Category Archives: Media

A Fragmented Future? English Football Broadcast Rights and the Challenge of Google and Apple

Google and Apple may not exactly be the first names that spring to mind when looking for alternatives to challenge Sky’s dominance of sports broadcasting in Britain, but it should be no surprise that two of the giants of the tech and online world are eyeing up sport as a way to lure consumers into their new offerings. It was, after all, a key part of Rupert Murdoch’s strategy as he battled to establish his satellite broadcasting operation in Britain at the start of the 1990s.

In the past few days, there have been rumours that Google and Apple are both considering a bid for the broadcasting rights to the Premier League when they come up for renewal later this year. They remain just that – rumours – and it seems likely that Apple won’t bid, while there is nothing to indicate yet that Google may consider making a sizeable investment in English football broadcast rights. But with both companies expected to move further into the TV and broadcasting industry, it does show other leagues and sports that it may be worth thinking outside the traditional broadcasting methods. Indeed, for some, it may be the only way to grow and survive.

Under the current broadcast rights deal, Sky is paying around £1.6bn to show 115 live Premier League games per season, with ESPN broadcasting the final package of games. Under a deal with the European Commission, the Premier League had to ensure that the six packages were divided between more than one broadcaster. That deal has now expired, although the Premier League is unlikely to risk another legal battle by awarding all games to Sky (or, more unlikely, another broadcaster).

The amounts of money involved are quite staggering and few broadcasters can afford them. Even lower down the English league pyramid structure, where rights are nowhere near as expensive, the cost of producing live games or even highlight shows are still high enough to be questionable in terms of cost-effectiveness. Due to budget cuts, the BBC opted not to show Football League highlights during the recent festive period, despite a full set of fixtures, while in non-League Premier Sports opted to pull out of screening Darlington versus Barrow last season rather than risk sending a crew to a game that stood a possibility of being called off.

And yet with the growth of the internet and the willingness over the past few seasons for broadcasters to snap up as many sport and football rights as possible, fans have been treated to a proliferation of football across a range of platforms to the extent that it’s almost expected that non-Premier League games and highlights will be if not free, then at least readily available. Never mind that football has had its fingers burnt twice in the past with the collapse of both ITV Digital and Setanta, the expectation is there.

This, however, overlooks the fact that if non-Premier League football was thought to be profitable for broadcasters, they would be rushing to show more of it. Ratings for ESPN’s foreign league coverage are low in the UK, while the expense involved for lower league games is high. That none of the commercial broadcasters other than Sky have made a serious play for these live matches in recent years tells its own story. Only the BBC, with its public service commitments, could make a sensible argument for broadcasting lower league football, and with their proposed Delivering Quality First cuts – especially around local radio commentaries – even Auntie appears to be scaling back lower league coverage.

This, then, is the state of football broadcasting in the UK at the moment. Rights for live Premier League games are so expensive to bid for that only a small handful of broadcasters – Sky, ESPN and, given their recent acquisitions of French rights, probably al-Jazeera – are able to offer the vast sums required, while the lower leagues are too expensive to produce to make a serious challenge to Sky for the rights (or, in the case of Premier Sports and their deal to broadcast non-League football, hardly enriching for the clubs involved).

Which is why looking outside of the traditional mediums could be seen as a good thing. For the Premier League, should Apple and Google, two companies with the financial clout to challenge Sky, decide to bid then it could herald the much-needed shake-up of the current near-monopoly on top flight rights. For lower leagues, exploring non-linear options are, quite simply, a must if they are to at least stand a chance of reaching existing fans and new audiences. A new generation of internet connected app-friendly televisions are on the way powered by familiar OS and Android platforms. While it may be a tad hyperbolic to proclaim these will change the way you watch TV forever, we’re already seeing the current generation of IPTVs having a slight shift on the way we consume our television. The world of streaming, tablets, phones and TV is amalgamating as one.

Of the realistic options, Apple appear to be the most curious of those rumoured. The tech company already has a deal in place with Sky to show archive footage through iTunes, while Sky’s successful Sky Go mobile and tablet apps currently offer a slick Premier League broadcasting experience on the iPhone and iPad.

Bidding for expensive UK Premier League rights would also represent something of a risk for Apple, given football’s standing in the US, although globally, given the Premier League’s appeal, it could prove to be a sound piece of business, especially in the long term if it secures the US rights to the competition given the growing appeal of the “EPL” on that side of the Atlantic. But any movement on this, if it were to materialise, would as likely depend on the offerings of Apple TV, how it develops and whether it becomes a mass-market product.

The search giant Google, however, would seem to be much more of a natural fit for broadcasting rights. They already own YouTube, which signed a two year deal to broadcast the Indian Premier League cricket. Under YouTube’s stewardship, the channel racked up a cool 50 million views. In comparison, current rights holder Times India’s channel, which is produced in conjunction with Google, has just under 15 millions views. The appetite and familiarity with well known sporting brands is, it appears, present online and is not discouraged by a non-traditional media company owning the rights.

IPL YouTube

For Google, the infrastructure (including Android), not to mention the money, is in place, although one complication may be the ongoing copyright dispute between the Premier League and YouTube. Google have also recently shed many extra projects as they get behind their core offerings (while continuing to innovate), and the video Hangouts on Google+ raise an interesting possibility of shared viewing experiences between friends or fans of clubs through special individual channels. There are so many possibilities for sports broadcasting on Google – be it TV, apps, online or social network – it would be easy to spend a whole article speculating on what these may be, but suffice to say the barriers offered by traditional broadcasters would be broken down should the leagues be willing to do so – itself a big sticking point.

It is also worth, briefly, considering Facebook. The social behemoth may not have been mentioned thus far but they have already shown that, on a smaller scale, they can very competently handle sports broadcasting. Budweiser and the FA’s streaming of the Extra Preliminary FA Cup Qualifying tie between Ascot United and Wembley FC may have been a one-off novelty but was a smooth, entertaining and enjoyable experience. Liking Budweiser’s page was a small price to pay for a professional broadcast and the online viewing figures of 27,000 were more than even ITV4 gets for some Europa League matches.

Facebook broadcast of Ascot United

Facebook’s goal of being at the heart of everybody’s lives would fit with acquiring sports rights (especially as the majority of work making it broadcast-ready would probably be done by the partners). It is not hard to envisage live streaming of games through the social network or via the Facebook app on your TV. Again, the restrictions here are unlikely to be on Facebook’s part but from the Premier League or any other body selling their live broadcast rights.

For the Premier League, they have the luxury of picking and choosing, such is the strength and popularity of the product they are selling. Whether they’d be willing to relinquish their grip and allow any sort of fragmentation from the new media companies potentially interested in their rights is another question. For the lower leagues, it is up to them to seize the initiative.

What would the Football League be worth if the rights were sold to Facebook or Google? Would more people be inclined to subscribe or sign-up to an app on a new generation IPTV? Could revenue be raised through pay-per-view subscriptions as well as longer subscriptions? Would lower league or non-League games attract higher audiences if they were streamed via the official page on Facebook or via YouTube? And if these games were readily available to the casual lower league fan, what impact would this have on attendances? None of these questions are easy or even possible to answer, but need to be asked or considered, at the very least.

Or could we yet see a situation where it is not the league who negotiate the deal for the rights, but an enterprising club? Think of the individual rights that are negotiated by La Liga clubs in Spain, but then fragmented and offered to a range of platforms and tech or social companies, not the traditional broadcasters.

Already the individual leagues risk being left far behind when it comes to mobile or TV app development, if they have even considered it. Broadcasters and other companies know that mobile viewing – be it on a phone or tablet – will provide a significant market in the future. Whether the leagues are following suit is debatable.

We could potentially reach a point where an enterprising club with an abnormal fan base for the division they are in – say Luton or Bradford, for example – decide to cut out the middle man and go direct to Google and stream through the official Luton Town YouTube channel and offer special Luton Town viewing hangouts with post-match viewer-engaged content via Hangouts on Google+. Or perhaps the game will be streamed via the official Bradford City Facebook page and IPTV app, with all the social benefits that this brings, not to mention the marketing advantages such a channel offers to the club.

And if these lower league clubs are successful, the bigger clubs will almost certainly want their slice of the action. Perhaps we may face a future where you purchase the Facebook app but opt to watch through the dedicated Manchester City channel rather than the main broadcast, or a host of other fragmented options, while chatting to other fans of the same persuasion during the match. Fanciful? Perhaps. But you can already see the foundations of virtual stadiums just through this method, and this probably only discusses a small part of what could be achieved.

But this does get ahead of what would currently be required. For both Football League and Premier League clubs, there would need to be a majority vote to abandon the collective agreement on income from these football rights. To do so would be hugely controversial and go against the very fabric of the game in Britain. Yet with governing bodies often some way behind clubs and technology in both adoption and thinking, the question is how prepared clubs would be to miss out if a new route makes them more money.

Certainly the aforementioned Manchester City are already leading the way, digitally. Their website is rightly lauded as one of the best in the country and their YouTube channel is both slick and engaging. Should opportunities open up for exploiting online viewing, it is clubs such as City who are likely to be at the forefront. The infrastructure and planning is in place, it is just the league itself that prevents them from maximising their online potential in terms of use of live broadcasts and highlights.

Man City YouTube Channel

Given football broadcast rights are complicated enough as it is, perhaps we may see another layer added for tablet or TV apps rather than channels accessed through a browser. Perhaps it is these clubs may look to exploit separately rather than collectively. Could online prove an exception and break the collective agreement? Technologically, there are many attractive and exciting reasons for doing so. Legally it may prove more different, and morally it does not sit comfortably with the idea of keeping the game competitive (and would, as likely, provoke a similar reaction to Liverpool’s executive Ian Ayre raising the notion of clubs individually negotiating their international broadcast rights).

Whether these changes in technology and broadcast viewing habits would improve top flight football, or simply serve to make it more tribal and take it further away from its roots is an another question, although one you feel the clubs and league won’t worry to much about if it proves successful, even if they are unable to negotiate individual rights. In an online medium very much concerned with openness and equality, any success in this area could serve to make the bigger clubs even richer. For the Premier League it’s a welcome addition to have on the table. For the smaller clubs, it may become a necessity.

It Can Be Done: Jimmy Murphy and the Aftermath of Munich

In a smoky, wood-panelled boardroom, Welshman Jimmy Murphy — portrayed by David Tennant in the BBC’s new dramatisation of Munich, United hears the words “For the time being we are going to shut down Manchester United Football Club.”

It’s only days after Munich. Manchester United no longer have a first team. The Manchester United board’s decision to pull the plug on the club for the season seems understandable.

Jimmy Murphy expresses his disappointment, and takes a puff on his cigarette, listening to the reasoning presented to him by the board. The Manchester United assistant coach is representing the playing side alone, with Busby still hospitalised in Munich. They tell him nobody could put together a new team with just days until United’s next game.

