Breaking into the world of sports journalism is competitive, but breaking into the space as a woman is even tougher. It is so challenging that out of the nearly 8,000 sports reporters in the U.S. in 2019, only 20.9% were women. As the managing editor of USA Today’s sports site, For The Win, Alex McDaniel is used to beating the odds.
After graduating from the University of Mississippi with a journalism degree in 2010, McDaniel went straight to New York with aspirations of becoming a magazine feature writer. As her career progressed from roles as an editorial assistant to social media coordinator to managing editor she also moved around the country, eventually landing in sports at AL.com, for which she credits her father.
“My dad was the reason for all this,” said McDaniel. According to McDaniel, her father was a die-hard Ole Miss football fan and never missed a game. The week after he died, McDaniel wrote her first sports reporting piece. This was what propelled her into the world of sports journalism and sports reporting. “[The article] put me on a lot of people’s radar.”
McDaniel went on to become a sports culture reporter and audience strategist at AL.com. “I felt like I was coming from a place where I was being understood now,” said McDaniel. “They sent me to SEC media days…and that was my first real experience being a sports writer.”
The position entailed covering the University of Alabama, Auburn University and SEC sports as a whole, an experience that helped her land a job at SB Nation where she managed a team of writers and helped them develop daily sports coverage and innovative features. Now, as managing editor at the fan-focused For The Win, McDaniel is responsible for delivering unique content that you can’t often find in traditional sports reporting. “There is always a story beyond just the game.”
In fact, McDaniel said she’s had a ringside seat for a fundamental change in the way sports are covered.
“Fifteen or more years ago, the industry was still very traditional in the sense of being dominated by reporters who covered games and had access to coaches and athletes. Then you had these fan-focused sports blogs pop up (Bleacher Report, SB Nation, For The Win, to name a few) which were largely run by writers who came from non-traditional backgrounds. Not having media access forced them to be creative with their content and digital strategies, and not only did it work in terms of growing an audience, but now most of those blogs have no problem getting the access they need. There’s no longer this idea that you can’t be a sports reporter if you didn’t come up as a beat writer, and that’s opened a lot of doors across the industry, especially for women and people of color.”
However, McDaniel says she has faced a number of challenges over the years, including some particularly hateful attacks online and on social media, but McDaniel says she’s now coping better with that reality. “I had to learn how to pick my battles,” said McDaniel.
She said being successful as a journalist, especially as a woman in sports journalism, you have to build your brand online and gain a following based on the brand you create and the content you post.
“I think it’s important that women looking to get into this industry focus on leaning into their strengths and interests in terms of the work they want to do. I often talk to college students or women just starting out who think they have to be experts in every sport and cram stats all day long just to be in this business, which isn’t really the case depending on what you’re wanting to do. Figure out what you do well — whether it’s writing, social media, video production, PR, digital strategy, anything — and seek out opportunities where you can sharpen those skills. Don’t just take any job in this industry because you think it’s the only way in.”