May 28, 2015
Golf writer Steve Elling's first day in Abu Dhabi with a non-alcoholic drink.

Golf writer Steve Elling’s first day in Abu Dhabi with a non-alcoholic drink.

There are countless stories of sports journalists trying to survive during these challenging economic times. Few, though, have gone literally as far as Steve Elling.

Elling thought he had a dream job in 2012. He was given a wide range of latitude in covering as many as 20 golf tournaments per year for He received a glowing job review earlier in the year.

Then a few months later, just days before he was set to depart to cover the British Open, Elling was told that his job had been eliminated.

Now what?

“I was 50-years-old covering a niche sport,” Elling said. “I wasn’t looking at a ton of options.”

Only one true option materialized for him, but it hardly could be called a dream job. In December, 2012, Elling left his wife and then 8-year-old son to take a job as a sports reporter for The National, the state-run newspaper in Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates. He executed his plan of staying two years before returning back to his home in Orlando last December.

“I wasn’t going to let my son have his third straight Christmas without me,” Elling said.

Elling got the job through a former Los Angeles Times colleague who now worked in the Mideast. He says it purely was an economical decision. Since there are no taxes in the UAE, Elling figures he earned the equivalent of more than $100,000 per year in terms of his overall take-home pay. It was more than he could make in the U.S., and enough to help him pay off his debts.

“I ran into Ernie Els at a [Mideast golf] tournament,” Elling said. “He said, ‘What are you doing here?’ I said, ‘I’m here for the appearance fee.’ He knew exactly what I was talking about. It was all about the money.”

Indeed, Elling said money rarely is an issue in wealthy Abu Dhabi. He recalled he once was given $7,000 in per diem for an 11-day assignment to Spain. He came home with $5,000 in his pocket.

“They’d rather give you the money than process an expense report,” Elling said.

Elling said the UAE wants an English newspaper to accommodate Western businesses and tourists. The sports staff of approximately 20 people usually includes 7-8 Americans, he said.

Yet Elling immediately noticed the differences compared to working for an American newspaper. For instance, words like flavor are spelled “flavour” in The National. There also were religious factors to be considered.

“If you were writing about Tiger Woods, you couldn’t mention his extra-marital affairs,” Elling said. “Since Muslims don’t drink, you can’t make any references to alcohol. They are small little things, but over there you realize how often you might write that.”

The bigger difference is working for a state-controlled newspaper. Elling called it “the elephant in the room.”

“It was eye opening,” Elling said. “Because of my character, I’ve always thought kicking the hornet’s nest wasn’t necessarily a bad thing to do. However, in the UAE, they generally stand around and wait for a government fax to tell them what to do.”

Elling recalled a story involving Sheikh Mohammed, UAE’s prime minister and a major world-wide figure in horse racing. In 2013, one of his trainers in England was suspended for doping horses. Initially, the story was not aggressively reported in The National.

“I thought, ‘Are we going to stand around act like nothing happened?'” Elling said. “We were walking on eggshells for a week. Most of the time we would wait until someone else reported it and then we’d write about it. To me, it was an uncomfortable situation.”

Elling did some digging and found a National story in 2009 when the Shiekh was suspended from equestrian events because of horse doping. The headline, though, didn’t mention anything about a suspension. It read: “Shiekh Mohammed made to wait.”

“You could not have buried that lede any deeper,” Elling said. “It’s almost laughable. It gives you an idea how carefully they parse their words.”

Elling, though, kept his head down and worked on his assignments. He lived in a small apartment and only returned to Florida two times during his stint in the UAE. His family never visited him because of the prohibitive cost of the plane tickets.

The idea was to save as much money as he could.

“I viewed it like doing a two-year hitch in the military,” Elling said.

Since returning to Florida in December, Elling has been writing for a new website, Golf Blot. He also works at Lowe’s on the weekends.

Looking back, Elling said he would have made the same decision in electing to take the job in the UAE. He said his family now is in a better place financially thanks to going to the Mideast.

“It was the best solution to what might have been a terminal career situation,” Elling said. “The fact there’s also a half-dozen Americans working over there tells you all you need to know about the state of the industry here.”


Recommended reading on sports journalism:

Joe Posnanski discusses his career in the latest installment of the “Still No Cheering in the Press Box” series for the Povich Center.

Jeff Pearlman has a terrific interview with former Sports Illustrated photographer Ronald Modra.

Joe Christensen of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune reports on college athletes and Twitter.

Anne Delany at AWSM details a diversity program offered by APSE.

Michael Bradley for the National Sports Journalism Center offers his insights on teaching sports journalism.


Ed Sherman writes about sports media at Follow him @Sherman_Report

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Sherman wrote for the Chicago Tribune for 27 years covering the 1985 Bears Super Bowl season, the White Sox, college football, golf and sports media.…
Ed Sherman

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