“I can do it.” Jimmy says, straightforwardly.

“It can’t be done,” the Chairman of the board replies.

It’s now that Murphy’s earnest passion and determination displays itself.

“Don’t tell me what can’t be done,” Murphy replies. “When Matt Busby brought me here they told me we’d never make a go of it, that it couldn’t be done. That Manchester United would never make a success. Told us we couldn’t win the league playing kids. Told us we couldn’t match the best teams in Europe. And every bloody time we proved them wrong, so with respect sir, it can be done, it will be done, I’ll make sure of it.”

Jimmy Murphy

The previous scene had shown Bobby Charlton giving up on football: his box of boots, posters and balls placed tearfully outside the back of his house for anyone to take.

Bobby Charlton, United, Munich

United is about the plane crash that led to that despair but it’s not about Charlton or Busby or Edwards, it’s about Jimmy Murphy, who is portrayed as the golden thread that kept the club united in the wake of an unbelievable tragedy.

Busby’s babes before the crash are portrayed as Murphy’s men – boys that he moulded into characters strong enough to win the league as kids, both on and off the field. It’s Murphy who tells Charlton to kick a ball against a wall at Old Trafford for an hour a day until he develops his left foot as well as his right. It’s Murphy on the training field in the pissing rain with the players, cheekily telling Duncan Edwards he’s almost good enough to play for Wales:

It’s Murphy giving a nervous Charlton a pep-talk on the Old Trafford pitch:

And it’s Murphy who, to return to the smoky boardroom, keeps Manchester United going.

“Because how we are in the future will be founded on how we behave today,” he tells the board. “Any questions?”

The focus on Murphy seems to be the cause of Sandy Busby’s ire – Matt Busby’s son was incensed that Busby was not shown in a tracksuit, not portrayed affably. But the fact is, Busby is besides the point to this story: the story of Jimmy Muphy. Busby has been lionised, always will be lionised, and quite rightly so. Murphy, on the other hand, has been a footnote to history, the assistant who was thrust into the leadership role with Busby’s absence after the Munich disaster (Murphy had missed the flight because he was away coaching Wales), the assistant who always had done more than anyone outside Old Trafford knew.  This Independent piece by Ian Herbert from around the 50th anniversary of Munich explains:

Murphy was, as Sir Bobby Charlton put it, “a brilliant teacher of players, but he didn’t want to command”. Perhaps that explains, as United prepare to mark the 50th anniversary, the sense among some around Old Trafford that Murphy has not been remembered as he might for his part in managing United through the days of impoverished struggle and, as Charlton remembers it, “panic” when the club attempted to rebuild after Munich.

United, unlike in future days, did not have enormous resources for Murphy to fall back in the days after the disaster. The coffins from Muncih were laid out Old Trafford’s gymnasium, polished by laundry room staff. Herbert continues:

In this scene of devastation, Jimmy Murphy’s great powers of judgement and humanity were to serve him well. Busby would be able to sign Denis Law from Torino for a club record £115,000 in 1962, but Murphy had to decide which youth team players to cast into the fray as United struggled to fulfil fixtures and which to buy when the league gave them special dispensation to bring some in. Ernie Taylor, Blackpool and England inside forward and Stan Crowther, a tough tackler from Aston Villa, were shrewd buys.

Murphy also convinced Billy Foulkes, who survived Munich, he could make the step up to club captain after Roger Byrne’s death. “Billy said: ‘I can’t do it and I won’t do it’,” Murphy’s son recalls. “My father said: ‘You can and you will’. That’s what my dad was like. He had this knack of picking people and he was usually proved right.”

Within three months Murphy had taken United to the FA Cup final at Wembley, an achievement perhaps as great in the circumstances as the win over Benfica there a decade later.

50 years on, the sense that Murphy’s story has been untold can be put to rest thanks to United.

Football, Blogs and Newspapers Unite? Part Six

So, in summary, a partnership between online newspapers and blogs—for example, an online network linked on a football mainpage with rotating featured posts—comes with both potential advantages and drawbacks.

For bloggers, a network could provide a bigger readership and a closer working relationship with an expert newspaper editorial staff who could pitch story angles or offer general advice. Depending on the advertising model in place, it could also provide potentially higher revenue incentives to keep invest the time and energy necessary to maintain a top quality site, and motivate writers to build blogs worthy of joining one of these networks, improving the current standard above the eyeball-hungry, SEO shlock banner ad approach. For newspapers, a blog network can offer readers a much wider area of coverage, global perspectives, differing opinions, historical analysis than a single newsroom could produce on its own. It could also provide lower-cost content on the web, should news organizations decide to make news content available only through paid Smart Phone or iPad-like apps.

The drawbacks, however, are significant. For newspapers, a network would rob overseers of direct editorial control, leaving the possibility for some major legal department snafus. For bloggers too, the arrangement might cede more control to advertisers and newspapers. As someone who hasn’t put up an ad banner yet in three years going, I completely understand.

But any talk of newspaper/blog coops is just pipe-dreamery if there there’s no money to be made, and for that reason I think it’s important to leave this final part to a discussion about the absolutely woeful state of online advertising, especially with regard to football blogging. Keep in mind, this is going to be a low-tech breakdown; the issue is with philosophy, not mechanics.

Currently, advertising through blogs is fairly low-maintenance. The model is simple, generalized across the board, and easy to start up. If you have a Blogger blog for example, you can sign up for AdSense and watch as the pennies roll in from the rare wayward ad clicks from your reading audience. Or perhaps you want to be connected to advertisers in search of blogs of a particular kind. Well, Ahmed Bilal does a bang-up job helping out soccer bloggers with his Football Media ad network. But even with the narrower focus on content-appropriate advertisers, you’re still stuck with these two options—banner ads, meaning the more “Wayne Rooney is a Fuckhead” stories, the more clicks, the more revenue; or “Social Advertising,” which essentially means astroturfing your posts (the blogging equivalent of this).

This kind of advertising is built on the Necessary Nuisance model. You want to watch the newest episode of your favourite TV show? Go to a newly-released movie? Walk downtown? Watch a popular YouTube vid? Listen to top 40 radio? Read a magazine or a newspaper? You have to deal with ads. Advertisers don’t care as much if you hate them, because the endgame is not necessarily consumption (a common mistake among anti-consumerist lefties, incidentally). The end game is product awareness, which helps consolidate brand loyalty. Ads legitimize brand, which comes in handy for producers when you’re at the grocery store buying one of the several thousand deodorants on sale.

This kind of advertising this is usually expensive to produce and sell. We know the famous line about ads costing more than the shows they appear on than the show itself. And selling print ad space in the analog age, as we know now apres le deluge, was (and still is) the primary source of revenue for both newspapers and magazines. Yet the high costs are justified; while TV shows and magazines are expensive to produce, the networks and media conglomerates share a much larger portion of their respective markets than an individual blogger floating on the interweb, and therefore get a lot of eyeballs by default (e.g. two national papers in Canada, three major networks). And the bigger the content-producers’ chunk of the media consumer pie (measured in ratings, circulation), the more they can charge advertisers for access to said chunk. The system works!

The online incorporation of this model is, on the surface, ingenious. Contrary to other media, banner ads and widgets are often cheap to produce (and cheap looking), and endlessly reproducible. Pretty much anyone can put them up on their site, and because of the miracle PPC and CPM, the onus is on the individual blogger to get in the necessary eyeballs to generate more revenue. No clumsy Nielson ratings, no circulation statistics. You take an hour to post something up, a reader takes thirty seconds to give you a page impression, and five seconds to click on an ad. Clink, penny in a cup. The more eyeballs you get, the more clinks you get.

But there is a major problem: this model works against the essence of what makes the internet the internet. No, it’s not memes or viral videos or any of that HuffPo hooey. To put it simply, it’s diversity. While many of us would be content to visit Slate, Gawker, Boing Boing and the Huffington Post before calling it a day, there are many online readers who prefer something more personalized to their tastes. Some prefer even more specialization within their chosen niche. Even though the bloggers who attract these like-minded readers might get fewer uniques (meaning, under the current model, less penny clinks), they carry a significant level of value for a producer with a niche product geared toward a particular demographic (educated, psychic, Japanese, whatever). Some of these producers don’t have much of an ad budget, and never have.

Some bloggers have already realized this and formed their own ad networks. Yet bloggers aren’t in the ad business, and don’t have the time, resources or energy to pitch to companies that aren’t used to doing much advertising beyond word of mouth at all. Ad companies don’t have the resources (finance and time) either to deal with a myriad of different blogging networks, each focusing on a niche within a niche. Much better to deal with a single ad department at a newspaper, for example. This is obviously where a newspaper blog network could come in handy, but I think the real key difference is the noise filter that newspapers could provide.

There is a reason why Andrew Sullivan’s “Daily Dish” is one of the most popular blogs on the internet—it is an incredible filter for the most relevant political and cultural happenings of the moment. But Sullivan’s blog is still a general colloquium featuring this and that interesting article or video; most of the time, a lay reader who wants to get into a particular subject, like football history for example, will have to try using Google to find blogs suited to her tastes. She might click on the top-rated site, which could be great, or, could be crap. Maybe there are also countless other sites she might find interesting, but she’ll have to dedicate a lot of time on the web, carefully looking among blog link lists and compiling her own personal network of top football history blogs. After awhile, she might go extra mile and set up an elaborate system of RSS feeds or bookmarks or saved browser tabs. But at this point, she’ll probably have to be a hardcore football history nerd to keep this effort up.

What if I just want to get an overview of the best sites covering a particular angle on a particular topic? Where do I go to find what I’m looking for? Newspapers would go beyond self-appointed networks in that they provide key editorial oversight, oversight that would likely reflect the readership of the paper (quite a different list of football blogs you’d see on the Sun than on the Guardian). And as these networks attract more online newspaper readers interested in particular subjects, trusting in the editorial judgment and brand behind the selection, the value of these readers for advertisers despite their smaller numbers, increases. And that doesn’t just (or at all) mean the big brand, product legitimacy advertisers—that means advertisers working on behalf of much smaller, niche companies, to get people to directly buy a particular product. And the product ad might not even be a nuisance; depending on the specialization, it may be something these blog readers want to buy. EFW readers might want cheap flights from Gatwick to Barcelona; Run of Play readers might want to buy a copy of the latest Football Manager, or a subscription to WSC.

This is the value I think the web provides, a value that it has yet to take advantage of. I think a partnership between newspapers and blogs, especially in football, could form a group of dedicated, special interest readers. But I think the movement in making this happen has to come from advertisers. Perhaps as more money goes into online advertising, we might see this kind of thing, or perhaps the money will go into making flashier videos that obstruct text and clutter websites. It’s an idea, anyway. Thanks for reading.

