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At Large: Hugh McIlvanney and the case for sportswriting in 2019

With the passing of Hugh McIlvanney, SportsPro editor-at-large Eoin Connolly takes stock of writing's place in modern sports consumption.

by Eoin Connolly
At Large: Hugh McIlvanney and the case for sportswriting in 2019

There are times when a public figure passes with the poignant sense of a generation going with them, prompting reevaluation as well as reflection. 

Hugh McIlvanney was a titan – perhaps the titan – of British sports journalism, filing brilliant work for The Scotsman, The Observer, the Daily Express and the Sunday Times. He retired just two years ago at the age of 82. His experience went far beyond sport, as he relayed encounters with thesps on Broadway and sectarian terrorists in Ulster, and far beyond print, with his sonorous brogue dressing many a montage on the BBC.   

Inevitably, tributes from McIlvanney’s peers are dense in anecdotes: candid and affectionate recollections of life on the road, in the press box, in the bar. Peering through cigar smoke, they celebrate a man of broad talents, honest wit and the odd eccentric touch. They lament, just a little bit, a time where a reporter’s world was both a little smaller and a little bigger – an age of texture, rather than sheen.

Yet no eulogy bears quite the weight of reference of McIlvanney’s own prose. An example: in his interview of Muhammad Ali on the morning after the Rumble in the Jungle – hastily, improbably arranged without appointment on the doorstep of Ali’s villa in Kinshasa – he writes of the recrowned champion speaking ‘with the quiet contentment of a man whose thoughts were acting on him as comfortingly as the hands of a good masseur’.

Lying back on the thick cushions of an armchair in his villa, with the windows curtained against an angry sun that was threatening to evaporate the Zaire River as it slid like a grassy ocean past his front door, he talked with the quiet contentment of a man whose thoughts were acting on him as comfortingly as the hands of a good masseur

From Hugh McIlvanney's 1973 interview with Muhammad Ali, hours after the boxing great beat George Foreman in the 'Rumble in the Jungle'

It’s a lightly worn bit of poetry, which recalls Ali’s skill with words but also tells of the beating he has taken in victory over George Foreman. The experience of hearing the man speak is conveyed gently through the sense of a tired body, its tissues warped by the blows of the world’s most fearsome boxer.

The role great writing had in creating the sports business is a little underplayed. Form, function and delivery come together in the success of any format – that much is taken as read. Barely a week goes by without some comment about how digital consumption will change the way sport is played – I should know, they’re usually in this column – and the massive impact of television in refiguring the spectacle is well understood.

Only rarely, though, do people go further on that train of thought and remember just how influential newspapers and magazines and books have been.

Many of the great sports of the 20th century owed much of their popularity to the reporting they inspired, and their place in the hierarchy still reflects that. Think of cricket, baseball or golf, where tactical intrigue and dramatic incident trickle through luxurious pauses for thought. Or how, in boxing, characters emerge in words through weeks of training and promotion, and the elemental test on fight night.

Cycling’s Tour de France and Giro d’Italia, two of sport’s most imposing challenges, were both founded as a way to sell newspapers – L’Auto and La Gazzetta dello Sport respectively, since you ask. The sight of throngs of fans lining French and Italian streets was a neat marketing trick, sure, but nothing compared to days of soaring copy on men pushed past the edge of exhaustion.

The newspapers carried legends far and wide. In Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, luckless Cuban fisherman Santiago and his apprentice Manolin bond over baseball. The old man of the title is especially taken with the exploits of Joe Di Maggio, a star he has never and will never see play. A fan overseas, connecting deeply with a faraway major league athlete through the media. Imagine that.

Of course, print has long ceased to have that kind of commercial power, and communications departments have unprecedented control over messaging and access. Today, Santiago would probably watch clips of Joe Di Maggio on Manolin’s smartphone. Yet there are more words typed about sport, in more places and by more people, than ever before. So there’s a question to be asked about what it actually means to be a sportswriter: what value can it add to the industry, and the fan?

The first part is answered readily enough. This is an attention business. Speaking recently to SportsPro, Omar Raja, the young founder of Instagram sensation House of Highlights, noted that it had become easier for him to share sports videos “because a lot of sports leagues have understood that highlights are honestly just marketing”. The same holds true for the written word, and that’s why new stadiums have bigger press tribunes.

But making writing matter to fans means knowing the difference between storytelling and content production. Sport is awash with content. Media is drowning in it: clips, posts, shares and takes.

There is always an incentive to feed the beast with snackable bits – clickbait and hate-reads. Publishers have to pay the bills, too, and pretty urgently. They know, though, that snacks can never really satisfy like stories do. Snacks are consumed. Stories are digested.

The most capable sportswriters – like the best filmmakers, broadcasters or digital producers – still trade in stories, good ones with beginnings, middles and ends. Their efforts take many forms, between the hard-bitten journalists, the analysts and satirists, and those with an eye for the layer below the obvious. And even now, when we can watch everything again and from multiple angles, there are still a handful blessed with McIlvanney’s gift for context, for telling us what it is we’ve just seen. We witnessed an event; we read a story.

The industry that delivers it all has been challenged by the persistent influence of technology and economics. It must be challenged, too, by the needs of a culture poorly served by narrow representation. The written media is still notorious for its paleness and maleness, but new experiences and perspectives are breaking through.

Its vibrancy is essential, and its relevance can yet be assured. Whatever else changes, sport should still be something to write home about.