No matter how much we love sports or how appealing the idea of a sporting career is, our focus eventually shifts to academics because it is considered a safe bet !

Rohan Alvares, our next pathbreaker, Journalist at Times of India, works on the national news desk at The Times of India’s Mumbai bureau.

Rohan talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about grabbing his first opportunity to freelance for a sports tabloid and never looking back in his journey as a sports reporter covering global championships in Tennis, Rugby, Football, Golf, Motorsport.

For students, sometimes not having a plan could lead you to explore your interests and inclinations which in turn could be a game changer !

Rohan, Your background?

I was born in Bangalore, but grew up in Bombay. After my SSC exams, I took up PCM and eventually obtained my bachelor’s degree in physics. 

Physics was a subject that always fascinated me and there was a point when it did seem like a career option. However, this changed over the course of my degree. So, on completing my degree, I opted to do a Diploma in Business Management — the idea being it would serve as a premise for pursuing an MBA degree.

I come from a Mangalorean Catholic family and both my parents represent a healthy balance between tradition and the evolving nature of the modern world. In this regard, they were always very supporting and encouraging of whatever choices my two brothers and I made.  

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

I studied for my bachelors degree (Physics) at St Xavier’s College, Mumbai. As mentioned above, towards the end of my three-year programme, I realised it was not something I could see myself enjoying as a career choice after all! So I opted to study for a 1 year diploma in Business Management. 

What made you choose such an offbeat, unconventional and unusual career?

It was during this 1 year diploma course, when i was 21-22, when the idea of making a career in sport first really hit me, simply because sport was, is, and will forever be something that I derive a great deal of happiness from. 

I had played sports throughout school and college – football and tennis were two sports particularly dear to me and I found the idea of a sporting career extremely appealing.

I don’t know if I could call him a key influencer, but there was an English football anchor by the name of John Dykes. He would usually be the face of the English Premier League for Indian cable viewers and it was when a friend once remarked, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to have a job like that? Where you get paid to talk about something you love’, that the seed was sown. This line of thought certainly evolved enough in my case to the point where I didn’t think twice about taking up an opportunity to freelance for MidDay — a role which required me to report on inter-school and grassroot level sport in Bombay.    

How did you make a transition to a career in sports? Tell us about your career path

I didn’t really plan anything, to be honest. As I have described above, I was someone who didn’t know what he really wanted to do until I was about 21-22. When I got the opportunity to freelance for a popular city tabloid, I grabbed it. Though I had thought about registering for a journalism course, i appreciated the advice of a family friend, an advertising professional, who told me it would be more sensible to first take up a freelancing role which would help me understand if it was indeed something I was truly cut out for and enjoyed doing, rather than spending money on a programme which could end up going to waste if I later found out that journalism was not for me.

For someone who is very passionate about sport, this was a role/job that allowed me to express that passion. Like most journalists, I still vividly remember the thrill of seeing my byline appear in print for the very first time. 

Reporting on inter-school sport was, of course, hard work too. I would get paid per article that was published, so I had to soon endure some tough days when my work would go unpublished. A year or so into my stint with Mid Day, much as I had enjoyed what I was doing until then, I did begin to have a few doubts as to whether it truly was the career for me. I requested my sports editor to give me a little break from reporting and allow me to assist on the desk (to see how copies are subbed, pages are made etc). I enjoyed this side of the job as well, but about 15 months into my stint (Oct 2005), I felt I had gained enough of an understanding of how journalism worked. Therefore, I made a decision to take a break and return to studying. The course I had settled on? A Masters in Sport Management. The UK was my preferred destination and I invested a lot of my time over the next few months fulfilling the various formalities and paperwork needed to apply for admission to universities in the UK.

While all this was going on, my mother spotted an ad in the newspaper one day. The Gulf News company, based in Dubai, was hiring journalists for various posts. Though aware of my decision to return to studying, she encouraged me to apply for a job at Gulf News, saying there was no harm in just sending across my CV. I followed her advice and although I never harboured serious hope of something working out, after a couple of online interview tests, one fine day they contacted me saying they would like me to fly down for an interview. The 24-year-old rookie reporter in me willingly obliged and it was a meeting with one of the senior editors there that helped me pick the job over the Masters course which I was so actively preparing for. 

While the first year was obviously quite rough, being away from family and home indefinitely for the first time in my life, I gradually settled down and was able to leave a good impression on our chief editor as far as work was concerned. The best part of the role I was offered was, being the only sports reporter in a three-member sports team, I got to cover virtually everything under the sun. Apart from sports already familiar to me, it was also a great learning experience reporting on sports such as Rugby, Aussie Rules Football, Golf, Motorsport which I had only really seen a little bit of on TV.    