Image credit: burtonwood + holmes.


Football, Blogs and Newspapers Unite? Part Five

This series came about in part from a post from the not-so-anonymous-anymore blogger, Fake Sigi, which discussed the post rate on Pitch Invasion since the end of the summer, especially in light of the editor’s new column at BigSoccer. FS wrote:

My main concern was that Tom [Dunmore] would start posting more and more at BigSoccer, leaving Pitch Invasion to slowly decompose. From my experience, it’s hard enough to maintain one web writing medium when you’re not a hard core freelancer. And mostly those fears turned out to be unfounded through July when Pitch Invasion posted something on the order of nearly three new articles a day.

And then Tom went on short “week-long” hiatus on August 12, and Pitch Invasion has for all intents and purposes gone dark since then.

From there, FS goes on to say—to use an expression that jumped the shark years ago—PI has jumped the shark. So I spoke to Tom about the drop-off in the rate of posts here, and he put it this way:

It’s really rather simple…I was finishing writing a 400 page soccer book and running the Chicago Fire’s Independent Supporters’ Association…the former took up about 20 hours a week, the latter 40 hours a week, and I blasted out a few BigSoccer pieces for some $ as well, in part for the cash, in part for the interest of reaching a new audience. And I also have a life!

Plus [PI contributors, including yours truly] eased up post-WC on PI too so the site lost its regular momentum.  I guess at the end of the day, it’s not a successful business (nor was it ever meant to earn full-time income for anyone) and it’s not going to run itself when nobody has 30 hours a week to work on it for very little $ reward.  At the end of the day, I’d rather run nothing on it than run low quality crap.

And there you have it: one major pitfall for any successful blog (and blogger) is the lack of any solid financial return on what can be an enormous investment of time and energy (it’s a “hustle,” as Jason Davis wrote). And it’s not as if there is money awaiting the hard-working blogger down the long and windy road, outside of using the blog as a platform for almost invariably better-paying external freelance work. Needless to say, Dunmore, nor anyone (save me on occasion) has anything to apologize for with regard to Pitch Invasion’s contribution to independent football writing. The problem is that for most of us (hi Brooks!) right now, blogging is for the most part its own reward. Which is why so many great blogs, even those loaded with up PPC banners and decent ad deals and a bunch of subscriptions, will eventually start to peter out, oh, say, around the three year mark.

For some, this isn’t actually a problem at all. Blogs are great in part because of the low threshold involved in starting up. Anyone can get a domain on Blogger or WordPress and hang their dirty footballing laundry out to dry for millions to read (or not read). And anyone can just as easily stop posting, often with nobody the wiser. This is in many ways what makes blogs great. They live and die in the moment, they have their time, and then they cease to be relevant. Then someone else fills in the empty space, although never in quite the same way.

Other writers question whether there is any intrinsic financial worth in blogging at all. Local Kings Cross blogger William Perrin, quoted in the Alan Rusbridger lecture I keep banging on about, believes there isn’t anything about independent journalism that “deserves” remuneration:

[The site] costs us about £11 a month in cash, which is about three of four pints of beer … we have a very strong community of people around here who send us stuff. None of the people who work with me are journalists. I’m not a journalist by any stretch of the imagination; it’s an entirely volunteer effort … Some people what I do in my community some people label journalism, it’s a label I actually resist.

Indeed, once you add the expectation of post-rates, editorial control, the concerns of a legal department, and the expectation you will always cover a certain topic in a certain way—all, by the way, possible elements of any network blog/newspaper partnership—well, it’s not blogging anymore, is it?

With some of these questions this in mind, I spoke with a successful blogger who is already branching out into a major media organization with his Guardian Chalkboards feature, Zonal Marking author Michael Cox. I asked him if he thought ZM would continue unaffected even with the prospect of further outside work, and whether he thought there was any incentive for blogs and media orgs to cooperate:

Yes, ZM will continue, really the Guardian stuff is irrelevant from that point of view – not to do it down, it’s great and a privilege to do, but but doesn’t really change the way I operate. I just do a column for them on Monday mornings, and will happily go in for the podcast if I’m invited back, but ZM is still my main task. There hasn’t really been any change in it now that I’m working for a ‘bigger’ publication.

I suppose it depends if the blog can sustain itself on its own financially (through other means than through a link with a mainstream organisation). If not, then the blogger will probably be forced to either accept money from a publication (in which case editorial control might suffer, understandably) or they’ll just work full-time for the newspaper and do the blog as an ‘extra’. But that’s not really the case here – ZM’s got me a chance to write for the Guardian but now that’s me doing it, not Zonal Marking being featured on the Guardian.

Cox, like most football bloggers, considers his blog an end in itself. When I started my own site, A More Splendid Life, I deliberately intended it to be an experimental platform for my own football writing, just to see if I could do it. After a while though, it took on a life of its own. Even when it was in my best interest to stop, I kept going because people kept reading; I didn’t feel it was right to just kill it off. To this day, I have often contemplated chucking it out entirely and starting my own personal site featuring writing on a host of different topics, but I don’t want to wreck AMSL as a soccer-only site.

The sense of your blog as an autonomous creation is a powerful motivation to keep going, but it over the long haul it is no match for sustainable financial incentives. Even if you’re wildly successful at blogging, additional freelance work will sap your energy and resources. A very small percentage of individual bloggers might get bought or “sponsored” by print pubs, able to maintain the creative and editorial control they had before, but the reality is most independent football writers will either hand over the reigns to someone else, cut down on the post rate, or just stop. That might not be necessarily a bad thing, but when readers come to rely on certain sites to provide coverage on a topic badly neglected by mainstream media organizations with finite resources, the loss of an excellent independent blog leaves a marked gap. While most football bloggers have more than a little William Perrin in them, it’s worth considering that establishing a means for providing sustainable financial rewards for bloggers might not necessarily corrupt the spontaneity, freedom and creativity of the medium.

Image Credit: CarbonNYC.

Football, Blogs, and Newspapers Unite? Part Four

There is a pervasive trend in some big media organizations—especially in my home country Canada, with two national dailies and two major national broadcasters, one public, one private—to become more “relevant” by offering content perceived to be attractive to a wider circle of readers/viewers/listeners. The public Canadian Broadcasting Corporation has for example in recent years moved toward producing ratings-driven drama programs on their main television network (and has been quite successful at it, although one wonders what the underlying reason is for this approach when the other private network broadcaster CTV essentially provides the same programming, and has done for years), and revamped their classical music channel to include more “indie rock,” singer-songwriter content during the work day for the underrepresented urban hipster office set.

Similarly, the national newspaper The Globe and Mail moved to a new print design closely resembling the Guardian, although with what seems like about half the written content, a greatly expanded Style section, and more knee-jerk editorials and graphical tchotchkes masquerading as columns. In both instances, the redesigns seem driven more by zealous MBA graduates more attuned to reacting to data from group studies, telephone surveys, and demographic shifts, the kind of people who obsess over reading the widest possible tastes of media consumers.

The Guardian online meanwhile is still figuring out what to do with a mass of readers from outside their borders, particularly in Canada and the US, who have fled ugly, floating cursor video ads, anti-intuitive layouts, or the multiple page newspaper article redumps on nytimes.com, and found a new home at guardian.co.uk. With a wide variety (emphasis emphasis!) of interesting international stories, blogs and articles tailor-made for internet reading (and a nice, well-spaced font), careful, non-intrusive use of video embedding, the Guardian site seems designed by people who use the internet—again, it’s not just an adjunct to the newspaper, or an over-monetized flash ad animation dumping ground. Once more, it’s worth returning to Alan Rusbridger’s excellent Hugh Cudlipp lecture (although the video links are all broken in a nice bit of irony). If you haven’t already, take the time to read the whole thing. But let’s focus in on this quote:

During the last three months of 2009 the Guardian was being read by 40% more people than during the same period in 2008. That’s right, a mainstream media company – you know, the ones that should admit the game’s up because they are so irrelevant and don’t know what they are doing in this new media landscape – has grown its audience by 40% in a year. More Americans are now reading the Guardian than read the Los Angeles Times. This readership has found us, rather than the other way round. Our total marketing spend in America in the past 10 years has been $34,000.

Nor is all this being bought by tricks or by setting chain-gangs of reporters early in the morning to re-write stories about Lady GaGa or Katie Price. In that same period last year, our biggest growth areas were environment (up 137%), technology (up 125%) and art and design (up 84%). Science was up 81%; politics 39% and Comment is Free 38%.

I think it’s worth having a look again at that figure once more—$34, 000. In addition of course to the growth percentages in areas of the news other online news sites have long neglected (science, design etc.) And if you want to point to the Guardian’s healthy endowment as proof others could not have gone down this online content route, here’s Rusbridger again: “Our first decade of digital growth wasn’t subsidised by the Scott Trust – it was relatively modest and covered by the profits of the paper.”

In other words, the Guardian’s online success is largely built on old fashioned content. But not, importantly, content merely transferred verbatim from print to online. Guardian Football for example works to provide content tailor made for online readers who already share a good deal of knowledge of their subject, and the key features of Guardian Football—the Joy of Six, the Knowledge, the Chalkboard analysis—reflect the reality that most online readers already know what they’re looking for. These readers are in perpetual search for more specialized content in one or more areas—politics, sport, science, whatever. The Guardian is successful because it provides content that assumes a particular level of knowledge on the readers behalf, i.e. it respects that its readers have sought the content out, rather than glanced over it after picking up the paper off a subway seat (this respect is perhaps one of the reasons why it employs few of the patronizing football analysts found in other UK broadsheets—you know who they are).

Therefore, a partnership between the Guardian and the more reliable, independent specialized football bloggers makes a lot of sense. While this relationship has been ongoing at the Guardian, in part through the “Favourite Things” section on the Football main site and through the Observer Premier League fan round-up, during the 2010 World Cup it came to fruition with the “Guardian Fans’ Network“, an attempt to have bloggers fill in content gaps inevitable in covering a thirty-two nation tournament. I asked Guardian Sport editor Sean Ingle for his thoughts on the project:

We had two primary objectives when we launched the Guardian Fans’ Network: first, to tap into the talent and expertise of our readers and second, to build a network of experts in all 32 countries. We have long realised that guardian.co.uk is a global news organisation but it’s only more recently that we have made the logical next step … ie given our finite resources, we can’t cover everything so therefore it makes sense to involve our readers more often. For the World Cup it was always going to be impossible for us to cover the reaction in, say, Honduras if they beat Spain or in Ghana when they reached the quarter-finals.

