When it comes to college football, the sport is “ripe with captivating storylines and colorful personalities.” That is how Stewart Mandel (BSJ98) recently described the sport, and he should know. He’s spent nearly 20 years covering college football and basketball for outlets like Sports Illustrated, Fox Sports and ESPN the Magazine.
Now Mandel is part of a new venture.
This past month, he helped launch The All-American, a subscription-based national college football site run by The Athletic. Mandel serves as Editor-in-Chief of the The All-American.
With the college football season under way, we caught up with Mandel to talk about his new job, his career path and what advice he has for current students.
What excites you most about your new position with The Athletic?
The chance to create a new sports journalism outlet from scratch, in particular one with an innovative business model, at a time when so much of the story in our industry has unfortunately been about contraction, not growth. Working at The Athletic in what is truly still its infancy feels like being part of something new and revolutionary.
In your introduction to The All-American, you say that “there’s never been more demand for good written sports content.” Why do you think that is?
Technology and the pervasiveness of social media have allowed people to remain engaged and connected with the news literally around the clock. When I was growing up, I read the Cincinnati Enquirer sports section in the morning, maybe caught the sports segment on the 6 p.m. news, heard some sports talk radio at night and went to bed. Today, you wake up and check your Twitter feed or your news apps, you’re checking it on and off throughout the day, you’re reading your phone or tablet at night. And in sports in particular, people are so passionate about their teams, there is no such thing as “too much” coverage for them. So it makes sense that we as an industry should be looking for opportunities to add more smart written content to the fans’ daily consumption.
In your eyes, what makes college sports so compelling?
The passion for college football in particular is the closest thing in this country to international soccer. It’s one thing when it’s your city’s pro team, it’s another when it’s your school. In many cases, people not only spent four great years at their alma mater, but met their spouse there, or their whole family has gone there, and their connection remains so strong throughout their life. When I write about college football I always try to remember that’s my audience.
As for on the field, the fact that the players aren’t yet pros is exactly what makes the sport so fun and chaotic — the games are unpredictable, they often end in the wildest fashion imaginable, because you never know exactly what you’re going to get from 18- to 22-year-old participants. That, combined with the still somewhat arbitrary nature of how the national champion is determined, makes every week just feel like the stakes are enormous on any given play.
How do you think your time at Medill helped you get to where you are today?
My time at Medill launched me on the path that led me to here. It was such a great time to be covering college sports at Northwestern — the Rose Bowl run was my sophomore year. Andy Bagnato, who was national college football writer at the Chicago Tribune at that time, was my Basic Writing teacher freshman year. I would end up going into much the same role he told us stories about. And the connections you make with Medill alumni are invaluable. My first internship out of college was at ESPN the Magazine, and I got it by meeting someone from another magazine at the Medill Job Fair who put me in touch with her friend who was an editor at ESPN the Magazine.
What’s one piece of advice you would give to current students who want to pursue a career in sports media?
Gain as much experience outside of the classroom as you can, whether that’s in student media, internships or freelance. And read — a lot. Identify writers whose styles you really admire and reach out to them. Most writers are happy to give advice to young journalists who show initiative.
Pictured above, Stewart Mandel (second from right), joins Rachel Nichols (BSJ95), Pete Thamel and Pat Fitzgerald for Medill’s 2012 Beyond the Box Score panel.