The event I probably most enjoyed reporting on was the annual Dubai Tennis Championships. It was a two-week event which began with the women’s tournament followed by the men’s tournament and would always attract the world’s top players. If you are someone who loves watching Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, Maria Sharapova, you can imagine not just getting to watch these stalwarts up close, but also interacting with them through round-table gatherings and press conferences. It was no different with golf where Tiger Woods was a massive draw at the Dubai Desert Classic, a European Tour event. Golf was a sport I had never really followed at all, but when you are in the presence of someone of Woods’ stature, you are just compelled to learn more about it. 

The UAE being a small country made up of 7 emirates, I often travelled outside Dubai for assignments. 2009 was particularly exciting as Abu Dhabi would not only host its inaugural edition of the Formula 1 Grand Prix, but the capital city of the UAE was also named the host for the Fifa Club World Cup for 2009 & 2010. I will forever consider myself blessed for being in the UAE at this point in time and getting to report on these two events. The Grand Prix was an amazing experience. Though Formula 1 is certainly a sport that can be better followed on TV, if you love the high-octane roar of an F1 car, then you need to be at the venue to truly appreciate it. One of my most cherished moments was meeting the manager of the legendary Michael Schumacher – Sabine Kehm. I asked her if she could help arrange an interview with Schumacher which she did on two occasions albeit over email. I would like to underline this as an example of how reporting on events helps you meet people crucial to your line of work. 

The Club World Cup was no different. This was a tournament arranged by Fifa to pit the club champions from the various continents against each other. Us reporters felt like we had won a lottery ticket at the 2009 edition because the European club champions that year just happened to be Pep Guardiola’s legendary Barcelona side starring Lionel Messi. They went on to win the trophy of course, with Messi producing some magic in the final against South American club champions Estudiantes, as he scored the winning goal in the second half offg extra time. I will never tire of telling people I was there!   

You would think it would be hard for my fortune to get better than that, but the following year, with Abu Dhabi again hosting the event, the European champions on this occasion would be Italian side Inter Milan – my all-time favourite football team. It was an absolutely surreal experience watching them win the trophy and be crowned Fifa Club World Champions!

These examples tell you why work was indeed a whole lot of fun for the five years I spent in the UAE, but for family reasons, I made a decision to return home to Bombay at the end of 2011. Having been away from the scene for five years, it was of course pretty tough for me to land a job as a sports journalist straight away. I therefore took up a public relations job at Adfactors who were handling a lot of sports accounts at the time such as NBA and Nimbus Sports.  

I soon realized PR was not for me and couldn’t continue beyond 10 months. Shortly after this, an opportunity to join Professional Management Group, a Sports Marketing & Content Syndication firm co-founded by cricket great Sunil Gavaskar, arose and I readily took this up as the job requirements aligned with my skills and experience as a journalist. In the two and a half years I worked at the company, I managed content in the form of ghostwriting columns for a number of sports stars while also developing content for some of the company’s clients.

Chris Gayle, Glenn McGrath, Anil Kumble, Rohit Sharma, Harbhajan Singh are some of the cricket icons I wrote for. I also wrote for former India hockey captain Dhanraj Pillay and badminton star Saina Nehwal.

To explain how ghostwriting works, this exercise actually is almost like doing a phone interview with the athlete. So I would choose certain talking points, frame questions around those, discuss these with the athlete and based on their inputs/answers, I would then frame the column in their voice and send it to them for their final approval after which, we as an agency would then syndicate it to the publications we had agreements with. Where the difference with journalism comes in is, as a journalist, I would of course have the liberty to ask controversial questions and I would use the inputs as part of my story which would appear under my byline. With ghostwriting, the athlete may or may not want to go into controversial topics (most Indian athletes especially take the safe route) because the article is the voice of the athlete and is published under the athlete’s byline.

Even so, this stint was instrumental in ultimately opening a door to a return to sports journalism which came about when I learnt that The Times of India were looking out for someone on their sports team. After successfully negotiating the hiring process, I was back to doing what I loved the most.  

How did you get your first break?

My first break in sports journalism came about when a family friend who was well known in the sporting fraternity told me about the opportunity to freelance for Mid Day.

What were some of the challenges you faced? How did you address them?

The key challenge I faced during my freelancing spell was dealing with the days when after going to the field, reporting on a match, returning to the office and filing a copy, I would eventually be told there was no space to carry it, or the report was not what the editor was looking for. Since the travel was all on my own expense at the time, it would feel like the day’s effort had all gone to waste. But you learn to take these things in your stride and as you mature, you realize this too contributes to your growth as a reporter. So I soon learned to think differently about how to report on the event I was covering. My editor was looking for human interest stories as opposed to just stating what went on in a match, so this compelled me to think out of the box and with time, which helps you pick up a vital skill.