The fans’ network enabled us to do that – our network of 125 supporters in all 32 countries represented in South Africa tweeted regularly, sent us leads, pitched for paid commissions and even sent us photographs of how the World Cup was celebrated where they were. The whole process wasn’t perfect; some of the blogs were patchy and I wish we had had more time to suggest tweaks and rewrites. Also some of our planned graphically wizardry didn’t come off – we simply ran out of time. But on the whole it was a success.

In other words, the network built on what was already one of the key strengths of the Guardian Online: specialization. But here you can already see some of the drawbacks with this kind of partnership. First, there’s the unavoidable lack of editorial control that comes with ceding online space to outsiders. Second, while I think a successful newspaper/blogger network would have to respect the autonomy of bloggers in choosing what they write about and how they write it (more on that tomorrow), there are legal issues about what gets published, issues that could be insurmountable, especially in the UK with its stringent libel laws. Third, while a blog network on a newspaper site might produce more income for bloggers through a number of different schemes (network sponsorships, or “micro-advertizing,” smaller companies selling niche product directly to readers of highly-specialized blogs), newspaper writers could reasonably argue to their bosses that these kinds of networks erode wages for staff and freelancers.

These drawbacks need to be very carefully looked at, and some could be insurmountable stumbling blocks to any projects of this type. But there is good reason to think this route might be inevitable. Here’s another little bit from Rusbridger’s lecture that Ingle specifically highlighted to me:

We are edging away from the binary sterility of the debate between mainstream media and new forms which were supposed to replace us. We feel as if we are edging towards a new world in which we bring important things to the table – editing; reporting; areas of expertise; access; a title, or brand, that people trust; ethical professional standards and an extremely large community of readers. The members of that community could not hope to aspire to anything like that audience or reach on their own; they bring us a rich diversity, specialist expertise and on the ground reporting that we couldn’t possibly hope to achieve without including them in what we do.

Ingle elaborates a little on this when it comes to Guardian Sport:

There will be always be some difference between papers and bloggers – the latter are unlikely to be able to go to every big game, get off-the-record briefings from managers and club staff etc – but the gap has narrowed considerably over recent years. For instance, Michael Cox from zonalmarking.net does our chalkboards and has appeared on our Football Weekly podcast while the Observer have a fans’ network in which you can read what supporters of Premier League teams made of their team’s latest performance.

The gap has narrowed, the format for a growing partnership already exists. Tomorrow, we’ll hear from Michael Cox of Zonal Marking and discuss some of the advantages and drawbacks from the perspective of bloggers, and Wednesday we’ll conclude the series with a summary and a look at where we go from here.

Image Credit: Mike Bailey-Gates.

Football, Blogs and Newspapers Unite? Part Three

So today, the meat and potatoes as it were of this series: what might more cooperation between independent blogs and on-line newspaper football sites actually look like? Before I dive in, I think it’s important to point out that I’m not going to lay out concrete models with specific revenue streams and publishing formats, but rather point out general features that would make a union more desirable than the current situation, where the only mutual connection between newspapers and blogs comes in the form of hyperlinks.

I should also mention that discussion of the obstacles to this kind of union will be examined at length in a future post, but feel free to start shredding in the comments.

It’s about revenue, stupid.

Let’s get down to it: do well-written, exciting, original football blogs carry any inherent monetary value? I’m going to be flashy and controversial and say, in and of themselves, probably not. A writer can build a brilliant football site, gain lots of readers, carry a lot of blog “influence” as measured by one or another social media yardstick. But based on the extraordinarily diffuse nature of blogs, most of the time advertisers doesn’t have much incentive to go beyond a low-cost CPM or CPC banner ad or feed approach that rewards views and views alone and doesn’t much care about quality. And even the most successful soccer blogs will only ever have a limited share of the eyeballs, unless they start churning out the SEO goods like Wayne Rooney stories, Drogba stories, WAGS, you get the idea.

Okay then, maybe your football blog has a good-sized, dedicated readership, and you want to try the donation route, either providing all of the content for free and asking kindly for money from your readers in return, or withholding portions or the entirety of your blog (essentially a partial or whole hog paywall). That won’t work either, in part because of the diffuse nature of football blogs mentioned above, but also because of what Malcolm Gladwell termed the “weak-ties” problem with on-line communities in his controversial New Yorker article, “Small Change.”

While Gladwell specifically targets Twitter and Facebook activism, his remarks regarding the weak ties that bind online communities can be applied to the ties that bind blogs with their readers. I might read your football blog everyday, come to love it, and come to expect a regular post-rate. But if you put your posts up behind a paywall, or offer “exclusive posts” for free, chances are most of your readers won’t pay. A small enough percentage might, but not at too exorbitant a price. This small percentage may match or even exceed the CPM CPC model while not having to depend as much on the number of eyeballs, which is good, but I’d say for most bloggers donations alone are not really financially sustainable (if anyone of you has had great success with the donation model, feel free to call me out).

The power of filters

Typically, the “bajillion blogs” nature of the web has always been regarded as a problem to be solved, not as an opportunity to be taken advantage of, particularly by advertisers. As I laid out yesterday, football is poised to take advantage of the plethora of sites out there, in part because of the demand, at some time or another, for blogs with a specific football focus. Now, the one positive you tend to hear about the “bajillion blogs” problem is that good blogs rise to the surface. It’s not a coincidence that great blogs like Run of Play, Fake Sigi, Zonal Marking, Les Rosbifs, EFW, MFUSA, and a whole whack of others tend to get noticed, linked-to, talked about. But as I wrote yesterday, even as well-regarded as these sites are, they’re still essentially independent, working their way through the online world alone (which is fine, really and truly).

What if some of these sites though decided to go it alone and form a network? It’s my view that a blogging network isn’t much worth it if you’re going to go down the banner ad route. You might get a few more clicks, and some more pennies in a cup, but the added cost of organizing how ad revenues are split, getting your tax information in order, recruiting advertisers, trying to reach consensus won’t really make it worth it. Plus, with banner ads you’re still fundamentally stuck with the quantity over quality approach to generating revenue.

Okay then, if not banner ads, then what?  Well, probably something else entirely, but let’s interrupt for a second and take a look at a quote from Alan Rusbridger’s recent Hugh Cudlipp lecture (sent to me by Guardian sport editor Sean Ingle in relation to this series, who we’ll be hearing from later). This is Sir Martin Sorrell, head of the WPP marketing group.

“I would hope that within five years, so let’s say 2013, or something like that, we would be at least one third in digital. We know that customers are spending 20% of time online. So if clients are spending 12% and consumers are spending 20% – and I’ve seen some evidence to suggest they are spending more than 20% – then there’s a natural gravitational pull to 20% of the budgets being spent online … my guess is that when we get to a third of our business in 2014 we may very well want to up that percentage to 40% or even 50%.”

It’s my guess that as more and more marketing firms dedicate more and more financial resources to the web, the industry leaders will have to go beyond the CPM CPC, widget or banner ad models mentioned above. Those models exist on the old magazine model, where print ads sit next to print articles. Most of the time this is a very clumsy approach. As almost all of you still reading at this point are football bloggers, you’ll know how inept most advertisers are, especially in the aftermath of the 2010 World Cup. A company spending 10% of its money on web ads isn’t going to be able to go much beyond spamming the crap out of a bunch of football bloggers whose work bears no relation to the product, asking for widgets and banners and for ghosted posts or asking you to mention their product in a post as “naturally as possible” for a piddling one time fee. They don’t have the resources or the incentive right now to push beyond that model. But I think that will likely have to change.

Toward a new kind of web advertising

This, oddly enough, is where newspapers come in. Newspapers, despite budget cuts and all the rest, still have ad departments. These departments are dedicated to selling ads for both print and on-line editions. Newspapers also have the advantage of being trusted brands. Particular advertisers go with particular papers because they have a certain readership. The Globe and Mail has ads for mutual funds and Tiffany diamonds, while the Sun has pullout flyers for the Brick discount furniture store.

Right now, online ads don’t go much beyond their print paper equivalents in terms of form and function. It’s still a surface ad, even though when you click it you get taken to a third party site. Advertisers don’t much mind, because what they’re concerned with isn’t whether or not you go out and buy the product based on the ad, but that the general readership is aware the product exists. But what if, as a newspaper, you could offer an advertiser the chance to sponsor a set of blogs with a set of dedicated readers who, because of education, geographical location, are much more likely to purchase a set of particular products than a more general audience of readers? What if, instead of banner ads, you tried a less-intrusive sponsorship deal? Perhaps you could rent out these sponsorships on a rotating basis? What if larger advertising firms set up a means of allowing a traditionally smaller company with a limited ad budget to sponsor with sites that attract readers who are much more likely to buy their specific product? Like a product these readers might actually really like to buy? Like for example, football books?

This could all be completely unfeasible. But there are number of incentives for particular papers to go down this route. For one, there is a reason writers like Jonathan Wilson write for the Guardian and the Independent, and not the Sun. And there is a reason that Wilson’s association with these papers means he is one of the most trusted voices in football (imagine him as an independent blogger, slogging away columns on 4-5-1 on Lobanovsky on some WordPress template somewhere). Papers sell their readers to advertisers. Good independent soccer blogs tend to attract particular kinds of readers in good numbers, and if these bloggers are attached to a major traditional outlet, it puts the power of the paper’s brand behind them. It increases reader trust, strengthens the “weak ties” endemic on the web, and provides a trusted filter for football information which is what on-line papers tend to do anyway (see yesterday’s post).

Moreover, many papers are mulling over switching their hard news content over to paid-for smart phone, or iPad-like apps. If that model becomes the basis for most news providers to secure payment-for-content, their shadow WWW sites aren’t going away—and bloggers could help fill in this content gap. A series of blog networks linked to a newspaper main page with several rotating feature posts awarded to bloggers based on editorial merit. Think of it as a kind of like a much-expanded Guardian Favourite Things, split into blogs of a specific type, with rotating sponsors.

Final caveat

I don’t want want to get into the specifics of what this all might look like, like how much bloggers would earn from this kind of deal, what would a network hub would specifically look like. I just want to establish that there may more possibility and incentive for newspapers and blogs to work together than is publicly acknowledged. I’m not Faith Popcorn, and I’m not a marketing expert. To that end, over the next several posts, I’m going to be examining both the pros and cons for newspapers and bloggers in joining this kind of set-up. I want to establish that there are very real reasons why we might not move substantially past the status quo, but that we shouldn’t necessarily assume that, as Spock might put it, everyone in blogging, in newspapers and in advertising is continuing to perform admirably when it comes to exploiting the nature of their medium.

Image credit: Stuck in Customs.


Football, Blogs and Newspapers Unite? Part Two

Image Credit www.flickr.com/photos/marcp_dmoz/

Before I get into what a model partnership between football blogs and on-line newspapers might look like, or whether a such a partnership would be worth the hassle at all, I think it’s important to point out why football journalism in particular could be a leader in fomenting any further on-line cooperation. With that in mind, I think it’s worth discussing why successful online newspaper sports sections in general are starting to look at blogs as a potential partner, rather than an inferior competitor.

