The Sweeper: MLS and the Monolithic Media

ESPN Chicago

Last week, I discussed the decline in beat reporting on American sports, which is hitting the less popular sports leagues — such as Major League Soccer — particularly hard. My particular example came from the city I know best, Chicago, where we’ve seen the major daily here cut its beat reporter for the Fire this year and replace him with an enthusiastic but inexperienced blogger, whose work rarely makes the print edition. One potential solution from the team is to look into hiring their own beat reporter.

The Fake Sigi Schmid Blog has a few issues with my piece which are worth considering. Fake Sigi points out (in agreement with Bill Archer) that as print media is dying anyway, there’s little point in MLS worrying about it. Fake Sigi mentions coverage online  in many cities does much of the job print media is failing to do, even if it takes fan efforts like the outstanding 3rd Degree in Dallas or MLSNet itself. Perhaps Chicago is an outlier.

Still, I’ll maintain my original piece identifies a two-pronged problem not solved by amateur or even semi-pro or team-run online coverage. Firstly, we still do not have a replacement for the loss of an independent reporter embedded with the team and travelling around with them — this can’t be done by bloggers unless a much stronger income model is developed and a team-funded replacement is obviously problematic. Newspapers’ near monopoly as an advertising outlet long allowed them to plough over-inflated advertising income to subsidise otherwise unsustainable reporting in all areas, but online media does not have the same luxury.

Secondly, there is the need to reach the general sports fan (and especially those interested in soccer but not yet MLS fans), which could be achieved by appearing in print in the daily newspaper — this is not replaced by independent blogs or MLSNet. Here I did miss an important point:  The elephant in the room on this is actually ESPN, fast becoming America’s monolithic sports media provider for the general reader instead of the daily paper. The expansion of ESPN into local coverage with the launch of the likes of ESPN Chicago and ESPN Boston probably makes this single provider the key battleground for soccer’s general sports media coverage in the future, for good or ill. We have a call in with ESPN to talk about the future of their soccer coverage, so we’ll have more for Fake Sigi to sink his teeth into soon.

Worldwide News

  • It always seemed unlikely Mexico would win a World Cup bid: despite the country’s soccer fever and the considerable number of large stadiums there, most of them required considerable upgrades (even Chivas de Guadalajara’s new stadium would hardly help, as it has a turf field) and perhaps most importantly, the country has hosted two World Cup finals in the past 40 years already. But the news of their sudden withdrawal from the bidding for the 2018/22 World Cups did come as a surprise (the federation cited the global economic situation as a prime reason). The U.S. benefits enormously.
  • A decidedly uneven start to the U-20 World Cup, perhaps because few teams have their strongest talent due to the timing of the tournament: Cameroon were thrashed 4-1 by the U.S. (it could easily have been more) and England were whacked 4-0 by Cameroon Ghana. Video highlights here.
  • Remember when George Gillette said Liverpool had “never been stronger” financially?  Tell that to the banks. Liverpool’s ownership have according to The Times been “issued with an ultimatum by the club’s bankers to attract investors to reduce the club’s debt or to sell up.”
  • And there’s more on the farcical nature of the fit-and-proper persons test in English football, with news that Leeds United are owned by an unknown consortium based in the Cayman Islands.
  • Philadelphia are continuing the MLS trend of expanded youth development, partnering with a local academy to hopefully bring players through from age eight ultimately to the first team, promising to seek out talent in the inner-city as well as those already on suburban teams. Much needed.
  • Don’t worry, folks: Sepp Blatter says he is “sure” a resolution can be found to the dispute over the awkward regulations on men’s soccer at the Olympics. He doesn’t actually offer a resolution, though.
  • Maradona looks for god to again save Argentina. He’ll need the help as long as he’s in charge.

The Sweeper appears daily. For more rambling and links throughout the day every day, follow your editor Tom Dunmore @pitchinvasion on Twitter.

5 thoughts on “The Sweeper: MLS and the Monolithic Media

  1. Mr. Baker

    I think you can have a news site (not a blog) devoted to covering an individual MLS team. You only really need one full-time person for the job, with others perhaps helping out part time with editing and ad/subscription sales.

    What’s that? Subscription sales? Yes, paid subscriptions. It’s the only way you’re going to generate enough revenue to make the enterprise worthwhile.

    I think there’s enough demand to pay for a site that has solid, well-written, constant news updates (including breaking news wherever possible) on an MLS club

  2. Tom Dunmore Post author

    Mr. Baker — that’s an interesting idea. Maybe it could work, it would certainly be interesting to come up with a business model for it: you’d probably need to generate around $100,000 to pay for a full-time writer and all associated expenses (mainly travel, of course) to do the job of an old-school sports beat reporter.

    So you’d need almost 1,000 people willing to pay $10 a month for a subscription (can’t see people paying more than $10, and advertisements wouldn’t generate a lot of revenue if most of the content was behind a paid wall)….I’m not sure any MLS team has that kind of fanatic support yet.

    But some kind of subscription model is definitely an interesting possibility. I’m surprised no newspaper has tried that yet for some niche parts of their business that would attract fanatics: I bet the Tribune could find 1,000 Cubs fans to pay for “insider” coverage, for example. ESPN has tried that with their own “Insider”, associated with the Magazine, which I guess has been successful enough for them to keep it around.

  3. Mr. Baker

    That’s what I figured too: $100K to break even. I do think you could get some advertisers though. Maybe not many, but $10K a year should be feasible. That leaves $90K. I think $10/month is too high a pricepoint. Something closer to $5 would be better. According to my math, you’d need 1,800 people at that price. Tough to do, but not impossible. How many season tickets does each team sell? A lot more than 1,800 in some cities. Those are your potential clients.

    Throw in a discount for everybody who signs up for the year upfront (the WSJ does this. Of course it would undercut revenue a bit, but would give you some upfront cash). Strike up a partnership with your local soccer pub (Nevada Smith’s here in NYC) where subscribers get a free pint at away game viewings or something. Maybe sell T-shirts on the site, or trinkets of some type.

    It can definitely be done, you just need to keep the operation super-duper lean to save costs. So no office (don’t need one anyway), forget about staying at the team hotel (stay at motels or better yet with friends and family where you can). Forget about a marketing budget, obviously (though partnerships are certainly possible).

    I actually have the infrastructure set up on my site to do this for every MLS team. But I don’t have the startup capital or the energy, at least not yet.

  4. Paul

    On a somewhat related minor side note– work with ESPN and Yahoo to make a true standard Fantasy (Rotisserie) Soccer game available on-line (leagues with player drafts, with categories similar to hockey (G, A, SOG, Yellow Cards; GK wins, GK clean sheets; something like that)). During the Spring and Summer, only baseball is available in a “standard” fantasy game, and sports nuts (who don’t typically follow soccer) may end up dabbling and get more interested in MLS. ESPN could allow “player universes” that include EPL (and others) as well. I found myself watching some NFL games this weekend that I ordinarily wouldn’t have, because I have players running around who are on my fantasy team.

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