AMERICAN SOCCER MEDIA LANDSCAPE NEEDS TO GET BEYOND THE BLOG
Ives Galarcep moved to Fox Soccer. MLS hired my Waiting For Gaetjens co-host Greg Lalas and Sports Illustrated’s Jonah Freedman to run MLSnet 2.0. Jose Romero left the Sounders beat at the Seattle Times. Glenn Davis got laid off from the Houston Chronicle. Dirty Tackle was purchased by Yahoo!. Did I miss something?
Some good some bad. And coincidence or not, this media transfer window has come along with increased concern and critique of the soccer media landscape, from the benefit or lack thereof of certain hirings to the direction of certain outlets’ content and coverage.
Big Surprise: It’s just about my favorite topic. I haven’t addressed it recently because I didn’t have anything to say, that I haven’t already said (which is at the heart of this entire issue). In 2007, I wondered about the future of the American soccer magazine. To have a print magazine in the vein of FourFourTwo for American soccer is something that as a fan of soccer and magazines I dream about, but as a magazine writer and former editor I fear will never exist. (for the record, I don’t love FFT, but what else do we have?)
I heard from plenty of people both inside and outside the industry when I wrote that 2007 essay, and the correct question coming back was, “Where are these specialized advertisements waiting to be sold?” The salesman in me thought it possible, but more than two years removed, and what with the crumbling state of ad-driven journalism, I’ll concede it may be impossible.
But that comes with a qualifier.
These two (1, 2) posts from two guys who get it more right than most have me remembering the last time I picked up a copy of Soccer America, which was given to me at the Kicking & Screening film festival last year. I counted maybe five outside advertisements inside what should be my favorite magazine. The thin stack of glossy paper barely felt more than a Home Depot pamphlet detailing all my bathroom remodeling options. If its art department were on Project Runway, they’d surely be color blocking instead of pushing the edges of design. Features were clearly reported from a desk and over the phone, offering little more than player profile clichés and updates I read online sometimes weeks earlier. The front of book was lacking any excitement or intrigue. “Feilhaber” was misspelled in a headline.
All of that, all of that comes down to money and resources and talent. You need all three; one alone will not suffice. So yeah, talented guys, whatever, but a magazine like the one I picked up for free is going to have trouble selling advertising–going to have trouble getting subscribers that aren’t added on through some tangential purchase or under the age of 15. Young boys and girls may sway the record industry, but they aren’t going to sustain a soccer magazine or website. Soccer has to be smarter.
It was a similar tale for the short-lived Major League Soccer Magazine and Goal.com Magazine. But other than finding a benefactor willing to take the up-start loses of a magazine–think a Roman Abromovich for Chelsea, a Carl Van Vechton for Langston Hughes, a US Soccer Foundation for the Hall of Fame, a generation of 14-year-olds for the Jonas Brothers–who will spend large amounts of money for nothing more than emotional profit, the American soccer magazine will continue to drown in the shallow end of the kiddie pool.
So the Vanity Fair of soccer will have to wait, and talented magazine editors and writers have to dive into the web and compete with hardened, nothing-to-lose amateurs, which means spending days spinning out 200-word blurbs or 800-word so-called features instead of reporting from the field or telling real stories… or they’ll do that, but on a topic that editors will pay for (skin care, really? yeah. really) and leave the dream of writing about soccer in the closet, only to be pulled out and romanticized like a pair of dusty cleats. Bonus internet fact: what you write will now be picked apart and lambasted by the loud minority–”welcome, congratulations, you suck.”
As the print magazines drown, the internet, which one might suppose to be flying high, is treading water. Lots of blogs, very few resources. Online, even Soccer America has become very blog-like. I receive and read Soccer America via their email blasts, but often the linked stories in their emails are dated compared to Twitter and bloggers, and their columns are good and fine but are just that, columns (the most common denominator). AND they are over at SportsIllustrated.com? Opinion is cheap. Ridge Mahoney’s “MLS Confidential” may be the one thing that doesn’t need changing. And yes, I understand that they clearly don’t consider me their audience. And plenty of people are not scouring Twitter every minute of every day and probably use the magazine’s email blasts as their only daily soccer reading. If you choose just one, you could do a lot worse. And yes, maybe their youth soccer oriented content and classifieds keep them afloat. But should not I be their audience, at least part of it?
Oh the irony of me or anyone else writing these armchair laments, while basically providing the same thing (and often times less) as those for whom we sing the dirge. Throw a few rocks—glass house, glass house, glass house. Soccer America gets picked on because it’s the oldest, most venerable brand, buttressed by the old guard, who should be held in the highest regard (agree with their opinions or not) by anyone who has put soccer pen to paper in the last 25 years–that much I agree with Steve Davis about. The fact is, we could go after any soccer media entity, including TIAS, and just rail against why it’s not perfect. I’m as guilty as anyone when it comes to this issue and lose out with the rest for all the same reasons—Time, Money, Getting by. A rose by any other name is just another Soccer America working toward varying degrees of time-sucking success for little profit. Good people doing bad things.
Soccer journalism’s living death is a real problem, one we can only hope changes in the wake of a World Cup year (and bid for 2018/2022), increased MLS, USMNT, and national player success, and the overall consumer growth of the sport. In lieu of what sometimes seems like every blog trying to be everything to everyone—in the wake of the reshuffling of media names in the ever changing world of journalism, what should it all mean?
