In photography, you want the viewer to look at the subject and not be distracted by other elements in the image. On the page about cropping, I talk about how to crop out distracting background elements, but you should aim to eliminate them before the photo is taken.
With the image of the football players, the action is great, and it is perfectly timed, but the background is very distracting. Unfortunately, there wasn’t anything I could do about it since the photographers had limited shooting locations on the field. Higher level sporting events typically have more restrictive shooting positions and worse backgrounds.
In the image of the pole vaulter, the background is about as clean as you can get in sports. I was able to position myself where a small orange strip of wall was directly behind the pole vaulters. Then all I had to do was wait until one of the athletes turned around while in the air. In addition, I wanted the athlete to pop off the orange background. To do this, I waited for an athlete wearing colors that contrasted the orange background.
Before covering a game, one of the first things I do is look around and find where the best backgrounds are going to be. For example, in this football photo, there is a solid green background. When shooting from the north end zone of the field, the hill behind the south end zone created a clean background.
Challenge: Next time you cover a game, get to the arena/field about an hour before it starts. Take a walk around to scope out what the backgrounds will look like from the locations you can shoot from. Once the game begins, you will know which shooting positions have the best backgrounds, making it easier to line up the action with the cleanest backgrounds.
Getting clean backgrounds can also be achieved by going to the top of the stands and shooting from an elevated position. This can be especially useful in sports like hockey because there is a barrier between the athletes and you. The downside of being elevated is that you sacrifice the ability to see emotion on athletes’ faces, especially when they are wearing helmets.
In my experience, I have better luck with backgrounds from outdoor, non-professional sporting events. Outdoor sports lend themselves to the use of long glass, meaning more compressed and blurry backgrounds even at an aperture like f/5.6 or f/8, which is more common on entry level long glass or super zoom lenses.
Non-professional venues also tend to be more open on the ends and lack advertisements. Another advantage is that you are usually able to shoot from a wider variety of locations. This means you can pick your shooting position, allowing for one with a clean background.
Here is a prime example of why you should take some time to think about your shooting location. These two soccer photographs were shot at the same game, just from slightly different locations on the sidelines.
The first image was shot from the right side of the field. As you can see, there is a distracting advertisement in the background. This was because the whole left side of the field had banner ads along the fence.
The second image was shot from the north end of the field, only a few paces away from where the first image was shot. The background is much cleaner because the south end was in front of a grassy hill.
By positioning myself perpendicular instead of parallel to the ads, they were eliminated from my photographs. The subjects becomes more visible and the viewer won’t be trying to decipher any words on the ad.
Another option was to sit on the left side, in front of the ads. On this field that meant I was shooting directly into the sunset. That can look good for some photos, but I wanted some with golden hour light falling on the players faces.
As you cover games at different venues, you will begin to find the shooting locations at each that provides the best backgrounds.