Sportswriting, like any other writing form, has its basic articles, each with something of a set-piece format. There's the event summary piece (what it sounds like), the sidebar (commentary on the event/person), the column (opinion), notes/quick hits, and the feature article about someone or something.
I was lucky enough to spend nearly 4 years as a sportswriter for the Daily Bruin as a UCLA undergrad, and cut my teeth as a sportswriter by finding my way through these varying motifs. All allow for tremendous creativity and flexibility, and can be really fun to put together. The summary, sidebar, and notes items provided a bit less of this, but are still a blast because they are usually done during or directly after an event (usually on deadline). The opinion piece is also rewarding, because you can let your personality out a bit (and get your pic in the paper)
The feature article; however, is the one that is far and away the most challenging for a sportswriter, and therefore, the most rewarding and revealing for readers. In a feature, the idea is to take a focal point, most commonly an athlete, and dissect it along a specific theme. This allows the reader to get a unique and clear picture about a particular facet of something or someone otherwise unreachable.
Just like any other part of sportswriting, features can, and most often do, come across as rote and formulaic. It goes like this: meet athlete in context of event, quote athlete/teammates/coaches, discuss event, go back in time to childhood and upbringing, more quotes, usually from family, back to event or issue in question, wrap-up.
Next time you're reading a feature in the paper, online, or in the pages of Sports Illustrated, put this formula to the test, usually it's pretty accurate. There's nothing wrong with using this approach, because the article should give the reader some insight into the subject, and if it's a wide scope, no problem.
Example #1: this week's Sports Illustrated, with Josh Hamilton on the cover. The inside feature of this athlete by Albert Chen takes us into his current baseball heroics, then his past drug addiction, then back to his youth as a phenom, then into his spiral, then what he's doing now. A solid biographical sketch, but nothing that merits a re-read, that's for sure.
The features that truly transcend, that win awards, that demand to be reread; however, are those that don't just give the broad strokes. No, they are the pieces that take a specific, tantalizing part of an athlete and really break it down. In doing this, the reader can discover something about the athlete, good or bad, and have it presented in specific relief.
Not only does this more focused approach give a more intriguing and interesting story, but teases out much better quotes. When you ask someone the standard stuff, you get the standard platitudes, but when you're going down a certain theme, you get the true personality.
Put this in the hands of a capable writer, and you get example #2: same issue of SI, Chris Ballard's feature of Kobe Bryant. This article doesn't take a wide approach, covering the big points in his career (growing up in Italy, NBA out of high school, NBA championships, rivalry with Shaq, sexual assault charges, trade demands, etc). What this article does is, it examines his competitive nature. It takes us into what make this sports megastar click. Each piece of his life is examined, but to tell this specific story. High school teammates, scouts, rivals, coaches, they all get to tell their stories about Kobe's incredible competitive drive.
You finish the story not with the biography of Kobe Bryant, but with a new insight into what drives him and how he stays at such a high level. Most importantly, the article has such refreshing information, quotes, and perspective that it leaves you wanting more, thus the need to re-read the piece.
Pick up this week's SI, and read the articles back to back, first Hamilton, then Bryant. I think you'll see what I mean. I know Bryant better than ever, but Hamilton feels like a wikipedia entry. I wanted to know the nitty gritty about his recovery, what worked, what didn't, the lessons, the tattoos, the things he says when he speaks to recovering addicts.
I want him to be personalized, to become someone anyone can identify with, at least on some level. Ballard's Bryant piece does that with this megastar, and that's what pulls readers back for more.
Our athletes are at such a high plane in all respects that we often feel quite detached. The truly excellent feature will close that gap, and help us feel like we know the person we're rooting for (or against for that matter), and not just the larger-than-life athlete.