Seth Burkett from Careers in Football was delighted to spend some time with Alison Bender to discuss her career to date and get some top tips for people wanted to pursue a career in football media.
I always encourage people to step out of their comfort zone. I’ve never been more out of my own comfort zone than when I gave up everything I had in England and packed my entire life into a suitcase with a one-way ticket to Spain. My destination was Madrid, where I’d be setting up the first ever English-language version of Real Madrid TV – even though I spoke no Spanish. There was uncertainty everywhere I looked: I was 27 years old, leading a team of six people, and yet I didn’t even know how long the job would last.
It turned out to be the best decision I’ve ever made.
I’d always wanted to work in television. Rather than study journalism, however, my school convinced me to choose a psychology degree at university. It was a nice all-round subject, they reasoned, which gave me something to fall back on in case I changed my mind.
As soon as I finished my psychology degree I set about applying for jobs in television. Hundreds of them. The rejections came thick and fast, but eventually someone took a chance on me. The salary was low, but news channel CNBC offered me a role as a broadcast assistant.
I worked on everything: news, politics, business and sport. Football was just a very small element of the overall job. At times it was frustrating. I felt that people at the company were progressing quicker than me. But looking back the experience was invaluable. I was surrounded by so many smart people and really learnt the ropes.
The majority of my work at CNBC – writing, editing, producing – was done behind the camera. I was itching to get in front of the camera, so when the Real Madrid opportunity came up I decided to apply. They were looking for an executive producer who could also present, and fortunately I’d had a little presenting experience.
Before flying out to Spain I wasn’t a massive football fan. Yet working at Real Madrid TV made me fall in love with the beautiful game.
As soon as I found football, I knew it was what I wanted to do forever.
Every day there were different shows: news, lifestyle, training ground reports, matchdays, Champions League. It was a comprehensive education and given that this was around the Galactico era of Beckham, Carlos, Ronaldo, Zidane and Guti, it was a wonderful place to be.
I could have stayed at Real Madrid TV for years. Instead, I fell into a new role by chance. It was on the evening that Real Madrid played Arsenal in the Champions League. I did my piece to camera and noticed that someone was watching me. When the camera cut, the man approached me.
“That was impressive. You know a lot about Spanish football,” he said.
“Well, I work in La Liga,” I replied.
“I think you’d be good for Sky Sports. We could do with someone with your expertise.”
Within days, the man had set up a meeting at Sky Sports News. At the time they held the La Liga rights and were keen to expand their coverage. A job offer soon followed, working on Sky Sports News alongside a simultaneous role with Chelsea TV. It was too good to turn down.
Alison's Career Stats
World Cups covered: 5
Years on TV: 20
Football Tournaments: 10
Continents worked in: 6
I’ve gone on to work for many different companies, both as a permanent member of staff and in a freelance capacity. At each company I’ve picked up something new. For example, at ESPN they asked me to go out and film lots of off-the-cuff segments on Go Pros and phones. That taught me to present in a different style. People act differently when there isn’t a massive camera crew around and you can get great content. When it came to joining Tik Tok, such experience meant I felt perfectly comfortable talking into my phone.
Everyone with a phone can be a reporter, so get yourself out there!
Those freelance periods were important because journalism can be an unstable industry. Widening your contacts helps secure work. I’ve also thought it important to have other interests which you can pivot toward. My Tik Tok following [157k at the time of writing], for example, has led me to explore different avenues. Lots of followers asked for advice about getting into the industry, so I decided to write a free book with my top tips. That’s available to anyone who visits my website. Because people seemed to like that, I’m now writing my own book which is part autobiography, part self-help.
Ultimately, television is a contact and network industry. Every single person you meet is important. Just because they don’t have an important role when you meet them, that doesn’t mean they won’t in the future. I experienced that during my time at Chelsea TV. Nobody wanted to cover the reserves. However, I’ve always found that no job is too small.
In fact, the tiny jobs end up helping you. Some people don’t want to do them because they see them like hard work. I’ve always felt that opportunity is disguised as hard work. Take a non-league match report, for example. Writing that allows you to become better and gives you experience for when a bigger job comes along.
That’s why I took the work with the reserves. I spent a lot of time with the management team, which at the time was led by a guy called Brendan Rodgers. Alongside him were Steve Holland and Paul Clement. They all gave me their numbers, messaged me their team news, and we built good relationships. Fast forward a decade and all three are now at the forefront of football. At the FA Cup final, Brendan came over and gave me an interview just because of those hard yards back with Chelsea reserves.
That’s why treating everyone with respect helps you to get on in the industry. You never know where they may end up.
Find out more about Alison’s work and read her free eBook at alisonbender.com