This interview is presented to you by the University of Nebraska — Lincoln Master of Arts in Business with a Specialization in Intercollegiate Athletics Administration.
By: D.J. Podgorny, @DJPodgorny
If you’re active on the waiver wire in fantasy football or just an avid NFL fan in general, chances are that you are familiar with Ian Rapoport. Rapoport, National Insider for the NFL Network, is among the best in the game at breaking stories across all facets of football.
Whether it’s being the first on the scene to report front office shakeups, trade rumors or injuries around the league, fans rely on Rapoport to bring them accurate information day in and day out. With an impeccable ability to lead the charge on the most substantive headlines, he has earned the trust of his followers and climbed the ladder to be among the NFL’s most iconic journalists.
While Rapoport is certainly among the elite in sports journalism today, reporting wasn’t always his expected career path. Rapoport enrolled at Columbia University, majoring in history. Upon entering college, Rapoport aimed to become a lawyer and walk onto Columbia’s baseball team.
Ultimately though, it was rowing and writing that he was drawn to. Rapoport was a member of the lightweight crew team and a sports writer for the Columbia Daily Spectator for four years. It was during his time at the Spectator that Rapoport discovered his passion for journalism.
“As soon as I started writing at the Spectator, I knew this was what I wanted to be. I stopped wanting to be a lawyer and started focusing on how to get into journalism, knowing that was what I wanted to do after I graduated.”
“I love telling stories. I like telling people something interesting that they’ve never heard before.”
“In college, it was cool because your face was in the daily paper and people read it, so people on campus recognize you. I liked that and getting to know some of the people I covered. But mostly, I liked telling stories.”
After proving himself to his peers on the staff, Rapoport earned the role as Associate Sports Editor for the student paper. In this role, Rapoport was responsible for ‘putting the paper to bed,’ one night a week. This meant he would stay in the office until 2:30 a.m. to complete the paper, just to wake up a few hours later for 6:00 a.m. rowing practice.
The hard work definitely paid off, as Rapoport was able to land a prestigious internship at ESPN. In the summer between his junior and senior year at Columbia, Rapoport worked on ESPN Classic, learning about television production firsthand.
After graduating from Columbia, Rapoport sent out a whopping 311 applications to papers all over the country. These efforts netted him just two interviews and one job offer. Rapoport joined The Journal News in Westchester, New York and spent two years there covering local high school sports and writing round-ups.
After being passed up for a full-time job at The Journal News, Rapoport was back on the grind to look for another opportunity. With the help of his editor at the time, Rapoport applied to an opening at the Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Mississippi to cover Mississippi State athletics.
Single and 24, Rapoport had no reservations moving to Starkville, Mississippi: a college town virtually no other reporters wanted to relocate to. Despite his lack of knowledge of the SEC or confidence in landing the position, Rapoport was selected for the job and headed south to cover the Bulldogs.
After a successful two years in Starkville — a time that included meeting his future wife — Rapoport moved 90 miles down the road to Tuscaloosa to cover Alabama. By all accounts, reporting on the Crimson Tide was a normal college assignment. That was, until Nick Saban was hired.
“When Saban got hired in 2007, my world went absolutely crazy. That’s still the hardest job I’ve ever done, but it was cool because everybody would read it. When Nick Saban speaks, everyone wants to know what he is saying. Covering him was crazy, intense and unbelievable.”
Rapoport spent three years working as the beat reporter for Alabama athletics, when an opening for the Boston Herald caught his eye. The position of beat reporter for the New England Patriots was on the table and Rapoport threw his hat into the ring.
While the role specifically required NFL experience, Rapoport leveraged his time with Nick Saban and the Crimson Tide as a framework for how he would cover Coach Bill Belichick and the Patriots. After sending a long email to the editors at the Herald explaining his case, Rapoport landed the interview and was hired four months later.
“I’ve gotten a lot of jobs that I didn’t think I was qualified for. There was a lot of luck involved and I was fortunate to have a bunch of editors that were willing to take a real chance on someone who didn’t deserve it.”
Rapoport settled into Boston on the beat for the Patriots for another three years. Then, at Super Bowl XLVI, where Rapoport was covering the Patriots as they took on the New York Giants, he received a call from the NFL Network. Some of the executives wanted to meet with him.