The other notable challenge in my career was returning to Bombay after my spell in the UAE. It was tough finding a job in sports journalism and so, with a few months having passed since I had relocated, no money coming in, and a family to support, I decided to take up the Public Relations job at Adfactors. It didn’t take very long for me to realize client servicing was something I just didn’t enjoy. As journalists, we work a lot with those in PR. Having now crossed over, what I was able to appreciate was what a challenging and thankless job it can be. Keeping both your client and the media happy is a complicated task. It eventually got to me and I reached a point where I resigned even though I had not secured another job. This is something I wouldn’t advise, for sure, but when I think back to my mental state at the time, I felt I had nothing more to give in that role and had reached a dead-end.

The third challenge I can think of is the most recent one I am dealing with. As I have mentioned, I took up journalism because I saw it as a chance to express my passion for sport. A year ago, however, with the print industry going through a rough time and the pandemic effect then kicking in, our pages were reduced as part of cost cutting measures and it soon reached a point where we had more people on our sports desk than required to bring out the edition. This led to a reshuffle of resources and I became a victim of sorts as the management moved me to the national news desk. In the beginning, it was really tough for me as I felt the frustration of not being able to do what I am good at and what I truly enjoy when it comes to journalism. I never imagined a year later, I would still be working on the national news desk, but by God’s grace, I have somehow adjusted to this shift even as I continue to miss writing on sport. I guess I just tried to focus on the positives – shorter hours, though they can be more intense than what a shift on the sports desk would be like. We begin work on the national news desk much later compared with sports, and the Work From Home model means no time spent travelling to office at the moment, so you have more time to spend with family and do other things as well.  

Tell us about your work as a journalist at The Times of India

Since last October, I have been working on the national news desk at The Times of India’s Mumbai bureau. My job basically requires me to go through the list of news stories for the day, edit a few stories (this happens occasionally) and then make pages. It’s no rocket science really; the skills one requires are

  1. Good command of the English language
  2. Ability to think creatively and quickly in fitting headlines and stories on the page
  3. Ability to work calmly under pressure since the newspaper business is all about delivering within tight deadlines

If you possess these skills, you have a head start, but I would say that a person truly interested in this profession can also pick up on the job and sharpen these skills with time. 

How does your work benefit society?

Our work benefits society when we are able to inform our readers about developments in society, the country and the world, in a transparent manner by being thorough with our research and reporting all the facts. Besides informing, we also play a part in educating the public and raising awareness about civic, social issues. For example, the threat of pollution – air, water, noise, gender equality etc!

As a sports correspondent, I would tell students that if you truly love sport – you watch it a lot, you talk about it with family and friends a lot, then few things in the professional world can match the thrill of getting paid to report and write on what others pay to watch. Keep in mind the profession may not be very rewarding financially, but when you have just had a chance to speak to a sports personality you grew up watching, or your childhood idol, or have assisted in breaking an important story that ends up becoming a hot topic of discussion among the public, the reward is of a different kind!  

Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!

It was one of the last stories I had written before I was moved to the national news desk. A colleague of mine from our Kolkata sports desk alerted me about a Mumbai based pro-golfer who, having become restless due to not being able to practice his sport, after the pandemic resulted in the closure of his local golf course, came up with an innovative idea of practicing on a grassy patch by the railway tracks close to his residence. This golfer had posted pics on his facebook account which my colleague happened to come across, and since I am based in Mumbai, he felt I was better placed to speak to the golfer about his quirky way of practicing. I did that and it resulted in a story which drew a lot of praise from several senior writers. Needless to say, I felt elated that I was able to do justice to the story. It provided me with the exact sort of thrill I described above. Attaching the story link here in case anyone would like to read it:

Your advice to students based on your experience?

Firstly, don’t get too disheartened or anxious if you aren’t yet sure about what you would like to do. Because, as I’ve shared from my own experience, you never know when you will figure it out or when it may suddenly dawn on you that THIS is what you were meant to do.

For students who find journalism fascinating and are considering it as a career choice, I would definitely advise you to look at the digital space for any opportunities because print media is definitely on the road to extinction. The earlier you are able to get a foothold in the digital world, the brighter your future is likely to be as a journalist. 

If you feel you have found your calling but happen to have a tough time finding your feet at the beginning, again, don’t get too disheartened. Don’t allow harsh feedback or strong criticism to deflate you. If you are passionate about whatever the job is, with time you will find your way.  

Future Plans?

I definitely want to return to writing/reporting on sport. Now that I am pushing 40, I am especially looking out for opportunities in digital media as that certainly looks the most secure way ahead as far as journalism is concerned. With football and tennis being the two sports I follow most closely, a content writing post with a reputed website dedicated to these two particular sports, like, or even the ATP Tour, would be a positive step at this stage in my career.