Why Sports Journalism?

More than any other section of the newspaper, the actual reported “news” in the sports pullout is probably the most redundant in light of both television and the internet.

Look at any newspaper. The front section of the New York Times reveals in-depth reporting on the “vanishing elderly” in Japan, the result of thousands of unreported deaths due to families attempting to maintain generous state pensions for older citizens. The Life section of the Globe and Mail reports on a new study on the strong connection between adequate sleep and weight-loss. In both instances, even when the content is reprinted verbatim on-line and in the actual print edition, you learn something you didn’t already know. In other words, you’re still the getting “the news” from newspapers.

Meanwhile, the Sports section of the Toronto Star features a box score of the hockey game you watched yesterday, game reports on tennis matches that you watched the highlights for twelve hours ago, and a short AP round-up of the Champions League that you’ve already read about in greater depth across several blogs and on-line overseas papers the day before. In other words, unlike her sister sections, the bulk of primary news reporting for the traditional Sports Page is, in the age of satellite television and access to multiple on-line sports sections and crappy illegal on-line feeds, already available to pretty much anyone anywhere, as it happens. In real time!

Casual sports fans with a newspaper subscription will always appreciate having all the sports happenings from the day before reprinted in one handy section. But the hardcore sports demographic—the kind who love all sports and one or two sports truly madly deeply—tend to rely on a dozen or so online sports sections in between watching Gol (or Golf) TV all day. And these are (or at least should be) the target demographic for sports advertisers.

The online newspaper sports section does however provide these sports fans with three key areas of value: trusted niche commentary, behind-the-scenes in-depth sports reporting, and a trusted filter for relevant information pertaining to news for a particular sport. The first tends to be of value only when it offers an authoritative summary of a particular area of the game uncovered in the same way by anyone else, the second is still the best thing newspapers provide in the sporting world today, and the third provides a filter for sports fans who don’t want to trawl nine-hundred sites to get the news they need, quickly. But all of these strengths could be well complimented with strong independent sports blogs in ways we’ll look at later.

Okay then, why Football Journalism and not Backgammon Journalism?

Because football is a global sport.

To avoid getting all misty-eyed and Geleano-ish, let’s define what that means in negative terms, i.e., what football isn’t, e.g. the NFL, MLB, NBA, NFL etc. These leagues are the single elite-level professional organizations for their respective sports, and they are all situated in the the continental US and southern Canada. That means most of the relevant in-depth news (prospective pros, farm leagues, drafts etc.) is limited to a single geographical area and as such tend to be already well-covered by American (and Canadian) sportswriters who, if they don’t write for any of the surviving American dailies in regional markets or Canadian national papers, scribble for sites and mags like SI, ESPN, the Hockey News, etc. These sports also feature a good-sized compliment of highly-active bloggers, some of whom do interesting things, sometimes extremely interesting things (Free Darko), but the room for sports bloggers to offer sports fans added value is inherently limited. There is, after all, only one NBA.

Football on the other hand has a bajillion professional leagues who are all in constant competition to be called the “best”, and it’s not usual for a handful of leagues to capture widespread interest in a single domestic market (on a given Saturday Toronto offers up MLS, Serie A, La Liga, Primera Division, the Ee Pee El etc.). Football’s biggest tournament features thirty-two nations who qualify in five federations comprising 208 national football associations. Elite players develop in Iceland, New Zealand, Japan, Russia, Argentina, and yes, sometimes even Canada, and go on to play in any number of different leagues, from Bogota, Columbia to Columbus, Ohio. There is also a wide rage of subsidiary areas to cover in football, from on-field tactics, international qualifying groups and formats, fan culture, back-room team politicking, a wide and confusing variety of professional sports laws, multinational team ownership, local football history. Because of the increasing global make-up of the elite leagues, and because of ubiquitous internationals, all of this news is of interest to some football fans, somewhere, at some time or another.

Time and financial resources prevent any single major media organization from covering this massive area of news, but the appetite among international football fans is voracious. That’s why, more and more, it’s the specialized football blogs that are achieving great success, sites like Zonal Marking. But despite their success, these sites are still atomized entities, there to be discovered on the WWW through the laborious process of blog links, Twitter feeds and Facebook updates. The onus is currently on the reader for filtering out the crap, and discovering which sites are relevant and which aren’t. Excellent blogs go undiscovered, then disappear altogether, while crap soccer sites manipulate SEO for “Wayne Rooney Whore” headlines. There also isn’t any quality control. A popular site on French Football can go silent overnight, simply because the writer has other pressing priorities or has picked up freelance work. Sites might be forced to start publishing shorter and more search-engine attractive articles to keep their numbers up for pay-per-click ads.

What all of this means in simple terms is that blogs, particularly football blogs, have something to offer increasingly resource-strapped sports editors (more coverage, more angles, attracting more and more global readers through shared association), and they, in turn have something to offer bloggers—a wider audience, and, hopefully, by way of a number of different possible financial partnership models I’ll be looking at tomorrow, a reason to slog through when it’s not fun anymore (thank god Barry Glendenning didn’t go into blogging).

So, in summary: because sports news is now stratified across several up-to-the-minute media sources, individual newspapers are most important when it comes to primary source reporting on behind the scenes issues, trusted analysis on particular areas of the sport (Jonathan Wilson, Sid Lowe, Rafa Honigstein yada yada yada), and in providing a filter for readers to get the news they want quickly. Independent football blogs meanwhile offer sports desk an advantage in scope of coverage and association with a particular kind of sports writing (something we saw in a limited form with the Guardian’s Fans Network during the last World Cup). It’s possible there is absolutely no value to advertisers, bloggers, and newspapers in seeking this kind of partnership, but I think there is good reason for not dismissing it yet. That’s for tomorrow.

Football, Blogs, and Newspapers Unite? Part One

Image Credit http://www.flickr.com/photos/notionscapital/

When I was a precocious thirteen year-old, my favourite part of the morning was grabbing my dad’s Toronto Star on the front stoop, taking it inside and laying it flat out on my kitchen table, and opening it up on the editorial page. There, I would find the Letters to the Editor, featuring rebuttals, corrections, and general complaints about recent articles posted by staff journalists and columnists. I always found the letters more interesting than the carefully prepared screeds they were attacking, and was fascinated that the newspaper would devote an entire page to reader dissent. I even sent a few letters in myself, and some were printed, much to my astonishment.

For the longest time, this is how I followed the news. Not by reading the A1 articles, but rather the opinions of the unwashed who read and reacted to them. I don’t want to call Letters to the Editor page “proto-blogging,” but I think the model is relevant to how contemporary blogging worked for a long time. Once the internet came along, many of the same souls who wrote angry missives on misguided op-eds started to write full-length blog posts with links provided to the offending articles, and early blogging took its cues from this antagonistic relationship. Bloggers were always going on about the corporate-owned Mainstream Media, pointing out the inherent biases in newspaper coverage, ripping X, Y, and Z columnists whilst at the same time trying to prove as they were equal or better. Digital media proponents like Clay Shirky built their careers on the notion that “New Media” and traditional newspapers were in fundamental conflict with only one eventual winner, the “citizen journalist”, because the only thing separating the letter-writer and the print journalist was the printing press which the internet made accessible to everyone.

This antagonism was rampant in sports blogging as well, and football was no exception. You still see elements of it today: the raging diatribes against London bias against northern clubs, or against North American newspapers for not featuring more soccer coverage; the relentless criticism of the dour state of televised football punditry; Henry Winter and his gang of unruly critics. For many football bloggers, old media is and forever will be the enemy.

Yet over a decade of independent blogging later, many of us have taken a deep collective breath and realized a few things. First, that newspapers—in both print and on-line form—still have the resources required to provide up-to-the-minute news, and as such are still the number one source for most bloggers when it comes to sourcing story information (as we’ve seen during the current Wayne Rooney/United saga). Second, that bloggers provide something that newspapers and magazines can’t—geographic reach, intricate tactical breakdowns of several different league matches at once, regional football history, and in North America, comprehensive and frequently-updated coverage of the goings on of various MLS, NASL clubs.  The two might not overlap, or be locked in a death struggle, but might even be able to compliment each other somehow.

It’s certainly possible that blogs are blogs and print pubs are print pubs, and while they might do each other some good, the relationship won’t or shouldn’t go past links and page-views. But my own view is that blogs and print media might be vital for co-survival, and even could thrive together on-line. And I think football journalism, for reasons I’ll be getting into tomorrow, will lead the way in giving us a sense of what an on-line partnership between established journos and independent bloggers might look like.

I know that I and others have covered this topic in the past, and that it is familiar ground to many of you. Nonetheless, I think there are several reasons why now’s the time to take a long look at the future of football blogging. First, I think the phenomenon of burnt out bloggers in football is becoming more of a problem. A recent Fake Sigi post declaring pitchinvasion.net “dead”, and subsequent reaction on Jason Davis’ Match Fit USA raise some interesting questions about the financial pitfalls of independent football writing (something I’ll be looking at in more detail later). There is a sense that the centre will no longer hold in its current form for many un- or low-paid soccer writers.

Second, some of older pay models for on-line writers have definitely failed or are likely to become irrelevant. I think we now know the Rupert Murdoch pay-wall at the Times of London has failed. It fundamentally undercuts the power of the web, which is interconnectivity, open comments from readers, interaction (and other $5 buzzwords!). Equally outdated is the Huffington Post “shlock writing plus a zillion intrusive banner-ads” method (although exactly why this model is dead will be discussed in more details in a future post). I think on-line advertising will have to fundamentally change in form, and I think football journalism/blogging can provide a good model for what that might look like.

Anyway, tomorrow I’ll be taking a look at why football (and not, say, water polo) journalism is a prime candidate for traditional media/blogging partnerships, and then we’ll take it from there.

Richard Whittall also writes A More Splendid Life.


Southampton’s attack on press freedom backfires

By attempting to control the images presented of their club at home games to an extent that challenges the basics of press freedom, Southampton Football Club have managed to harm their image severely.

It began last week, when Southampton’s Club Spokesman Jordan Sibley sent emails out in response to accreditation requests by photographers that read “Just so you are aware, this year, Southampton Football Club will be syndicating images from all home fixtures via a local agency.” An odd thing to say, as Southampton’s accreditation request form makes no mention of this, and a decision that would ban all other national, local and agency photographers from St. Mary’s.

