Getting to know our students during a master’s program is one thing. Watching their careers flourish afterward is a different kind of special. We recently caught up with Tim Bontemps to pick his brain about life at ESPN and what budding sports journalists can do to succeed in the highly competitive field.
Tim has worked for big names in the business, for those who don't know. Before ESPN, he held esteemed roles at The Washington Post and New York Post, providing daily NBA coverage for their print publications and websites.
What made you pursue a career in sports media?
As a kid, I loved sports and wanted to find a way to be part of them. I decided when I was ten that I wouldn't be good enough to be a professional athlete (though, to prove I was still delusional, I believed I would play both football and basketball at Michigan at the time), and so going to games for free would be the next best thing. From there, I never had any goal in mind beyond being a sports writer.
What does a day in the life look like for you as an NBA writer at ESPN?
It all depends on the day – which is both what makes this job so much fun, and what makes it a microcosm of today's journalism ecosystem. On the day I'm writing this Q&A, I will have done television, written a feature for ESPN.com and done multiple radio interviews. All of these things are daily parts of my job, and I need to be able to succeed at all of them in order to work at the company. And that is now the case no matter where you work; gone are the days where people just do radio, or just write for a newspaper, or just do television. Now, you have to be able to do it all.
What has been the highlight of your career to date?
For me, it's easily being able to have had the opportunity to work alongside my two idols in this business, Mike Vaccaro and Adrian Wojnarowski, at the New York Post and here at ESPN. When I was in college, I dreamed about getting the chance to just be at the same events as those guys – let alone working with them. But to be able to have been co-workers with both of them has been everything I could've hoped for, and then some.
Beyond that, I'm just thankful every day to be able to get paid to follow the ins and outs of the NBA. As someone who grew up on a farm, this sure beats herding cows.
Misinformation is a hot topic right now. How do you ensure your work is accurate and factual under such tight deadlines?
By following the processes and procedures that I began learning at the Jandoli School. Look, it doesn't matter if you're first if you're wrong. Obviously, the goal is to be first and to break the news. But you can't be first if you're not right. So, you have to make sure you have your facts nailed down before you can worry about beating anyone else to a story.
Like many things in life, people will remember your misses far more than your makes. So it's especially important that you make sure you have your facts nailed down before running with anything.
What does it take to be successful in sports journalism? Has anything surprised you that you can share with potential students?
Being willing to grind through unglamorous jobs to get where you want to go. Ask anyone who has spent a long time in the business – me included – and they all have stories of trying to figure out which of the two guys with the same number on a high school football team just ran for six yards, or keeping stats for those high school games in snow and rain storms, to name a couple of examples. In my case, I spent five years doing agate pages for the New York Post before I eventually got a chance to be a full-time reporter.
Especially in today's day and age, with the economic difficulties facing the industry, to succeed requires a level of grit and determination to power through what you don't want to do in order to get to the other side.
What has St. Bonaventure done for your career? How do alumni support graduates?
It has done everything for my career. If I hadn't gone to Bonaventure, I'm sure I'd be doing something else. Between the things I learned while I was in school, and the relationships I've made because of going there, it has made me into the person I am today, and has given me the career that I have today. From Vaccaro to Wojnarowski to Chris LaPlaca to Rachel Axon to Donna Ditota, to name just a few, it's both a wonderful place and a wonderful community.
And our alumni group is constantly trying to give back to present-day students. When I first connected with Vaccaro when I was a freshman, his only request was that I be willing to pay that willingness on his part forward to future students. I've done my best to do that, as has everyone I listed above and countless others. It's the people, and their love for this place, that make it as special as it is.
What excites you about the future? Where do you see the industry in 10 years?
I have no idea what the industry will look like in 10 years, and that's what makes it exciting. When I graduated from St. Bonaventure in 2007, podcasts had only just become a thing, and Twitter didn't even exist yet. Facebook was still in its infancy. Now, all of them are massive parts of daily life.
Just think about all of the possible innovations that will take place over the next 10-15 years. But, as I said, that's what is exciting to me – the new frontiers and possibilities that will be opened up by whatever direction things are taken in the future.
Do you have any advice on how to get into sports journalism for aspiring journalists?
Use Bonaventure's connections. Be willing to work anywhere and everywhere and grind your way through parts of the job you might not immediately want to do in order to get where you want to go. And, ultimately, be passionate about it! Sports are fun – have fun doing the job. I feel fortunate to be able to do this job every day, and always try to remember that when I get my day started.
But that also makes it a very competitive field, one more people are attempting to go into every day – in a shrinking job market and with more restrictions on access than ever before. Making it through all of that requires dedication and belief this is what you want to do. Be willing to pour yourself into it – even when not making much money or doing unglamorous things – as a result.
The best way to check out Tim’s work is by heading to his Twitter page or the NBA section on the ESPN website. Also, if you’re reading this, you might be interested in our Donna Ditota Q&A from last year. Donna was the first woman to be named New York Sportswriter of the Year in January - go Donna!