Reporting on MLS: Will teams hire their own beat coverage?

Chicago Tribune building

The collapse of the newspaper industry comes at a terrible time for a growing league like MLS. Numerous MLS teams don’t even have beat reporters dedicated to them in the first place. Or if they do, they’re the first to go.

Take the case of the struggling Chicago Tribune, who decided a few months ago to drop their beat coverage of the Chicago Fire by moving reporter Luis Arroyave from covering the Fire to covering showbusiness (a fitting move for the former FHM writer). In many ways, Arroyave was more of a blogger than a traditional beat reporter with his popular and irreverent Red Card soccer blog, and the Tribune didn’t often foot the bill for him to travel with the team. But he did provide a consistent stream of information that was disseminated in print in America’s eighth largest newspaper, as well as online. A daily circulation of over 500,000, the largest in Chicagoland, meant Fire news reaching the general sports fan regularly via the Tribune, and the team was subject to some independent and critical press coverage.

That all changed when Mike Kellams, associate managing editor for sports at the Chicago Tribune, decided to cut the beat role and rely on content from the Tribune’s sister publication, the LA Times, for its soccer coverage. The problem, of course, is that Los Angeles is an awful long way for Chicago, and despite a vague hope expressed by Kellams that LA would look out for soccer stories with a Chicago interest, print coverage of the Fire in the sports section has practically ceased. The Tribune does have a poorly paid blogger covering the Fire at its new Chicago Now online outlet, a young rookie improving all the time, but he’s (understandably) not even able to make it to many practices, let alone to travel with the team and really get inside the locker room. The city’s other major daily, the Sun-Times,  relies on the sporadic coverage of a local suburban newspaper, the Daily Southtown, for its Fire content.

Soumare-Hamlett fight

The effect of this is that juicy stories which would probably attract some city-wide notice in a sports market as competitive as Chicago go practically unnoticed to the casual sports fan, even one who attends the odd Fire game.  For example, to take a negative incident, the locker room fight between defender Bakary Soumare and head coach Denis Hamlett earlier this summer only came out into public view when the the team oddly issued a press release a week later announcing the incident and explaining the disciplinary action being taken against both men. It had gone otherwise unobserved by the press.

And there was no dedicated reporter who had built up a network of contacts inside the Fire to figure out what had actually happened after; just a few rumours reported here and there.

Instead, the closest to news articles Fire fans get on a regular basis are the abysmal reports by Kent McDill on the official Fire and MLS websites. McGill’s factual errors are a constant source of comedy for supporters. The poor quality of his writing, which I hope to god isn’t subject to a human editor, is evident in every piece (just to pick on his latest, he manages to repeat the fact that Peter Lowry was starting against Columbus in place of the injured John Thorrington twice in four paragraphs).

The point is, the coverage of the Chicago Fire is regressing, and I’ve seen the frustration this is causing the upper levels of the organisation  as well as to fans desperate for more coverage. The difficulty is seeing a way forward in this media climate.

This dwindling beat coverage, of course, is a trend across the sports industry; the LA Dodgers have seen the number of beat reporters covering them fall from ten in the 1990s to just one today.

The response is increasingly for leagues to fill the void by hiring journalists to write content for them, with the legion of content at MLB.com or Kent McDill writing for MLS.net. Some teams are taking it even further: the NHL’s LA Kings recently hired beat reporter Rich Hammond of the Los Angeles Daily News to cover the team home and away. Kings management was frustrated by the lack of coverage of the team — no LA-based beat reporter followed the team on the road — and finally conceded the way to solve this was to pay for it themselves.

Will we see MLS teams follow this trend? Hiring a full-time beat reporter and paying for his travel isn’t cheap — probably upwards of $100,000 annually. At the same time, the cost of not having quality beat coverage of the team is high, as it forces a considerable disconnect between fans and the team.

But the value of hiring your own beat reporter is severely undermined by the fact that the coverage is still not going to be in the daily metropolitan newspaper, and the obviously thorny issue of just how independently such an open shill could call out and report on his employer’s team honestly.

It becomes a chicken-and-egg question, but the better coverage of teams in Seattle, Toronto and DC by the local press is a major boon to each club. It helps MLS enormously in those places that each city has far weaker competing sports teams for newspapers to cover than is the case in Chicago, LA or New York, the only cities with two major league baseball teams competing with MLS for summer coverage, not to mention year-round obsessions with their basketball and gridiron teams as well.

So, like the Kings in LA, will a team like the Fire or the Red Bulls be forced to hire their own beat coverage before long?  And if so, would such self-coverage be worthwhile for fans?

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