Alex Stewart | Senior Content Strategist, UK Video for The Athletic
Our next guest is Senior Content Strategist, UK Video for The Athletic, Alex Stewart.
Tell us about yourself, what you currently do and how did you end up where you are right now?
I joined Tifo full time in 2018, having worked in various freelance jobs in sport and also as a digital strategist for a coffee app. Prior to that, I was a research academic in the field of medieval English and I spent almost six years in the Metropolitan Police as a front-line officer. It was a slightly random jump into sports writing, but when I resigned from the Met in 2014, I knew it was something I wanted to try having worked in student journalism before, and being interested in sport generally, and football specifically.
My role at Tifo was to provide content but also help monetise the business and develop a strategy for our development with the then owner Neil Klerck and Joe Devine, who is my boss at Tifo and the brains behind the enterprise. We sold in early 2020 to The Athletic, having already worked with them in a commercial partnership. Now, I focus on coming up with interesting ideas for videos and producing scripts on tactics and analytics, as well as appearing on our twice weekly podcast.
When did you know you wanted to work in football?
Prior to leaving my old job, I had actually started a blog called Put Niels in Goal, named after the physicist who was also a goalkeeper for a Danish side called Akademisk Boldklub. I looked at niche overlaps between sport and culture, and it was very much a thing to do in my time off because I enjoyed it.
I was spurred on by the publication (10 years ago on March 4th) of Jonathan Wilson’s The Blizzard magazine, which provided a model for how you could write about football in a long-form, but not book-length, way that was interesting, almost academic at times, and wider than just what happened on the pitch. Through The Blizzard I started looking into Wilson’s work more widely, and discovered Inverting the Pyramid, at about the same time as tactics writing more generally was becoming popular. I’ve always had a good nose for patterns and a strong visual memory, so it seemed like a good area to go into. I was also a proper Football Manager nerd, so tactics was something I was used to thinking about.
As Senior Content Strategist at The Athletic, what does a normal week look like for you?
It’s fixed around the podcasts, which are now on a Monday and Thursday, and script submissions, so I spend a lot of time watching games for those. In between times, I’m writing or reading — that might be blogs, books, or browsing Twitter for visualisations that are interesting, or players to keep an eye on.
I’m also currently doing a Football Manager series for The Athletic with Iain Macintosh, who I wrote another one with when he was running The Set Pieces, and I occasionally contribute written content for The Athletic’s site.
Joe, Seb Stafford-Bloor, and I have pretty regular meetings where we discuss video ideas, and we work collaboratively to go through each other’s work; there’s also a very active WhatsApp group including our podcast producer Adonis which yields lots of ideas for content. Everything we do at Tifo is very discursive: Joe ultimately steers things, but it’s an open forum where everyone chips in.
I also work with Alice, who runs our design team, on longer term ideas around how we can present information in the videos; basically, while we all have jobs with titles, everyone talks to everyone else so that we can turn out the best possible stuff.
What is the most enjoyable part of your role?
As a tactics nerd, I like watching teams and spotting something interesting that we can then share with our audience. I get a lot of satisfaction from viewers who say they’ve come away with a better understanding of something because of our videos. I’m not a coach, and I don’t want to work in the professional game; my interest is in communicating things so that people can hopefully enhance their understanding of what they are seeing on the pitch and follow the same path of interest that I did.
What is the most difficult part of your role?
Volume: there is too much football to keep track of and at the moment, especially, it feels like it’s never not happening. It can be stressful and, while I’m not really complaining, there is a difference between work and down-time. Especially in the pandemic, this seems like a much harder thing to navigate, but also, as any freelancer knows, shutting off is difficult anyway. Having spent time as a freelancer I think that mentality sticks with you a bit. People need to work hard to get a balance between work and not-work but in football, that can be really tricky.
You were a freelance writer for several publications including The Guardian and BBC Sport. Can you tell us more about this experience and your thoughts on the current freelance market for football writers?
Freelancing is a tough gig. I never really cracked it, in truth, and I was fortunate that having met Joe through a podcast I was able to land the job at Tifo. I think there’s soo much to balance: yes, you have to be good at writing and generating ideas, but there’s also a lot of admin, especially around invoices and tax. As I’ve said, the pressure to be constantly available and constantly thinking about work, which is deeply unhealthy, is hard to work around and requires experience and strong boundaries. Companies don’t help this but creating stress around late payments.
What general advice would you give to those individuals looking to pursue a career whether in video/content production or football writing? What are the key skills required?
With regards to my last point above: know your rights. Know what the payment terms are and don’t work for free. Internships are exploitative and entrench privilege. Otherwise, build a good network. Advice and contacts are extremely helpful, and you can build quite a good reputation quickly by delivering on time and being pleasant to work with. The key currency of freelancing is ideas and how you pitch them; work out what sort of stuff where you’re pitching to takes, and try to build a dialogue with editors to hone your work and get a better sense of what they’re looking for. Don’t take rejection personally, because it isn’t.
Twitter can be helpful for promotion and networking, but don’t get sucked into it and spend too long chatting or browsing. Also, try to be professional at all times on social media — you could be a great writer but if you keep getting into spats online then that might make you seem unreliable or reputationally dangerous to work with.
In terms of writing or making videos, consumption is hugely important. Read and watch widely, and try to figure out what you like and how it’s done. There are some great tutorials for technical video stuff out there too, and kind people on social media who explain how to create visualisations and so on. You can learn an awful for free via YouTube or these sorts of explainers, so don’t feel you need to rush off an invest lots in paid-for training.
Practice, share your work, whether it’s on a blog or on Twitter, but don’t give everything away or no one needs to pay you!
Where do you see your career in the future? Are there any specific objectives you hope to achieve?
I am currently just looking forward to the Euros. We have some big plans for our coverage and it should be really exciting. Beyond that, just trying to make great videos, grow Tifo, and keep learning more about how football works. There’s always something new to figure out, and that’s what keeps it interesting.
And finally Alex, where can people find you on social media?
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