Mike Singer : Sportswriter for USA Today : Chicago, IL : 06.15
(Originally published June 2015 on Coaterak.com)
“Somewhere include this: ‘Once you get your foot in the door, wedge it in so no one can kick you out.’. And I also always tell myself that you make you own luck. Which could be the title. I dunno. I’m weird”
Mike Singer is a Chicago-based Sports writer/producer for USA Today, formerly of CBSSports and CSNChicago. A true Midwesterner at heart — starting Ohio and rotating from Madison, WI to Milwaukee and now in Chicago, he knows the ins and outs of sports media and the best coffee shops in Chicago to park for hours and bug the baristas.
Clarification: this is the REAL Mike Singer, be not mistaken. And if you’d like to follow his updates on twitter, go ahead and follow him @RealMikeSinger.
He gave us a glimpse into the life of a sportswriter during the NBA draft last week:
Interview with Mike Singer
WHOA-J: Decoding the Life of a Sportswriter with the Real Mike Singer
I first met Mike when he was a troll at the coffee shop I worked at on the West side of Chicago. He was one of those customers that would come in nearly everyday and stay for hours. I was hesitant about him at first, as I am with anyone who’s super outgoing right off the bat, and one by one my coworkers were like, “No, Mike’s a cool guy” and “He’s funny and not a doucebag. Not even anything like a frat guy”. I still remained skeptical and judgmental, hiding in the kitchen slicing mealy tomatoes to avoid him, until I actually had a conversation with him at the bar and I was won over. This is one of the good ones. I’m such a dummy. He gets it. You know? One of those people who get life. Needless to say, I told him I judged him at first and now think he’s the coolest and to never leave the Mug ever. (He couldn’t anyways, it was the only decent coffee shop near him…Trapped). Mike told us he was a sportswriter and since it’s all us artistic types working there, we couldn’t really comprehend what that meant, but it was cool. And we ended up talking about music, American injustices, and comedians instead anyways, which I think is what he liked about the Mug — we weren’t his bubble of sports media and didn’t care at all.
Mike and I will still keep in contact exchanging music suggestions (he’s friends with this awesome band called Moon Hooch — check em out) and when I started doing this project I wanted to dig a little deeper into how he actually came to be a sportswriter and what that’s like, especially for us sports media outsiders.
So I called Mike up when he was on his way from picking up his best friend who was coming in from Hawaii from the Chicago airport to talk about the mystery that is a sportswriters life and the new app he developed for USA Today Sports section:
[e]: Hey Mike! How’s it going? What’s new in your world? How’s that app going?
MS: Well, we officially launched the sports app in February, figuring out the best practices to program it. There were six programmers who worked on it and they essentially gave us the keys to the car and said “Don’t mess this up” — don’t make mistakes. Fortunately I haven’t made any mistakes yet. Given I work in the morning, I set the tone for the entire app. I’ll send out the alerts. I’ll set up how the articles are situated. I do the headlines, captions, photos, pair the stories next to each other, figure out which ones look good together. If I think a headline’s funny and no one else thinks it’s funny, too bad, I’m the one with the keys.
[e]: So…you’re like a curator of sports stories?
MS: Exactly. Since I already had an in with the [Chicago] Bulls as a sportswriter, I volunteered to head the Bulls coverage for USA Today and that’s kind of how media works. I drove to Milwaukee, Cleveland, while working on the app. Staying up till 2 in the morning. It was totally insane.
[e]: Sounds crazy.
MS: It was crazy. A crazy month. I don’t know how I didn’t get sick other than grapefruit juice. And coffee. This girl I was talking to was like — “That’s so much acid in your stomach”.
[e]: What are you up to today?
MS: I’m on my way to pick up my best friend from the airport — he lives in Hawaii. His brother is in town as well and we’re picking up his brother’s girlfriend who’s coming in from India. On top of that I’m coaching a private soccer lesson for these rich people who like me for some reason, in two hours. That’s a good microcosm of how I do shit — I’m always busy.
[e]: Seems like it. So, tell me, how did you get into sportswriting, in short?
