SAVING THE SOCCER MAGAZINE. OR NOT
I woke one morning a few weeks ago to Ives Galarcep highlighting a few soccer magazines and noting he would come back regularly and begin summarizing them, maybe something like Slate’s handy Today’s Papers column.
I commented that I was planning to do this for American soccer magazines, and Ives had beat me to it. But then I realized he had left me a window because he chose all international magazines. Ives came back with this:
“I have to be honest and say I just don’t have time to read the American magazines. Whenever I get my hands on a Soccer America I will check it out but that’s about it. The new Major League Soccer magazine looks nice but the information in the first one I read felt so dated to me. I guess that’s my problem. For the most part I will have already heard most of what I will find in American magazines. I will leaf through them on occasion when at Barnes & Noble but have yet to find one that compelled me to take it home.”
I know that feeling. It’s the reason why I had been sitting on this ‘American soccer magazine review’ idea since first getting my hands on the inaugural issue of MLS magazine. What was that, in July?
I went as far as interviewing the editor Scott French. That never ran. He was a passionate man with lots of editorial soccer experience, most notably at Soccer America. I would love to work for a guy like that, but I just wasn’t digging the new product.
And I didn’t see much point in dressing it down. It’s not that it was terrible. It wasn’t. There just wasn’t a story or opinion in the magazine I had not heard or read before - sound familiar? And then there was the out dated insanity of a coverline like this from that first issue (August/September with Beckham on the cover): “Rise of the Red Bulls: Arena Builds A Winner.” By the time I had the unusually designed magazine in which each paged relied heavily on blocks of two colors (and only two colors) in my hands that cover line was already a borderline untruth, and very soon after it looked like a complete fiasco. French noted that story when I spoke with him, admitting the difficulties, not only in launching a new magazine on a tight budget and time line, but more generally the difficulties of having a non-weekly magazine be fresh for a reader. It is a battle.
This problem is compounded in soccer. Thanks to the internet and the small-ish American soccer-sphere, it’s nearly impossible for a monthly, much less a quarterly, to be timely. So you have to find new stories, different angles, and most importantly real narrative reporting. These things of course require the kind of intrepid journalism that is, beyond all obstacles, costly.
It would be easy to say ‘scrap the paper magazine.’ But that works against my belief that there is something wonderful about that tangible product you can bring with you anywhere. I’m a magazine romantic, which makes this difficult in two-fold. First, It makes me hyper critical of magazines because I believe there is a purpose to the magazine, it fills a need in the journalism world even if so many magazines are moving away from that role. Next, it makes me yearn for a soccer magazine I could work for, maybe even call my own.
So for the sake of argument, lets say soccer magazines can exist and make a few people a few bucks. How would that be done?
Find stories. Obtain exclusives before the blogs get their grubby mits on them. It may not matter in a bigger publication with a wider audience – relatively few of that population will have read a blog – but for soccer, the internet is sitting at the bigboy table – in part because the print media ignored the sport for so long.
Avoid those “rise of the red bull” stories. The focus has to be different than say a weekly like Sports Illustrated; we’ve yet to really see that in the US market. It needs to be about culture, media, lifestyles. It can’t just be about soccer. And if it is, it needs to be stuff no one else is getting. A beat reporter is fixated on the games, the moves, the playing. The magazine has to deliver the other stuff - all the things the beat reporter can’t get in with his 400-800 words. Professional American soccer players hold a curious spot in the geography of pro athletes. They have stories, and those stories would work to bridge the gap between entertainer and audience. Follow him around for a few weeks. That is American soccer. Share it.
Then you have to look at the fact that the half dozen or so magazines employ the same writers. I’m not questioning their ability, but some diversity would be nice. It seems like every reputable (read: mainstream institution) newspaper, magazine, and even websites employ some combination of Jack Bell, Paul Gardner, Steven Davis, Andrea Canales, Frank Dell’Apa, Graham Hays, etc. Maybe hire someone not from the Soccer Writer Fraternity of America and maybe send them somewhere to get a good story. A good writer is a good writer in my mind, but a good reporter isn’t always a good writer. If we can agree on a shift of focus from news to timeless features on the peripherals of the game, soccer expertise is hardly the top priority. I bet you could pluck enough young, talented journalists, pay them little but send them far, and create a soccer magazine to destroy all others. I’ll take three great features from great writers over a dozen shorter stories that could be published in a high school newspaper.
Set a precedent, make a name, and grow the book with the sport. As foreign clubs continue to become interested in the United States from a marketing and scouting standpoint, those markets could open to you in regards to access to foreign clubs for stories as well as circulation. Just because its an American soccer magazine doesn’t mean it needs to ignore the rest of the world.
Do we even need American soccer magazines? I would hate the answer to that question to be ‘no.’ I for one think there is a small but generous market for a soccer magazine waiting to be tapped, specialized advertisements waiting to be sold. But it’s going to take more than carting out the same talent (from the field and on the masthead). Like American soccer on the whole, American soccer magazines need to turn the page, diversify, incorporate new talent and new ideas, and determine what it is they can offer the fragmented American consumer market. If it has to be exclusively on-line, so be it.
But they better do it fast, before some web-wise soccer minds coalesce the meandering page views of today into the soccer news monopoly of tomorrow. In doing so, the soccer magazine may become obsolete.