Rating Official American Soccer Blogs: #1, MLS Insider

An official blog for a sports team or league faces obvious pitfalls and has obvious in-built advantages. Access to original content isn’t (or good lord, shouldn’t be) going to be a problem: athlete interviews, scoops, insider peeks — all should be easy to fill an official blog’s content with, if the organisation wants the blog to be a success.

At the same time, fans will obviously have a wariness of the sincerity of an official mouthpiece of any organisation, and content creators will have to be careful not to piss off colleagues by being overly critical in any commentary or revealing inside information that could potentially contradict the company line.

Just a few months ago, Major League Soccer’s headquarters did not have a blog. Well, not quite: the MLS Commissioner Don Garber supposedly has had a blog on the main MLS site for a couple of years now, the Commissioner’s Corner, but it’s a blog essentially operated via snail mail, with little of the traditional elements of anything resembling web 2.0 or whatever number we’re on now.

Then along came MLS Insider, one of the first steps in Major League Soccer’s attempts to embrace new media in the Twitter age. The man put in charge of the blog, Shawn Francis, was already well-known in American soccer blogging circles for The Offside Rules, a fact that provoked some controversy here at the time, as accusations of misogyny started flying about in the comnents. Others praised MLS for a bold move in hiring a leading soccer blogger who had shown plenty of smarts and savvy on TOR, while Adam Spangler was careful to point out SF’s track record in the NYC media world went well beyond the Offside Rules, not actually his main qualification for the job.

Let’s take a look at how the blog has performed since its launch last November.

mls-insider

Mission:

MLS Insider’s tagline is “blogging from the locker room…to the board room”, and the about page fills in those dots, saying “Blogging Major League Soccer from the side lines, cubicles, locker rooms and board room.”

And it pretty much does what it says on the tin in that regard.

Design:

MLS Insider has a fresh, simple and appealing layout, embracing the clean stylings of web 2.0 blogging. It’s smartly built using WordPress, the best blogging software out there, using a theme by Woothemes, a savvy choice, as most of their designs are fast-loading, smooth and easy to navigate around. Fonts are generously sized, buttons are big, and it’s not weighed down by 7,000 widgets or flash items jumping at you. That’s to say, it’s markedly not like the current mlsnet.com. It’s not groundbreaking by any means, but it does the job it needs to effectively

Web developer nitpick: the mouseover hover underlines on the social media links need to go. Don’t make shit I move my cursor onto jump around on me, please!  And nerdy note, the lack of keywords in the post URL’s will hurt the site’s search engine optimisation.

Dax's new doo video

Content:

The current content displayed on the frontpage gives a pretty fair appraisal of the site’s coverage and style, averaging a reasonable post or two a day. There’s an “exclusive” post about the signing of youngster Luis Gil by MLS, to give some credibility to the “insider” tag; there are a couple of updates about MLS stadia construction; and there’s a video of Dax McCarty getting a haircut, titled “Dax’s New Doo”.

A little awkwardly, stuffed in the middle of all this above Dax’s doo, is the short text of a press release from MLS about the current labour negotiations. The Insider should probably leave out that kind of bland content (even if it is on an important topic) to avoid messing up its flow, even if it pisses off someone in Communications. Instead, it should offer a link to the press release and perhaps even — and this is where an official blog faces a problem — offer an opinion on it.

And some who were concerned about Francis’ hiring based on what one commenter here called his willingness to use women to get hits probably won’t be delighted to see one of the featured articles right now is “Inside the Auditions for the ChivaGirls Dance Team,” produced in Los Angeles by Chivas USA’s web team, tame and lame as it is.

The blog is extremely multimedia-heavy. This works pretty well for its purpose, offering an imagery saturated look into the league. It’s blogging in the breezy sense. And its coverage at the MLS Cup Final showed what the Insider can do, with video and commentary on all the goings on surrounding the game from drum circles to DJing: the culture of the sport’s fans outside the stadium highlighted by MLS.

Some people simply won’t give a shit about this ephemera, but my suspicion is plenty do want what we could easily say is an MTV-flavouring to their MLS coverage. It gives it an angle often uncovered due to the dearth of mainstream coverage of MLS, a league lacking in media exploration of personality and colour outside the lines.

The blog doesn’t have a lot of (any?) longform or serious writing. This is obviously deliberate, and the hirings of Greg Lalas and Jonah Freedman this week by MLS to run the editorial content for the new main site set to launch in March suggests that’s where we’ll find some lengthier, more serious writing, one presumes (unless they will also be posting to the Insider blog, which is entirely possible).

Web developer nitpick: It would be nice if as well as tags, the blog categorised content as well. I wouldn’t mind just being able to click on a stadia category, and avoid a haircuts video category.

Comments

The real success or failure of a blog can be seen in the quantity and quality of comments in some ways. “Commenters” are often dismissed as a monolithic beast, but generally one sees that the temper of comments follows from the temper of the blog post(s). There’s a reason the Run of Play has interesting comment threads with intelligent insight running through them, while MLS Rumors descends into Dante’s fifth circle of hell within seconds of any post appearing. Community can even form on blogs from regular commenters getting to know each other.

That’s not yet happening on MLS Insider. There are no more than four comments on any of the MLS Insider’s posts for the last week. And the comments that do appear are not exactly interesting. This post of a video of Don Garber showing Edgar Davids around MLS headquarters highlights what I mean.

MLS Insider should consider whether the content needs a shift to a more thought provoking style to attract a deeper, intelligent community to it, though it will always be faced with an issue of dealing with the passing traffic any high-profile blog on the main MLS site will get.

mls-insider-twitter

Use of Social Media

The Insider has been very active on Twitter, with Francis — manning the Twitter as well — responding quickly to queries, and generally behaving like a normal blogger does on Twitter. It promises to be a slightly edgier Twitter presence than its new official sister, @MLS. Kudos for this approach, and this has garnered @MLS_Insider a healthy 15,194 followers in a few weeks. Smartly, especially in the MLS offseason, tweets are not just about MLS, but American players abroad too. Connecting MLS to the world’s game is obviously part of the new media strategy for MLS.

Blog Visibility:

It’s one thing for a sports league or team to have a blog. It’s another to have the balls to feature it heavily from its homepage and make it a central part of its web presence. In this case, we will have to hold fire on our verdict; MLS is set to launch an entirely new site in just two or three weeks, so it’d be unfair to judge right now, though MLS’ homepage already has pretty prominent boxes linking to the Insider’s Twitter and blog already. Expect the Insider blog to be heavily featured on the new site.

Verdict:

It’s early days yet for MLS Insider, and for MLS’ new media strategy as a whole. The blog excels in the simplicity of its design, and has plenty of original content well-presented that highlights angles fans might not usually find. There’s not a lot of meat to get one’s teeth into, and one would hope they might begin featuring some longform featuresand interviews by the newly-hired journalists, Greg Lalas and Jonah Freedman. Francis has connected well with the American soccer Twittersphere, but that community has yet to appear on the blog itself yet. The tricky hurdle the Insider has to overcome to foster this is how the blog can present some edgy or insightful commentary and connect to the soccer blogosphere to spark some intelligent discussion whilst staying within the dry restrictions of an official outlet.

It’ll be fascinating to see where this new media strategy goes from here as MLS rolls out its new central site, and its individual teams follow suit.

Up next in this series: the USL’s “Free Kicks” blog.

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