The landscape of sports journalism has rapidly transformed over the last decade. At the forefront of this change is The Athletic, a subscription-based platform covering sports news from around the world. Founded only five years ago in 2016, the company has quickly expanded to become one of the most reputable sources around, positioning itself as a hub for some of the most talented writers the world of sports journalism has to offer. Despite his hectic schedule, I was able to speak to Michael Bailey, Norwich City correspondent for The Athletic.
Mr Bailey’s route into sports journalism is unique. “I didn’t go to university”, he tells me. “When I left sixth form I just wanted to get a job and try to become a singer/songwriter musician, so that’s what I did for three or four years”. Though he initially followed a passion for music, Mr Bailey tells me that from an early age there had always been a love for football and journalism: “I used to write match reports for friends and keep stats… I would pretend I was hosting radio shows, football and all sorts, when I was growing up”. It would eventually be this route, not music, which he would decide to follow. He applied for many jobs and attended many interviews, “most of which didn’t go very well”, he says, before eventually applying for two roles with Archant (owners of the Eastern Daily Press and Norwich Evening news among others) in Norwich. He applied for positions as a sports writer and news reporter trainee, doing “both interviews together, which [he] wasn’t expecting” before being “offered the sports job”. Growing up in Spixworth, just north of Norwich, and being a Canary fan his entire life (with a short spell having Liverpool as a second teamin his teen years) Mr Bailey was home.
Joining in 2007, he would spend 12 years with Archant before eventually being headhunted by an up and coming company called The Athletic. “I have to be honest, I wasn’t really aware of what it was initially”, he tells me. “I never thought they would be going around hoovering up a lot of writers that I had huge respect for [and] that one of them would end up being me”. Following Norwich City’s promotion to the Premier League in 2019, he was offered the role of correspondent: “in that instance I felt very lucky… but it was only when I started working there, we launched, and after the reaction it got and the reputation it’s got now… [I began] to fully appreciate the move I had made and the opportunity I had been given… I’m still really appreciative of that now”.
The Athletic’s rise has proven that “if you do something good enough, people will pay for it”. Upon announcing his arrival at the company, Mr Bailey says he received some messages from people saying they liked his content, but wouldn’t be paying to read it: “having spent 12 years reading my stuff for free [at Archant], why would they bother paying to read it?” He believes this mindset, which was widespread at the time, only goes further in highlighting the impressive rise of The Athletic: “it’s got a million subscribers and it only started five years ago. It’s shown that if you write interesting enough articles, and write them properly with time to research, rather than churning whatever the news cycle is that day, then people will value that and understand… that it’s worth it”. He admits not everyone will be willing to pay for their content, but “the key is that enough people will to prove worthwhile, which I think has been proven… we’re always trying to evolve and [that’s appealing] because it transcends a lot of ages and demographics”.
Following the outbreak of the covid-19 pandemic, the world of sports has faced significant challenges, as has the world of sports journalism. After the suspension of all professional sports in England on March 13th 2020, Project Restart brought about the return of football on June 17th. “After this there were passes made available to journalists and broadcasters for every game”, says Mr Bailey. “I think there has been only one [competitive] game where I couldn’t get a pass, which was Chelsea last season. But I watched it on telly and brushed it off really”. He says the restriction for reporters is more in terms of access: “rather than a post-match press conference in a room, it will usually be over Zoom – even though you’re in the stadium together”. “You might get a face to face with a player or Daniel Farke [Norwich City’s manager]”, he says, “but it will be socially distanced”.
However, the biggest thing missing from football throughout the pandemic has been supporters. “It’s different and sterile”, says Mr Bailey. “You only have to look at the odd clip of things before the pandemic and you remember how good it was… you start to remember how this isn’t really the same”. From Norwich’s perspective, he adds: “they are having one of their best ever seasons, it may well be their best ever season at this level, and they’ve done it with pretty much no fans… the emotional relationships that supporters create with the players are missing because they haven’t been here”. Alongside this, teams have taken a significant financial hit as a result of missing supporters: “it’s like a theatre putting on a play with all the costs, but there’s no one actually in there watching it”. Despite this, given the current circumstances Mr Bailey is keen to point out it has “all been necessary” for the safety and well-being of everyone involved: “needs must really… it is what it is”.
Hailing from a family of Canary fans, Mr Bailey has seen many ups and downs alongside many memorable moments. “It’s hard to pin point just one that stands out”, he says. “I would say that the 7-1 [loss] against Colchester was the most mind-blowing”. Following relegation the season before, Norwich’s 09/10 season in League 1 saw an opening day defeat to the Essex club that became the club’s worst ever home defeat in their 107-year history. “The whole game was a blur”, says Mr Bailey. “It was so hard because you have to try to cover this event and there are no words… I literally didn’t know what I’d just seen”. The shadow of this defeat would soon be lifted, however, with the club finishing the 09/10 season as champions, amounting a club record total of 95 points before following this up with promotion to the Premier League the following season. The Canaries have since yoyoed between the first and second tiers of English football, and are now looking set to finish this season as champions, once again regaining their status in the top flight.
It was Norwich’s most recent return to the Premier League that gave Mr Bailey what he describes as a “very special moment”. That year, City stormed their way to the Championship title, culminating in a 2-1 win over Aston Villa on the final day. “My dad was a big Norwich fan and we lost him earlier that season”, says Mr Bailey. “That had made quite a profound impact on a lot of my feelings that year”. He remembers “alternating between the players celebrating on the pitch with the trophy and the 3,000 fans behind lapping it all up”. “I don’t think I’ll ever forget it”, he adds. “It’s all out there on video so it’s nice it’s been immortalised”.
As he looks back over his time covering the club, he praises their treatment of journalists: “there’s an element of class that comes from carrying yourself well regardless of the result. I think, given what Norwich are trying to do and how they try to put themselves across culturally, I think that’s even more important for them”. Managers, however, “are a different breed”. He details his experience with former head coach Paul Lambert who would “be much more uptight and agitated when Norwich had won, and when they had lost he would be much more calm, considered, and charming, almost because he needed you on side”. In contrast, there is one figure Mr Bailey singles out for exceptional praise: current head coach Daniel Farke. “[He] is the most level headed manager I think I’ve ever come across”, he says. “He’s incredibly animated on the touchline [so] it’s remarkable how he manages to dial it down when talking to us… regardless of the result it’s a joy to work as a journalist with him”.
Mr Bailey’s role means he has a busy working life, and he has “an amazing family who are hugely supportive” of his career. As our interview comes to a close, Mr Bailey asserts: “there is nothing I would change [about my career]… I feel incredibly fortunate”. All he would add is: “if I had written three or four albums that had led to me touring the country and the world playing to huge stadiums that would’ve been quite good too”.