The motivation for this appears to be part commercial (photos from a single handpicked agency could be guided to ensure they feature sponsors’ names more prominently, for example), and part petulance, as Roy Greenslade explains:

Local newspapers often bear the brunt of these kinds of ban when chairmen/managers/players take umbrage at critical coverage, whether it stems from the team’s performances, the coach’s talents or the state of the ground.

Sometimes, the two reasons are linked. Though Southampton’s ban appears to have a commercial motive, note what the club’s owner, Nicola Cortese, said a couple of months ago:

“Our fans and staff should be reassured that I will only make decisions affecting our future based on sound football and business thinking, and not on the whims of a local newspaper keen to maximise readership or pundits whose agendas are unclear.

“Furthermore, I will not respond to every piece of idle speculation. We have too much development work to do to waste time on such pursuits, and my time is dedicated to that work.

“As a local paper, I would have hoped that it would provide the local community with news, rather than gossip. However, I am not so naïve as to expect such speculation to stop.”

That barb was clearly aimed at the Daily Echo, which has probably been doing nothing more controversial than doing its job. From my earliest days in local journalism – when I reported regularly on three clubs – I discovered that no chairman or manager is ever happy with any coverage that isn’t slavishly supportive.

Southampton aren’t the first club to try something like this, with Newcastle banning reporters last season and Leeds’ in-house picture agency boycotted by the national press, who only printed photos of the club away from home.

But the good news is, Southampton’s decision has blown up in their face: the local agency in question, Digital South, have refused to participate in this attempt to suppress the freedom of their own profession. Despite a loss of potential income, Digital South’s boss Robin Jones took the principled stand, as he explained to the Sports Journalists’ Association:

“I disagreed with their stance on a total ban of photographers from any media source,” Jones told sportsjournalists.co.uk.

“I voiced this opinion to the club and genuinely thought that the ban would not take place. It became clear to me on Thursday that this ban was indeed happening and so I rang the club to inform them of my decision to decline their offer.

“Basically, a ban on photographers is simply a bad idea,” said Jones, whose agency employs two photographers, including his son, Michael Jones, also an SJA member.

“We felt that we were between a rock and a hard place, because we are sure that another agency or photographer might come forward to do this work for Southampton. But it is not something we are prepared to do.”

Jones’ stance comes after a show of solidarity by the press against Southampton’s decision: the Society of Editors, the Sports Journalists’ Association and the Telegraph Media Group all supported a media black-out of all pictures supplied by Southampton if they restricted coverage to a single hand-picked agency. Southampton have put themselves in a tricky situation, as they will know have to either back down or find an agency willing to go against their peers, and that would likely be one with low quality standards to begin with.

Brand City: Selling Manchester In America

Garry Cook, CEO of Manchester City, has been oft-lampooned by fans and the press (deservedly enough) for some well-publicised blunders, such as welcoming Uwe Rosler into the Manchester United Hall of Fame. Oops.

Many have been surprised Cook has kept his job despite several public gaffes, and indeed, many were surprised when he kept his job to begin with following the takeover of Manchester City by the Abu Dhabi group in 2008: Cook had been headhunted for his role by the previous owner, Thaksin Shinawatra (who he later regretted praising), and it seemed unlikely he would remain long in his role under new ownership, perceived by many to be an embarrassment and a poor man’s Peter Kenyon.

But Cook is still around. It’s clear that, for all his missteps and disregard for the traditions of English football, his global vision for branding City worldwide matches that of the club’s new owners, and City are implementing a smarter marketing strategy than just the age-old push to sell more gear in Asia.

Cook’s previous role was heading up Nike’s “Brand Jordan”, and when he was hired by Man City the word was — true or not — that Jordan himself had asked Cook not to leave the company. His amazing stream of gaffes aside, and armed with a massive war chest, Cook has turned around the marketing of City very much in the manner of a Nike campaign: like it or not (I know some City fans will be puking in their mouths), “Brand City” is now a credible global proposition.

To begin with, City have transformed their online presence. They were quick to jump right on the social media bandwagon: their Facebook page has an impressive 120,771 fans, and is high on “interactivity” with its users, a leg-up on  big clubs in the Premier League: Tottenham Hotspur’s Facebook page, for example, has no recent updates, while Aston Villa only have 16,146 fans — though they’re still a long way behind Manchester United in global awareness, of course, as over a million fans follow United’s page, launched just two weeks ago.

City’s relaunched website, as we’ve commented before, was built at considerable expense and is the best in Britain. Importantly, their strategy is to use online media to engage fans in the club: for example, their “My First City Game” campaign, with its own dedicated website at www.myfirstcitygame.com

My First City Game Manchester City

This is slick marketing: decades of City history neatly branded with Etihad Airways sponsorship.

Overseas, their aim is to spread their brand by trying to show they do more than sell replica shirts and play the odd friendly, as the strategy surrounding their current US tour shows. The Sports Business Journal this week reported on City’s investment in American youth development, an endeavour that received plenty of press on both sides of the Atlantic to give credibility to the idea the club has a greater purpose to its overseas efforts than raking in fistfuls of dollars:

“There’s a long history of foreign teams expressing interest in the U.S., but candidly, there’s been little to show for it,” said Jeff L’Hote, founder of LFC International, a soccer consultancy. “To gain fans, you have to leave something behind between tour appearances. Chelsea’s been able to do that by linking to youth clubs, and for Man City something similar has to happen.”

The club hopes to overcome that by doing more than playing friendlies. In addition to paying to construct the soccer field at Lexington Academy in Harlem, it signed a three-year partnership with New York’s Downtown United Soccer Club that will see Man City assist with camps for inner-city youth.

“Coming here and playing exhibition games and walking away is not a sustainable model,” Cook said. “People see through that. You have to connect locally and you have to connect locally through youth development and the community.”

City’s online presence matches in this attempt to make their global brand locally-relevant: they have launched a specific version of their website just for US users, www.mcfc.com, hiring a content writer to tailor content for a US-audience. According to the Sports Business Journal, the site already receives over 10,000 daily visitors from the US.

Blue Moon, New York, Manchester City

In terms of setting up Man City as a global brand with resonance, like it or not, Garry Cook might just not be a fool after all.

The Times’ Paywall Failure: Are You Paying For Marcotti?

We’ve been tracking the problematic future of journalism here for some time, from our sketch of “The Illustrated Possibilities for Good American Soccer Writing” to comment on the decline in the Guardian’s world football coverage and on the then-impending paywall being put up by Rupert Murdoch around The Times’ of London’s content.

Now the first reports are in on the success of The Times’ paywall experiment, begun on 2 July: and, well, “success” would be stretching it. Dismal failure might be more accurate. The Times has lost 66% of its internet traffic, and has attracted a mere 15,000 paid subscribers (plus 12,500 iPad subscribers). And right now, those subscribers are only paying $2 a month on The Times’ introductory rate; how many will remain when the normal subscription fee of $16 a month kicks-in?  The likely level of The Times’ revenue from this (given lost advertising revenue as well) is not going to cut much into their losses running into hundreds of thousands of dollars per day,

I’m not surprised the numbers are low, and it’s doubtful this experiment will see out the year, especially with no other major British newspaper close to following suit.

As we commented months ago, The Times’ problem is the downmarket direction it has gone in under the control of Rupert Murdoch: its content is nothing special. Its football coverage is extensive, but aside from Gabriele Marcotti, is undistinguished. Its middle-of-the-road coverage runs throughout the newspaper. There’s just not much value to it with the alternatives out there for free.

Value in content — in terms of what people will actually pay for — comes from covering a niche with essential information for professionals who cannot easily obtain it elsewhere; that’s why the Wall Street Journal (also owned by Rupert Murdoch) has a successful paywall, and so does the SportsBusiness Daily. If you need that information and analysis to do your job better (or at least, you or your employer thinks you do), you can succeed. Very few people need The Times when they can have the content of The Guardian, The Telegraph or The Independent for free, contrasting as they are in editorial direction.

This is all blindingly obvious. Except, apparently, to Rupert Murdoch. And the search for the future of paid content goes on.


The Mail demands Canadian fealty for Manchester United

You want what we have

Discovered this via Duane Rollins’ 24thminute, a Daily Mail op-ed that magically conflates lukewarm Canadian interest in Manchester United’s visit to Toronto with a pube discovered on a hotel bar of soap. Apparently Canadian media outlets haven’t shown enough deference to a second-string Premier League side visiting for a friendly against Celtic, with tickets prices starting north of $90 CAD:

There was no escape from the 90-degree heat and stifling humidity when Sir Alex Ferguson and his Manchester United players flew into Toronto from Chicago and little sign that the first match of their North American tour against Celtic on Friday night is attracting anything more than a ripple of interest locally.

The Toronto Star ignored the game completely despite giving a sizeable show to the reaction to Thierry Henry’s move to New York Red Bulls and Argentina’s offer of a four-year contract to Diego Maradona, while The Globe and Mail decided it was worthy of a paltry three paragraphs in the soccer round-up of their sports pull-out.

The local sports network preferred to focus on the Toronto Argonauts and their first home game in the Canadian Football League season, while running a particularly tragic feature about one of the Blue Jays baseball players on a seemingly continuous loop. It was poignant first time around but lost some of its dramatic effect when you saw it for the fourth time before breakfast.

The horror, that a Canadian television network would open with the Toronto Argonauts, a 137 year-old Canadian team playing for a Canadian domestic league in Canada, when Manchester United’s half-cocked visit—the Manchester United!—was clearly the bigger story.

To be fair, slagging this kind of piece—which presupposes the globally-accepted superiority of the Premier League in a way made fun of around the world—is like shooting fish in a barrel. But it’s telling that the one major similarity behind these kind of stories on North American soccer is that they omit any mention of MLS or its teams. As Rollins points out, Canadians aren’t stupid; we’re not going to pay hand over fist to see a United shit show when we have a real soccer club in town with indigenous support. That TFC draws 20 000 supporters a game, or even that the club exists, is ignored by the author.

In the end, United’s failure to draw fans for second-string friendly demonstrates how the old “Watch Soccer-Live!” selling point has lost its allure in Toronto over the last three years. If Man U had planned instead to play a friendly against Toronto FC, chances are the South Stand would still be in Toronto red, many of them chanting about the Glazers and “Manure’s plastic fans.”

Combined with the boos of Beckham that confused a gathered global press when he first visited with the Galaxy, plus the wonder at why BMO Field would erupt into cheers after Gabe Gala scored against Real Madrid last summer, United’s potential failure in drawing an affluent fanbase to the Rogers Centre demonstrates the enormity of the change Canadian soccer culture has undergone since TFC’s arrival in 2007.  The traveling circus attitude of some traveling clubs, and their embedded journos, no longer generates slack-jawed awe. If the English Premier League still wants to capture the hearts, minds and dollars of American and Canadian fans, it would do well to pay them a little more respect.