MS: Hm. Sophomore year of college I remember not having a major. I remember watching football games and having pretty strong opinions of how the broadcast was. I thought of a phrase today — “the mechanics of media”. I like studying how media works just as much as reporting itself. I remember thinking similar things to what the announcers were saying at the exact same time and wondering if my opinions were valid. I went to the school newspaper and they let me be a writer for the women’s softball team which was the worst gig ever. The team was awful. The coach was a witch. I was the beat writer. I volunteered to do track reportage, golf, football, you name it, I tried it. Senior year I wrote a thesis about ESPN — a big 60 page paper — I talked to a lot of really good sources for it. I didn’t realize at the time but I was making contacts with people that would benefit me after school. I ended up applying for a job with CBS sports with college basketball. I told him — listen, I’m flexible. I can go anywhere you need me to go. That coupled with my thesis made a difference. He wrote back, “How’s Milwaukee?” I said that’s great. I was in Madison [Wisconsin] so it was great. In covering Marquette basketball I happened to cross paths with Bill Clinton and Muhammad Ali. It was crazy.
I covered the world cup last year from my apartment. I’m sitting in my apartment, deceiving everyone, and go on air in my steamy apartment. (I say steamy because I didn’t have AC during that Chicago summer). I did an interview with Pele [Brazilian soccer player]. His daughter was doing a profile on her dad for the world cup. It was so hot in my apartment. I think I talked to him in my underwear. Listening to Pele, recording it, and trying to get all I could. My apartment was so small, next to the alleyway, and I was so scared that the garbage truck was going to pick up garbage and ruin the interview. But it didn’t. I got it all.
Anyways, you make your own luck. Once you get an opportunity, seize it. When I was younger I used to do this shit, too. I used to go to sports games and somehow weasel my way into stuff, I’ve been doing this for fucking ever is what I’m trying to say.
It’s a strange thing to have your favorite thing be your job. I’m very fortunate. But the downside is that it never ends — there’s no “off season”. There’s always going to be more sports. It gets a little bit draining and daunting.
[e]: What do you feel like is a strength you have that makes you suited for this job?
MS: I know that I’m a good networker. My favorite networking story is about this reporter Brian Windhorst -from Cleveland and ESPN. I got in touch with him, knew he was getting married, texted him to give me an address because I wanted to give him a gift. He replied back — “Ok, but no more than $5”. My dad likes going to bookstores to see if there are any signed books. So we went and we found this book signed by Bill Russell, one of the best basketball players. So my dad buys the book for $1.50. I mean — signed by one of the greatest players of all time! So I end up sending this book to my favorite reporter for his wedding, and it only cost $1.50 but it still resonated.
[e]: I know we’re short on time, but could you explain to me what “WOJ” is? you mentioned it in your pages, but can you expound on that person?
MS: It’s pronounced “Whoa-J”. Adrian Wojnarowski [click for link to understand a bit more in this GQ article]. He’s the best reporter — the first guy who knows a couple seconds before anyone else who’s getting drafted, what’s happening…etc. Which is why I mentioned that tweet. I didn’t know if it would just be an insiders joke to sports media.
[e]: [I hear airport terminal sounds] Well, it looks like you have to get going.
MS: Well, I just wanted to loop it back around to say that’s how I got started. I had not intention. I just started volunteering until people trusted me. You volunteer and prove you can do it and then they’ll rely on you and then they have to pay you. Get into relationships with the players..etc see where it goes. It’s like a crash course in how to handle everything. I also meant to include this: Half the time I would be listening to what the players are doing during a game and the other half I would be listening to the best reporters and emulating them. Who knows? TV might be next step. I just have to get comfortable cuz i don’t know what the hell i’m doing. Maybe someone will put me on television later, or iIll say something stupid and that will be that. On TV you can’t backtrack. Writing is easier. You can verify, you can check.
[e]: One last question: What is your definition of a “good life”?
S: Hm. The funny thing is that my best friend just came in from Hawaii and I just said what’s up to him. So I would say the definition of that is to be well rounded and have enough friends — not too many, cuz life’s too full and short for that — and to take care of the ones you do have.
[e]: Well, that sounds good to me.