It should mean better content to attract both readers and advertisers. Content is still king. As I wrote in 2007 any solution needs to avoid all the pitfalls of scoop journalism and breaking news for real stories and insightful columns. This goes for a print magazine or a daily blog. In either case, you still need all the hits, bits and pieces and front of book fun (easily pulled from the AP as places like SI.com do or written by cheap interns or bloggers (as is the case at countless magazines once the important serial frame has been set) or pulled in from Twitter, Du Nord, or some aggregating service. You can write column after column, but at some point you’ve got to provide originality. It has to stand apart from dozens if not hundreds of websites doing roughly the same thing. Too many people, from amateur fan blogs to professional writers fall into the abyss of repetitive news and tired opinion and drive off the most dangerous cliffs of satire and comedy. Whether chasing page views, ego, or the next pay check, it doesn’t serve anybody—not the readers who deserve creative original content and certainly not the writers, whose time, in most cases, could be much better spent elsewhere. It’s like NBC with the Olympics–Yes, the networks ratings are higher than ever, but that doesn’t make tape-delayed events OK.
What we have now are a few reporters moving toward blogs, and a lot of blogs moving toward discussion groups delineated by little more than a moderator’s voice, opinion, and team allegiance. And then there’s the discussion groups turning into blogs by pulling out certain voices and giving them a platform. Anything really good often gets crowded out by all the noise–those nice houses losing value as the rest of the neighborhood goes to shit.
If someone could float that overarching American soccer magazine website until it could grab attention, readers, and hopefully then win stable funding in some way, then you’ve got something. GOOD magazine got its start that way, and in my opinion is the best new magazine in years (Google the co-founder’s last name). We’ll see if it can last. Maybe the little pond that I think is so big from my window can’t sustain such a venture; I mean if the NYTimes can’t do it with Play, what real chance does soccer have? Maybe the best hope is an organization of blogs, loosely assigning beats and stories to writers and selling advertising as a group and splitting it evenly or creating an entirely new website…
Wait, is that The Offside? What if Grant Wahl, Greg Lalas, Steve Davis, Bruce McGuire, Tom Dunmore, the Soccer America team, (add your favorite voice on the blogosphere here), and a kick-ass videographer and internet designer got together and launched a site? Is that something that would interest you? Would you pay for that? Could they make a living wage doing that? Is there any real hope that the soccer blogosphere could independently come together and democratically build out this team/share model? And anyway, that organization would still need to be more than a blog.
It has to be about getting beyond the blog. Several aging journalists have lamented the death of, if not sports journalism, than sports storytelling. Pat Jordan described the situation best in an essay for Slate about why Red Sox pitcher Josh Beckett didn’t want to talk to him, why the multi-million dollar hurler won’t spend the time for a large New York Times Magazine feature. There’s the issue of what evil things the writer might unearth. There’s the protecting PR machines, the player’s own website communicating with fans, and marketing consultants. Did I miss something, Tiger Woods?
The distance between pro athlete and fan is now at ultramarathon levels. One day it may end up down the path of the Ethiopian rift—which is to say oceans apart. Maybe you’ll favorite athlete will RT you on Twitter. CongratuFUCKINGlations–you love being the first commenter too, don’t you? Bottom line: fans don’t get to know professional athletes—their heroes—like they used to, to say nothing of the unreported cultural growth around the sport. So we get game reports, critical columnists, and plenty of opinion coming from all directions (from the biggest newspapers to the smallest blogs, armchair quarterbacking is in vogue, thanks to decreased resources and increased technology). It’s not just the bloggers working from their basements anymore.
Many of the problems don’t exist as strongly in American soccer as they do in other sports, but we have the same end result. We don’t get the narrative stories. Soccer’s problem lies somewhere else though. Players by and large aren’t millionaires, and they could use some attention both for the sake of their game and off-field marketing pursuits. Compared to other sports, more soccer players are highly educated, offering intelligent opinions but also, and more importantly, they have unique paths and stories (just stop asking them about how well the team did and begin spending as much time talking about off the field as on it).
Hear mainstream newspaper and magazine editors tell it, there is not enough interest in soccer to warrant such expensive and intensive coverage, if any coverage at all. Many readers are simply too young to know what they are really missing—that imaginative and telling narrative that brings their sports heroes to life and reflect the lives of readers while taking them into the lives of players. But my favorite player RT’d me! WooHooooooo! I don’t, for example, know a single thing about Blanco and his life in Chicago and MLS. That’s a shame. Angel in NYC? For real, America’s best soccer player, Landon Donovan, has never had a proper feature article written about him?
Sure this means long-lead feature writing which I’m always trumpeting as the North Star, but at the most basic level in means spending quality time with subjects to create narrative stories, no matter the medium. Maybe that subject is statistics or game film. You can do this from behind a desk if astute analysis is your game. Video—how about collections of short but well-crafted behind-the-scenes videos that run as episodic documentaries. Broadcast these FIFA2010 video game tournaments between players—I’d watch that. Soccer players aren’t always the physical specimens we see in other sports, so what makes them such good athletes? The story ideas are endless because so few have ever been produced.
Part of the problem lies in the fact that there is so much content out there. The skill today is how to converge and synergize all the tools in order to squeeze the power of multi-media into a combined narrative that offers something for close to every consumer like the best examples of print, broadcast, and online media. But there has to be a story; it can’t just be vomiting up as much content as possible—technology is awesome!—without serious thought to editing, production, and packaging…
How long did it take James Cameron to get Avatar made? Oh nevermind, I have to go back to the job that pays me.
Postscript: this post began as notes for the Waiting For Gaetjens podcast, which we recorded last night and is available now at iTunes and waitingforgaetjens.com. Greg Lalas and I discuss this topic and other blogosphere growing pains with du Nord’s Bruce McGuire.