“The NFL Network interviews a lot of people at the Super Bowl. I sat down in the conference room, not even dressed for an interview, wearing jeans and a sweater. I sat down for an hour while they fired questions at me about the Patriots, journalism, reporting, my background, what I would do in certain situations, just question after question.”
At the conclusion of the interview, Rapoport still didn’t have a firm grasp on why they had summoned him. But, after wrapping up the interview, the executives explained: they were looking to hire a new TV reporter. And they were very interested in Rapoport.
“I remember leaving there and calling my wife, explaining to her that we might get a new job. I told her, ‘I know this is crazy and that they interview a lot of people, but I’m telling you something just happened and I think we may have to move.’”
Sure enough, the NFL Network was impressed and hired Rapoport to become an on-air field reporter. The Rapoport family moved from Boston to Dallas for the new job. After about a year on the sidelines, Rapoport was promoted to NFL Insider, the role he is best known for today.
In a career filled with constant moves and consistent promotion, Rapoport seems to have figured out the secret to advancing quickly. According to him, his success in the sports journalism arena can be chalked up to one important factor: competitiveness.
“So much of what I have done is to prevent that awful feeling of losing; it’s a total fear of sucking.”
“I hate losing. I hate getting beat. I hate watching other people have stories that I didn’t have or be behind the news. I hate it. I like when I break a story, especially a really big one, that’s an awesome feeling. I hate losing way, way more.”
With a tenacious nature and a passion for learning, Rapoport has been able to not only land job after job, but also operate at the highest of levels time and time again.
“Each one of these jobs takes so long to figure out. Probably, each job, it takes about a year to have any idea what you’re doing. As an NFL Network insider, it took me two good years. So I study, look around and try to figure out where information comes from and what the stories are each day. Then it’s about understanding what the next big story will be tomorrow and getting in front of it.”
“There is a lot of studying my competitors to find out how to operate and developing how I would do it. I tend to do my job differently from a lot of people, but it’s really important to sit back and really figure things out, as opposed to jumping in and thinking you know what you’re doing. I have taken a lot of jobs where I didn’t know what I was doing at all, so I’ve had to analyze how others have done it, how I would ideally do it and put all of that together to come up with a methodology.”
One of the keys to Rapoport’s success as an insider has been his ability to connect with a broad range of sources to land important information. He gives these tips for aspiring journalists looking to replicate this success:
“Figure out who to talk to. Spend some time say, ‘Who is going to know this information?’ This isn’t limited to scoop reporting, it’s even important in writing features. If you are writing a profile on a player, you need to figure out who the best source of information to tell you something that no one has heard on this player. Broaden your horizons. Identifying sources is one of the most valuable things and, a lot of times, it’s places you wouldn’t imagine. No source is too small. You never know who can help you or who you can help.”
So, for someone like Rapoport, at one of the highest ranks of the sports journalism community, what’s next?
“I want to get in a situation where people are walking by a TV in a cafeteria or a bar, they see my face, and they stop and listen because they wonder what I have to say. That’s where I want to get to. That’s what gets me to make phone calls, meet people, and do whatever I have to do to break stories. I want to create that dynamic.”
Rapoport had these words of advice for young professionals interested in pursuing a career in journalism:
“We’re past the time where people thought journalism was dying. Ten years ago, that’s what everyone thought. The reality is there’s probably more jobs than ever, they are just different jobs. Maybe not newspapers, but there a lot of websites that take journalism very seriously. The industry is not dying, it’s just different. My advice would be to just write and report.”
“It’s all about reporting. If you tell people something they don’t know, there will be a place for you somewhere.”
“Whatever you end up being, whether it’s a newspaper guy, radio, someone on TV or a Snapchat reporter, it’s all about reporting. If you tell people something they don’t know, there will be a place for you somewhere. There is insane value in that. Focus on the reporting and the writing and good jobs and places will find you.”
Front Office Sports is proud to have spoken with Ian Rapoport. We would like to thank him for his time and insight and we wish him the best on all future endeavors. You can follow with him on Twitter for the latest on all NFL news.