Stars of the sporting screen

Barker breezed it, Wrighty winged it, Gazza flunked it – so, asks Meg Carter, what is the secret of a successful transition from the field to the small screen?
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The Independent Online

It's a major headache for almost every sports star: what to do once you retire from competition? For the Beckhams and Schumachers, the future is decidedly rosy – and secured by millions already stashed in the bank. But for most, making a living once they've hit their thirties is a problem. Television is now a good bet.

For proof of the opportunities on offer to yesterday's sporting heroes, look no further than the TV schedules. The heavy battalions being wheeled out by the BBC for the Commonwealth Games in Manchester, are headed by the former tennis ace Sue Barker (pictured), who made her presenting debut on Sky Sports back in 1981. Her co-host, Roger Black, is a former 400m runner turned Tomorrow's World presenter. Also on the team are Seb Coe, Steve Cram, Sharron Davies, Sally Gunnell and Diane Modahl.

Elsewhere in the schedules, too, the rise of sports talent is evident. Barker also presents A Question of Sport. David Gower is resident team-leader (and joke butt) on They Think It's All Over and also presents on Sky Sports. His fellow team-leader Gary Lineker fronts the BBC's Match of the Day. And the former Arsenal footballer Ian Wright has even escaped the sports ghetto for the mainstream. He went from TV pundit to chat-show and now quiz-show host: he has a Saturday-night slot presenting Friends Like These.

Televisual afterlife is nothing new. Familiar TV names who have effectively exploited past sporting prowess on TV include Bob Wilson, Andy Gray and Jimmy Hill. Yet with the proliferation of sports channels and programmes, the opportunities have never been greater. If you've got what it takes.

Philip Bernie, Grandstand editor and programme editor of BBC TV's current Commonwealth Games coverage, says: "Most important is the ability to perform on TV. If this is combined with sporting prowess, all the better, and, like Gary Lineker, you're laughing."

A strong personality, an ability to be yourself in front of the camera and something unique are key ingredients, according to Glenn Kinsey, who runs Pozitiv Productions, a training company for TV presenters. His past clients include such sports stars as Sally Gunnell, Derek Bell and Diane Modahl.

"Unlike [general] viewers, the sports viewer is likely to be extremely passionate and informed about their subject, so it's important the presenter is both, which is why sportspeople can be particularly good," Bernie says. Looks also help: "Either you need to look particularly beautiful or especially ugly; either way, it's about standing out, being visually interesting."

Plain English is another critical tool. "It's no good if you're not eloquent. The quality of people coming out of football at the moment who are and want to work in the media isn't that great, to be frank," he notes.

Sharron Davies says that most of it is just knowing your subject – "coming from the inside" – although jargon has to be avoided. "You can end up talking swimming lingo, and that loses other people."

Occasionally, finding the right words can be difficult on live TV. Steve Cram admits: "Sometimes you see things in athletics and you just go, 'Flaming heck!'" Or worse, you mangle your words in your excitement, turning yourself into a prime candidate for next week's "Colemanballs" column in Private Eye.

According to the former 800m Commonwealth gold winner Diane Modahl, TV success is a combination of in-depth knowledge, passion and professionalism.

"Without in-depth knowledge, you lack the passion that makes it interesting to the viewer," she says. "Then there's the gossip – you need to be able to offer the inside track on what's really going on, how people will be feeling. And you've got to be able to deal with the stresses of the job: I'm reporting trackside at the Commonwealth Games, which means talking live with calmness and composure while listening to the producer's voice in your ear."

Not everyone successfully makes the transfer list, of course, as Gazza proved during the World Cup. Even fewer establish themselves outside their sport. Yet the opportunities and the audience's appetite for sporting talent with TV ambitions are growing fast.

But, for budding Ian Wrights and Vinnie Joneses eager to exploit their celebrity in light entertainment or even films, the message from the experts is clear: you may be lucky, but don't bet on it.