2010 World Cup Ratings: Time Is On American Soccer’s Side

Many have observed that World Cup ratings on American television grew 41% from 2006 to 2010, with the 24.4 million tuning in for the World Cup final on ABC and Univision a record for any soccer game on American television, ever (that’s not counting those watching at bars or via the internet, where numbers were also way up: espn3.com attracted 7.4 million unique viewers during the tournament).

That’s all great. But there are a few more numbers that might actually speak more to the likely future relative growth of the sport’s popularity here, at least on television.

The median ages for viewers of major sporting events on American television over the past year, via the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel:

World Cup: 37.7

NBA Finals: 40.7

Super Bowl: 43.0

Daytona 500: 44.9

Stanley Cup: 44.9

World Series: 49.9

U.S. Open golf: 57.8

According to Nielson, 49% of the 2010 World Cup television audience was between the ages 18 and 49. 57% was male, 43% female. I don’t have any demographic breakdowns for ethnicity, but in Spanish-language television, Univision’s broadcasts were up 50% in total ratings, with 8,821,358 tuning in for the 2010 World Cup final, and was particularly strong in the 18-34 age demographic (3,259,553 viewers for the final in that group, up 53% on 2006).

International soccer broadcasts are, then, right in the sweet spot for sponsorship, says the Sports Business Journal: “Brands can expect a better return on their sports marketing objectives if they target fans age 18-34, non-Caucasian fans, and/or households with kids.”

Either way, just a little more numerical proof that soccer has demographics on its side in North America.

The Invisibility of Women’s Soccer – Even When On TV!

I was pleased yesterday to find that ESPNU was showing the U-20 Women’s World Cup in Germany, and tuned into the US-Ghana game. The first half was exciting, with Ghana threatening an upset over the defending champions, 1-0 up at the break thanks to a simply fantastic strike from Elizabeth Cudjoe from 20, 25 yards or so (somehow, the significance of the US playing Ghana again at a World Cup and going 1-0 down early in the game didn’t hit me until everyone reminded me of it on Twitter). The US put on plenty of pressure, but seemed to lack a creative spark, a little invention.

Regardless, there seemed to be plenty to talk about in the game, especially from a US perspective. I don’t usually pay much attention to half-time shows, but given I am no expert on the state of women’s youth soccer, I was curious to hear what the studio experts would have to say about the game.

Immediately after the commercial break, they began talking about the lack of talented players coming through in the US system– I had missed the intro, but my ears perked up, curious to hear about what was happening in US youth development. Had there been a lull since 1999? Was the rest of the world simply catching up? What was WPS’ role in all this?

Except it soon became apparent they were talking about the US men’s national team.

Jennifer Doyle has said all this already too, in the context of the now infamous Nike commercial celebrating the US success in South Africa that features no female fans (about which she makes a related point worth reading).

At the half, incredibly, Ghana led 1-0.  The US looked disorganized against a scrappy team playing a ragged defense which nevertheless seemed to neutralize the US’s attacks. Were viewers allowed to enjoy a discussion exploring how the heavily favored US gave up a goal, and failed to equalize, in spite of what seemed like a dozen shots? No – instead we got a lame discussion of the state of the men’s game in the US.  For real. It was infuriating. I would have settled for a discussion of the senior squad’s draw against Sweden the previous day.  But a tired, worn out and totally half-ass debate about what the US men’s game needs?  Really?

I spent the day imagining what it would be like if we heard about the WNBA during NBA matches, how the women’s league was doing during EPL broadcasts, and if we were offered a history lesson on the suppression of women’s baseball during the All-Star game. It would be amazing.

Representations of female athleticism, of the accomplishments of women’s teams, are so few, so rare that girls must look to people like Landon Donovan for inspiration – he’s a LOT easier to see on TV than Sydney Leroux (who scored the second half equalizer today).  Girl players look up to him and his teammates, even though they aren’t nearly as competitive internationally as the women’s squad.  They should admire Donovan, Howard, Gooch, Dempsey et all.  They are great players. And they should admire Leroux, Rodriguez, Wambaugh, Solo, Kai and their teammates too.

Girls who support the sport should never be squeezed out of the frame – unless the intention is to give them a jump on mastering the art of self-erasure.

Even though Jennifer has already said it more smartly than I can, I wanted to mention this too as a fan of soccer. Perhaps executives at ESPN presume a male fan like myself would turn the channel if the half-time discussion wasn’t about men’s soccer. But then: why the hell would I be watching in the first place?  At the very least, when I watch a women’s soccer game (or, more to the point, any soccer game), I expect the discussion at half-time to focus on the actual game being broadcast.  Please.

The 2010 World Cup In World Newspaper Front Pages

Over the course of the 2010 World Cup, we brought you the front page of a newspaper somewhere around the world almost every day, global glimpses at the shared madness of the World Cup. To wrap it up, below is the story of that World Cup told by those front pages. We began the series on 12 June 2010, the day America woke up to the World Cup.

12 June

The Roanoke Times, published in Roanoke, Virginia

roanoke

New York Post, published in New York, New York

New York Daily Post

16 June

The Press, published in Christchurch, New Zealand

New Zealand, World Cup, South Africa, Copa Mondial, Newspaper

June 17

JoongAng Ilbo, published in Seoul, South Korea

South Korea, Argentina, Diego Maradona, 1986 World Cup19 June

Politiken, published in Copenhagen, Denmark

Denmark, Cameroon, World Cup, South Africa, Newspaper, Politiken

20 June

Lance! – Rio de Janeiro, published in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

* Lance! - Rio de Janeiro, published in Rio de Janeiro, Brazi21 June

Aujourd’hui, published in Paris, France

France, World Cup, South Africa, mutiny

22 June

The New Zealand Herald, published in Auckland, New Zealand

Shane Smeltz, New Zealand, World Cup, South Africa, Oratia Smurfs23 June

Irish Examiner, published in Cork, Ireland

Ireland, World Cup, Newspaper, France24 June

Correio*, published in Salvador, Brazil

Brazil, newspaper, Landon Donovan, World Cup, United States, Goal25 June

The New Zealand Herald, published in Auckland, New Zealand

New Zealand, World Cup, South Africa

26 June

Neue Westfälische, published in Bielefeld, Germany

Germany, England, World Cup, South Africa28 June

The Times, published in London, UK

England, Germany, 2010 World Cup,29 June

Diario do Comercio, published in Sao Paulo, Brazil

Brazil, Netherlands, Holland, 2010 World Cup, South Africa, Quarter-final, Newspaper

30 June

Asahi Shimbun, published in Tokyo, Japan

Japan, 2010 World Cup, South Africa, Penalty Kicks, Paraguay1 July

NEXT, published in Lagos, Nigeria

Nigeria, President, Goodluck Jonathan2 July

AD, published in Rotterdam, Netherlands

Netherlands, Brazil, World Cup, Quarter-final, South Africa, 2010, July 24 July

La Nacion, published in Buenos Aires, Argentina

5 July

El Territorio, published in Posadas, Argentina

Argentina, World Cup, Diego Maradona6 July

El Pais, published in Montevideo, Uruguay

Uruguay, World Cup7 July

Der Tagesspiegel, published in Berlin, Germany

Der Tagesspiegel, Germany, World Cup, South Africa, Fairy tale8 July

La Vanguardia, published in Barcelona, Spain

Spain, World Cup final

10 July

Potsdamer Neueste Nachrichten, published in Potsdam, Germany

Germany, Golden Pineapple, goldene ananas, Third Place Game, World Cup, South Africa, Uruguay12 July

El Punt – Barcelona Edition, published in Barcelona, Spain

Barcelona, World CupEl Pais, published in Madrid, Spain. 12 July 2010.

Spain, World Cup, 2010, South Africa


The Forgotten Film of the 1938 World Cup in France

Many of the official World Cup films are well-known and widely available, such as the classic 1966 movie Goal! and the Michael Caine narrated Hero from 1986. The official FIFA Films page lists 15 World Cup films from 1930 to 2006, all available on DVD. The first World Cup in 1930 has retroactively been given an official film recently made from archive footage, but there is nothing listed for 1934, 1938 or 1950, so we presume the first official World Cup film was commissioned in 1954.

But, in fact, there does appear to be an official narrative film made earlier than that, from the 1938 World Cup. Curiously, there is no mention anywhere on FIFA’s films site or elsewhere as far as I can tell in the English-language of a roughly 30 minute long film made at and released shortly after the 1938 World Cup held in France. Yet I believe that 1938 film, by young French director René Lucot, was an officially sanctioned product. The introduction to the film lists the committee of FIFA in its credits. The film has even been forgotten by chroniclers of Lucot’s long film career, and it may indeed have been his first: Lucot’s IMDB filmography does not list it, giving his 1942 film Rodin as his cinematic debut instead.

I’m not particularly sure why this film has apparently been forgotten (I suppose it doesn’t help that the narration is only in French), and only stumbled upon its existence myself when reading through a detailed academic article on the culture of that World Cup by Joan Tumblety, entitled The Soccer World Cup of 1938: Politics, Spectacles, and la Culture Physique in Interwar France [PDF] and well worth reading itself. According to Tumblety, Lucot’s film was part of a “multigenre publicity campaign designed to extend the event’s audience far beyond the stadium.”

I was able to find a full-version of Lucot’s 1938 film at a French site (you can view the full-length version below, too). Even though the narration is in French, anyone interested in the history of the World Cup should give it a look. One thing that strikes one immediately is the visibility of  the uncomfortable politics that surrounded the 1938 World Cup, with the Germans prominently offering the Hitler salute several times in the film, along with what appear to be broadcasters and other prominent officials on the sidelines and in the stands.

1938 World Cup, France, Sieg Heil, Hitler Salute, Film, Lucot

Maybe this footage isn’t what FIFA wants the 1938 event to be associated with at a World Cup that ended with the triumph of Mussolini-era Italy, and just perhaps, that’s actually the reason why this film is lost in the archives.

retrouver ce média sur www.ina.fr

World Cup Television Ratings Rocket In The United States

Disney will be happy with the ratings numbers World Cup games have attracted on ABC and ESPN so far, including 14.9 million on ABC for the United States versus Ghana on Saturday afternoon.

Univision, who have the Spanish-language rights, might be even happier, though, having invested even more in the World Cup: they had an additional 4.5 million tune in for the US-Ghana game, but more notably, 9.4 million for Mexico’s loss to Argentina on Sunday — the highest-ever television audience for any Spanish-language programming in the United States. On ABC, meanwhile, a further 6 million tuned in for Mexico-Argentina, giving us a total of 15.4 million viewers for that game on both networks: the Mexican national team continues to grow as a massively valuable television property in the United States.

It’s worth noting Univision paid $325m for their package, while ESPN/ABC paid $100m for the same rights. ESPN, incidentally, is also getting very strong ratings in Hispanic households, up 29% from the 2006 World Cup.

