The Sweeper: Is Paid Content the Future of American Soccer Journalism?

Time Magazine

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A couple of months ago, we discussed the ongoing problem of the lack of coverage of MLS in American sports journalism, a problem only likely to get worse as print media digs its own grave (this was prompted by Richard Whittall’s excellent discussion of the crisis).

Many MLS teams remain without a dedicated journalist at their local newspaper, and in this media climate, they are not likely to be hiring one soon. Our solution, albeit a very unsatisfactory one from the standpoint of independent journalism, was that teams (as is happening in other sports) might hire journalists to cover their own team.

American Soccer News offers a different solution: an old one, a discredited one in general parlance, but one that does intrigue me: paid content, via a dedicated, high-quality start-up site.

The idea is to have dedicated coverage for each Major League Soccer team. This is an area that has historically been underserved (at best) or completely ignored (at worst) by local newspapers. And yet the demand for news is certainly there. Just take the Philadelphia Union, the newest MLS team to begin play next season. The team has already sold 6,000 season tickets (as of six months ago!) yet does not have a single dedicated beat reporter from a major newspaper or wire service. That’s at least 6,000 individuals who are left wanting for news about their team.

ASN concludes that this would best be started at a single team, with a $200,000 start-up cost for staff and expenses, which could be funded by a monthly fee of $5-10 range by around “3,000 subscriptions”, commenting  ”That’s significantly less than the amount of people who put down season ticket deposits for the Philadelphia Union.”

It’s interesting, now we see the likes of Rupert Murdoch also threatening paywalls around content, to consider the recent recollections of a paywall pioneer, Salon.com managing editor Scott Rosenberg, writing in the Guardian this week. Salon went to a paid model way back in 2001, and he concludes that “As for the question of how “niche” you need to be for a paywall to work – I think it’s pretty simple economics: if you have a product that is scarce, you can charge for it more easily. Specialised information, information that people need to earn their livings and can’t get elsewhere, and so on. If there are free alternatives, you are not going to get very far, even with an edge in quality. You can also make it work if you have a relatively low cost structure and a very loyal set of readers who have some commitment to your product as a cause.”

It’s possible ASN’s model for American soccer matches this, given the scarcity of serious content on each MLS team and small but fanatic followings in certain cities, though somebody’s going to need to pony up a couple of hundred thousand dollars to find out.

As for the question of how “niche” you need to be for a paywall to work – I think it’s pretty simple economics: if you have a product that is scarce, you can charge for it more easily. Specialised information, information that people need to earn their livings and can’t get elsewhere, and so on. If there are free alternatives, you are not going to get very far, even with an edge in quality.
You can also make it work if you have a relatively low cost structure and a very loyal set of readers who have some commitment to your product as a cause.

Worldwide News

  • Red Bull New York are gambling on a European with no experience of Major League Soccer to revive their fortunes in the most important year in the club’s history, as they move into a new stadium. Erik Solér has officially taken over as the Red Bulls Sporting Director and General Manager: he will be running the club on and off the field. It’s hard enough to get to grips with MLS as a foreigner, given its unique place in American sports culture and its byzantine rules, even harder in a place where failure has become the tradition. While the fact the only way is up will help Solér, along with the excitement of a new stadium, the wisdom of such a choice has to be questioned.
  • In the ongoing crisis in America’s lower league that we again discussed yesterday with regard to the USSF’s intervention, other option for the nascent revived NASL would be for the Canadian Soccer Association to act as the sole sanctioning body.  The 24th minute has the scoop on this prospect, but it has to be said the CSA has hardly garnered a great reputation for developing the sport in North America, and this would surely be a last ditch option should the USSF fail to successfully mediate their dispute with the USL.
  • When soccer gets featured in a quasi-academic American journal of foreign affairs, you can be pretty sure it’s not going to be a fairytale story. And so Foreign Policy looks at the vicious fall-out from the Algeria-Egypt World Cup qualifying battle, concluding that “any vestiges of pan-Arab fellow-feeling are in shreds today, and underlying political issues have come to the fore as the soccer fight grows more personal.” Though this is a pretty well-informed piece, it’s fairly easy to exaggerate the media and public rhetoric that surrounds these games and turn it into another “soccer war” story.
  • Flamengo won the Brazilian championship this weekend: Fernando Duarte has a good piece on what this means for football in Rio, a storied footballing city but one lacking in recent success, while the Independent takes a look at the remarkable resurrection of Adriano.
  • Seems like a curious time for FIFA’s Director of Communications to quit, but this story doesn’t give us much detail on what the backstory might be. Anybody have the scoop?

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

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