A life in sports reporting: The BBC’s Dan Roan

Paul Hyland 20 November 2015

‘My dream was to be reporting on the Ten o’clock news,’ says Dan Roan, Cambridge alumnus and Sport Editor at the BBC.  ‘I just wanted to cover stories for the BBC.  I didn’t think sport at that point, I just wanted to cover news.’ 

An active student journalist, graduating Cambridge with a degree in Social and Political Sciences in 1998, Roan joined the BBC Trainee Scheme the same year, and found himself quickly moving up. Stints at regional news programs, such as Look North and North of Westminster followed, along with the opportunity to report on TV and radio for the very first time.

So how did this self-confessed lover of political journalism find himself dedicating a career to sport?

‘‘In ’03 when I applied to join Sky News as a junior reporter.  I didn’t quite get it, but Sky Sports News were interested  In 2003 I left ‘the Beeb’ and went to be a reporter with Sky Sports News.  I loved it.  Within three years of starting I was going to the World Cup in Germany.’ Roan, who describes himself as a born generalist, which set him up for a career in journalism, credits his political education and background in regional news as giving him edge over other sports reporters: ‘A lot of sports journalists are really just sports fans.  I was able to focus on the politics of sport, not just the sport itself.  There was news about FIFA, corruption, legal cases, and I was the only one really passionate about that.  I really do think that it’s because I’d been a news journalist before.’

One of sports journalism’s greatest challenges, I suggest, is to show that sport is not just the afterthought at the end of the paper, and that the back page can be just as newsworthy as the front.  Sentiments shared, emphatically, by Roan:

‘There’s no doubt it’s a challenge to explain why sport’s not just the thing that comes at the back of the newspaper.  People are beginning to realise and appreciate just how relevant sport is and how it isn’t just about escapisms. This year, I think I’ve done the lead story on the 6/10 news probably about fifteen times already.  I’ve never known that before.’  

Indeed the last twelve months have forced sport increasingly away from the back pages and towards the front.  FIFA scandal came to head this year with arrests of FIFA officials in May and criminal proceedings against Sepp Blatter.  Ched Evans’ release from prison twelve months ago launched national debate about the nature of our justice system.  Lance Armstrong accepted charges of doping in 2013, and admitted in an interview with Roan earlier this year that ‘he’d probably do it again.’  ‘I think sport is just so rich in its narratives and having the responsibilities to help tell those stories is a real privilege,’ Roan says.

It’s a privilege, though, that entails a significant set of responsibilities.  His experience of the World Cup in Germany brings me to ask about the World Cup in Brazil.  Brazil, I argue, neither wanted nor needed the tournament.  Could it ever feel conflicted to report on the sport against a backdrop of civil unrest?

‘I didn’t feel conflicted as a reporter.  We went to interview people who didn’t want the World Cup there.  We went to show a favela, where there was great poverty and made the point that there were many people who would have preferred all the funds spent on the most expensive World Cup in history to be spent alleviating poverty.

‘One thing I’m deadly serious about is never being a cheerleader for sports events.  We always have to hold those in power to account.’

One of the sporting powers doing all it can to avoid being held to account, as ever, is FIFA.  As the new presidential candidates ready their campaigns to replace Sepp Blatter, currently under investigation for a ‘disloyal payment’ to UEFA Chief, Michel Platini,  I ask whether the shroud of secrecy around the ongoing FIFA scandal is frustrating, and whether he shares my fears that February’s election might throw football out of the frying pan and into the fire.

‘Without a doubt.  Last week FIFA held an executive committee meeting and didn’t even hold a press conference at the end of it.  Many believe that the best way of proceeding is to have a clean start, and there’s definitely a fear among many of us that removing Blatter isn’t going to be the panacea of football’s problems.’  Yet his fears give way to a cautiously optimistic view of FIFA’s future: ‘They are reforming.  They’re introducing term limits, greater transparency and accountability.  It’s certainly a pivotal moment.  I think FIFA’s travails have come to symbolise a tipping point for sport.  It goes so far beyond football.’

Closer to home, the BBC’s recent Price of Football report hints at another tipping point.  It found that the majority of ticket prices the Premier League were either frozen or reduced since the publication of the equivalent report in 2014.  This has coincided with greater activity on behalf of the fans, as the ‘Twenty’s Plenty’ campaign, headed by the Football Supporters’ Federation, has gained a head of steam in advocating for league clubs to mutually agree on a significant reduction in the price of entering the stadium.  Why, though, does the price of football debate merit so much attention?

‘One the one hand, you can see football clubs like any other business,’ he suggests, ‘And we’re free to either pay the prices or not – it’s our choice.  On the other hand, sport isn’t like any other business.  We’re brought up supporting a team; it’s part of who you are.  Sport is different because it’s rooted in its community.  That’s the whole point.  So there needs to be some sort of intervention.’

What impresses me most about our discussion is Roan’s talent for placing sporting issues such as these into a wider political context.  ’Sport has been revolutionised by the huge amount of money that’s come into it.  It’s part of the modern business world, but hasn’t caught up governance-wise.  When you see Putin using the Winter Olympics and now the FIFA World Cup to project his image onto the world, and the situation in Qatar, Abu Dhabi and China, you see sport as another arm of power.  These places are using sport as a way of projecting their authority, not only on their own people, but globally too.  So money in sport is becoming important to governments as well as just people.’