at how little you get to players and coaches at the actual events. There's a mixed zone after competition, where the world's press scrambles to get quotes. It's like human bumper cars. -- Richard Deitsch

In terms of being on the ground, there is a lot of just being present and persistent. Transport, passes, access, there are all sorts of things that you just have to push for. That's not the easiest thing in these high-pressure environments. I imagine the public wouldn't know how much time is spent just being in position and being annoying, so as not to get caught in the wash. Any by annoying, I mean friendly! -- Brendon Hanley

We've found that the logistics of planning with a client will always be challenging as it involves the rights holders and the specific sponsorship contracts/rights that have been agreed for use by that brand. -- Josh Clarke and James Bass

4) What success looks like

We had great traffic and interest for our two live blogs (the Germany and Belgium games) but success is so much more than that. The audience clearly welcomed the coverage (and they weren't second-screeners), but we also got to get some new people blogging, using a different voice, being more image heavy perhaps than a breaking news disaster, or at least having a lot more fun! -- Rachel Clarke

Dwell time is the most effective metric for assessing how engaging your content is. Our recent coverage of the USA World Cup games, which was syndicated across several large news publishers across the pond, achieved an average dwell time of 12 minutes per blog - which proved we were doing something right. -- Josh Clarke and James Bass

Success for us is obviously the traditional online metrics (traffic etc...) but given we're a journalism outlet, it has to go beyond that. We want to provide readers with great storytelling, reporting and accurate coverage. -- Richard Deitsch

Tools like Scribble, Twitter, Tweetdeck, Hootsuite, even Vine's Loop Count, which all show real-time engagement metrics means we can evaluate success in the moment. This goes back to the importance of pre-planning for every eventuality, however with real-time content you have to be prepared to be flexible and being creative on the fly is a real skill and this is what the client is essentially investing in when they book a real-time campaign. -- Josh Clarke and James Bass

5) The gap between good and bad live coverage

Some live blogs are just snark fests. I think that gets a little old after awhile. That said, sports is entertainment, it should by nature be fun. -- Brian Tracey

Having an engaging voice and knowing your audience are key, but preparation and experience are things you can't fake. People know if something is valuable or entertaining to them. Just like really good sports TV commentators are hard to find, someone who can carry an audience via [written] words while an event is going on is a big asset. -- Brendon Hanley

Preparation and experience are important but even more important is understanding additive value to the reader. I'm speaking from a sports-centric perspective. Tell me things I cannot see on television. Provide me with perspective and analysis I can't get from the broadcasters (assuming most people are using my live coverage as a second screen experience). Be a great curator of live content across the web. That ultimately, for me, separates the average from the great regarding a live experience. -- Richard Deitsch

So what can brands learn from this? Here are three lessons to bear in mind:

  • Plan, plan and plan some more: You can't cover every contingency and variable. However, a solid plan can both ensure your standard coverage is top notch and put you in a position to pivot effectively when the unexpected (almost invariably) arises.
  • Don't be another voice in the crowd: Your competition for online eyeballs is almost infinite, so anything you can do to rise above the noise is useful. That doesn't mean doing things that don't fit with your voice, but it does mean defining that voice and finding a way to broadcast it in a way that makes people take notice.
  • Define success: Content can do wonders for your goals, but if you don't have a clear notion of those goals, you'll be treading water. Decide what you want your coverage to achieve and tailor your plan to help deliver against those goals. You'll also need to measure, constantly, and be willing to discard what isn't working -- and double down on what is.

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