Geeing up for success: An exclusive interview with rising star in broadcast sports journalism, Ross Birkett, Dubai Racing Channel
This interview was published on the We Are Free Agents sports blog on March 23 2012.
In sports journalism, ‘competitive’ is an understatement. But with a little bit of luck, some juicy contacts and a no-fear approach to getting on the career ladder, one rising star in sports journalism shows diverging from the mainstream can really pay-off.
“I was always told at university, only write about what you know,” says Ross Birkett on the advice that has got him the job he has today. “I always remember on the first day at university there were 80 of us in a lecture theatre and the lecturer said, ‘What is the main sport that you want to write about’. Of 80 people there 75 said football, and at that point I knew I had to forget about football.” Instead, Ross turned his attentions back to his first love and long-time hobby: horse-racing, and now acts as producer and presenter his own show for the Dubai Racing Channel.
Ross is from a racing background; his mother is Julia Feilden, a well-known horse trainer based near the world-renowned Newmarket race course, and his sister Shelley soon hopes to turn professional. Having ridden ‘winners’ on both of Newmarket’s tracks within the past two years and been an amateur jockey since the minimum age of 16 he is well and truly “immersed” in the sport. It has even played a part in all of the important life decisions he has made to date.
“I only applied to one university because there was a big trainer there called Gary Moore,” he says on his application to Brighton University’s Print Journalism course. “I knew if I went to Brighton I could get a job with him riding out in the mornings, so that determined my further education: where the nearest trainer was. Gary’s one of the leading trainers in the country and has something like a hundred horses. It was absolutely amazing,” says Ross.
It was after graduation however that Ross’ enthusiasm received a blow. “I found after graduating and trying to apply for jobs my degree was worth about as much as loo-roll really,” he says. “What people want is experience, and I was applying for jobs against people who’ve had 20 years of experience in the industry.” Ross took up a chance opportunity to go to Dubai and train horses for a family friend who has a small stud there. “I was going to go there, get a bit more experience, see how it’s done on the other side of the world,” he says. He had no idea that the four months he was to spend there would set him up with a job in the sport he loves.
It was a lucky second meeting with a guest-less Brett Williams, presenter for Dubai Racing Channel, on a day-trip to Royal Ascot that gave Ross his big break. “That was the first time I had spoken in television ever,” he says. “I’d never been interviewed or anything. By then I was pretty set then on working in television; in TV the pressure is on and it’s up to the minute and I got the sense that newspaper journalism was just a bit dull for me, but it was an absolute bolt out of blue when Brett asked me about the job. I couldn’t believe it. I snapped his hand off and here I am now!”
Although quite different to the racing world he was used to, Ross says his time with Dubai Racing Channel has reignited his journalistic ambitions. “Racing out here has only been going 20 years or so, so it hasn’t got the history of racing back in the UK,” he says. “But the facilities are absolutely fantastic. The media is probably one of the best you’ll ever see and the grandstand is one of the biggest in the world. Dubai is…you’ve got to see it to believe it.”
Now he has set his sights on a job at one of the UK’s top racing channels. “I definitely see this as getting experience,” he says. “The job’s fantastic, the money’s brilliant but I won’t feel I’ve achieved anything until I get a job presenting or producing – or just sweeping the floors – at Attheraces or Racing UK because for me that is the top-dog, that is the pinnacle. Once I get there I can give myself a pat on the back I think.”
“I’d definitely say take whatever opportunities come because you never know what it could lead onto,” Ross says by way of advice to aspiring sports journalists. And as for horse-racing: “For an outsider looking in it probably does look like quite a complex world. But the main thing is to know your stuff, and that just comes through submerging yourself in it and really following the sport deeply,” he says.
“A little bit of knowledge can impress quite a lot. Plus horse-racing is probably one of the only sports where you’ll be sat in the changing room next to a champion jockey like Ryan Moore or Frankie Dettori. I can’t imagine any other sports where that’s the case,” he says.
Before heading UK-bound for a welcome season-break, Ross’s broadcasting work to date will culminate in the Dubai World Cup on March 31. In the run-up to the day Ross will be a hosting a nightly preview programme featuring interviews with the owners, trainers and jockeys of all the main contenders. On race night itself however he will face his biggest challenge to date; a live broadcast at the beginning of each of the eight races. But he is far from reluctant. In fact he says he will enjoy missing out on the hours of planning and filming that go into a pre-recorded programme.
“With live stuff, you literally have free reign to do what you like,” he says. “It will be quite a buzz thinking that you are reporting on the biggest event in racing at that time, and it’s definitely something I’m looking forward to.”