The demographics will delight the networks and bode well for the growth of soccer in the United States, with the 18-34 age group extremely well represented amongst the viewing audience. Reportedly, the median age for World Cup television viewers is 39, while for the Olympic Games, it’s 52.

The total number of viewers for the U.S.-Ghana game, combining ABC and Univision, was 19.4 million: breaking the previous record for a soccer game on television in the United States, the 18.1 million for the 1994 World Cup final, and also becoming the most-watched American national team game, beating the 18 million who tuned in to see the United States against China in the 1999 Women’s World Cup final.

All this, of course, has both ESPN and Univision salivating for the 2014 World Cup, for which both already have the television rights as part of their current deals (along with the 2011 Women’s World Cup in Germany), especially as the tournament will take place in a much friendlier timezone for the United States.

It’s interesting to note, though, that each time the World Cup has been held in the Americas in the modern television-era, kick-off times have been arranged to primarily suit European television, even at the expense of forcing players out in the afternoon heat: in Mexico at the 1986 tournament, all games began at either 12pm Central Standard Time or 4pm CST. The final was at noon in the central United States, early evening in Europe. The 1970 World Cup in Mexico followed exactly the same timing.

The 1994 World Cup in the United States saw most games kicking off in the late morning or afternoon in Central Standard Time, with a few taking place later. The final kicked off at 2.30pm CST. The 1978 World Cup in Argentina was a little more friendly to local time, but still saw an afternoon kickoff.

It will be very interesting to see what times games take place at during the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, though regardless, they are guaranteed to be more favourable for television viewing in America, with Rio de Janeiro only one hour ahead of New York City. And if Mexico ends up playing the United States in primetime at the World Cup — well, we’ll no longer have to have the interminable debate about whether soccer is popular in this country or not.


Major League Soccer Earns A Little Respect

One aspect of the coverage in the British press of the United States and the World Cup that amazed (if not surprised) me in recent weeks has been the invisibility of Major League Soccer to journalists writing sweeping narratives about the success or failure of soccer in the country. Despite David Beckham, the league may as well not have existed to the British media, not warranting a mention in numerous pieces covering the country and the sport.

So it was with some pleasure that I read Jed Dawson’s piece in the Guardian today on the role Major League Soccer had played in the development of many players, and also its importance as a professional league Americans can return to from Europe:

By giving American players a place to play professionally, MLS would in turn serve as a springboard to the world at large. A gifted young goalkeeper named Tim Howard signed with MetroStars (now known as New York Red Bulls) in 1998, and his tenure would see him win the league’s top goalkeeping honour in 2001 before he signed for Manchester United in 2003. Now he plays for Everton, of course, where Donovan enjoyed a successful loan spell last season.

The league’s approach to talent allocation – the SuperDraft – would send Clint Dempsey to the New England Revolution in 2004. There, Dempsey would develop his diverse skill set to the point where Fulham came calling. Dempsey’s move to the Premier League – from New England to Old England, if you will – culminated in an appearance in the Europa League final. It’s difficult to imagine Fulham finding Dempsey at a college in South Carolina.

Major League Soccer would also operate as a destination for explosive young talent. Gifted athletes such as Jozy Altidore might have turned to other sports without MLS, just as many skilled US teenagers did in the wilderness years. If you can make a living through your athletic ability, trying to prove yourself overseas becomes a serious life gamble. Being embraced by a professional league in your home country transforms that gamble into a project. And other teenagers would find MLS as a useful incubator – such as Michael Bradley, who ran to the final whistle against Algeria in the style of his playing hero, Roy Keane.

The league wasn’t merely a launching pad. In the case of Donovan, it was more of a lifeboat. Donovan had bypassed the MLS experience altogether to play in Germany. Thrown into the deep end, he found it difficult to keep his head above water. Thankfully, he had a Fifa-recognised league back in the States waiting to take him in. In MLS, he had a chance to mature as a player and as a man; rather than disappear into history as a curio, the American would-be striker who had a cup of coffee in the Bundesliga.

Unfortunately or fortunately depending on how you look at it, it’s also notable that this rare moment of fair coverage of MLS in a British media outlet comes not from one of the Guardian’s professional journalists, but a member of their World Cup “fan’s network”, amateur writers and tweeters (is that an occupation, now?) enlisted to cover the World Cup globally for the Guardian: the piece is written by Jed Dawson, a screenwriter from Wisconsin.

The People’s Game Radio Show

I was a guest via telephone on The People’s Game show last night, a production of KPFK radio in Los Angeles. Don’t listen to it for my dulcet tones — there’s Jennifer Doyle of From A Left Wing brilliantly explaining the French implosion and much more. In fact, a glance through the topics of their last few shows suggests an unusual willingness to look beyond the headlines – here’s their description of their last show to give you a sense of their breadth:

Halfway through the tournament: 32 games played, 32 to go. The roundtable with Jennifer, Alan, Pablo, and Spanish partisan Tony Presido takes a critical look at the media coverage of Les Blues’ implosion and ponders the success of South America vs. the failings of Europe and Africa. We talk with Tom Dunmore of the blog Pitch Invasion, which expands the scope of soccer coverage. Then Jennifer speaks with three of the East Los Angeles contingent of Global Girl Media about the stories they’re covering related to the World Cup. Arturo Cifuentes, a Chilean “football intellectual,” relates the joy in Santiago as Chile notches its second win in this World Cup after a 48 year drought. Lastly, we broadcast the interview we did yesterday evening with Ancelmo Ramos of the Honduran Resistance of Los Angeles, calling on the Honduran team to make a show of solidarity with Hondurans who oppose last year’s coup.

Interesting stuff, and you can listen to all their shows here, wherever you are.

Martians, Steven Wells, and the Soul of American Soccer

I don’t want to turn this blog into a running commentary on the Guardian’s coverage of American soccer. But their latest piece on the subject made me think: how do we convey to the world the diversity of soccer in this country? ‘Cos for whatever reason, it’s apparently not at all obvious to journalists from overseas writing about it. Even martians would surely gather more about American soccer culture on their flyover tours of the American soccer landscape than a troop of British journalists manage every four years.

Today, Ed Pilkington, the Guardian’s New York correspondent, reports:

If lack of bunting in the street is any indication, America appears to be living up to its reputation for glorious isolation. While the rest of the globe is already gripped by World Cup fever, here in the US there are scant outward signs of football – or rather soccer – obsession.

There are no Stars and Stripes in the windows beyond the usual patriotic quota, no cars honking horns as goals are scored. Very few papers across the country lived up to the chutzpah of the New York Post, which plastered its post-England game front page with the headline: “USA wins 1-1″.

In the American heartlands excitement levels were decidedly muted by comparison, despite that impressive scoreline. The Houston Chronicle was far more interested in college American football than in the England battle, even though Saturday’s goalscorer Clint Dempsey is a local boy from Nacogdoches in Texas.

But it would be wrong to imply that this country is indifferent to the World Cup. Last Saturday, sports bars across the US were packed with fans, from the 2,000 who watched the game in Studio Square in New York to thousands more who squatted in the home of the San Francisco Giants baseball team to watch the match on its big screen.

About 17 million Americans watched the England game on television – a relatively piddly number compared with the 106m who sat transfixed in February as the New Orleans Saints won the Super Bowl. But that’s still double the viewing figures during the opening round of the 2006 World Cup, and it even outstrips the popularity of the recent Stanley Cup, the culmination of the 2009-10 season in ice hockey – a game that is considered an American staple.

Yeah, OK, that’s not too bad of a summary on the interest level on Saturday’s game, at least from what I saw. Unlike fellow British columnist Paul Harris, Pilkington doesn’t just visit one New York bar and draw wild conclusions, he at least goes on to speak to a couple of people who know a fair bit about soccer in this country, prolific and experienced soccer bloggers Jason Davis of Match Fit USA and Chris Harris of Florida-based EPL Talk. But the article never strays from trying to tell the whole story of American soccer solely through the lens of that one US Men’s National Team game on one World Cup day: “Evidence of the sport’s halfway house between success and failure can be seen in the coverage the match against England received from the US media. Commentators felt they could only convey the significance of the game by invoking baseball lore; the beautiful game could not be allowed to speak for itself.”

To get back to something true that Pilkington wrote: It would be wrong to imply that this country is indifferent to the World Cup. Yes, indeed. But not to get all Paul Gardner on this, what Pilkington misses in explaining why this is true is in his typically Anglocentric way of believing that the story of soccer in this country can be boiled down to the interest level in the US Men’s National Team during the World Cup.

OK: I live in a house near Chicago’s O’Hare airport. Next door to me, on one side, are a family we call “the Italians”. Quite recently, loud noises emanated from their house in the middle of the afternoon, including inexplicably loud cheering and worryingly noisy groans: yes, they were having a party because the country they support in the World Cup, Italy, were playing. On the other side is a Mexican family. I didn’t hear much cheering today even when Blanco notched a goal in a World Cup finals tournament for the third time, but I wouldn’t be guessing wildly if I had said their primary interest in the World Cup would be in the Mexican national team. In my house, there’s less interest in the World Cup than there might have been because Poland, the country of my wife’s birth, were last seen losing 5-0 to Spain in a humiliating warm-up game that seems to have jinxed the Spanish. Outside our house a Polish flag flies; in a nation of millions of immigrants, in the city of Chicago with a million proud Poles and a million proud Mexicans and a hundred other nationalities in substantial numbers, judging interest in the World Cup as a whole by the number of stars and stripes flying is foolish in the extreme.

AnglocentrismNow, support for the US Men’s National Team is growing in the US. Many of us immigrants like myself will cheer for the US aside from when our country (in my case, England!) is playing them. As Pilkington points out in his piece, there was plenty of patriotic fervor on display at US soccer bars for the USMNT team on Saturday. The US men’s team is growing a substantial, informed, passionate supporters’ base like it’s never had before amongst soccer fans in general, immigrants or not. Brilliant, and an important development for the sport here, for sure.

Yet there’s still a reason why the second highest paid player in Major League Soccer history is not an American, and it’s not a bad thing. It was today’s Mexican hero Cuauhtémoc Blanco, who played for the Chicago Fire from 2007 to 2009. A man worshiped by millions in the United States. But to judge from the Guardian’s article, it’s as if this entire, obsesssive Hispanic soccer culture does not exist in the United States. And hell, the league he played in may as well not exist too: how can, again, an article about the state of soccer in a country not even mention its professional men’s league?

There’s a reason why the biggest television audience for Blanco’s goal today was probably not on ESPN, but on Spanish-language Univision. Univision, not incidentally, paid $325 million for the Spanish-language broadcast rights to the 2010 and 2014 World Cups, the 2007 and 2011 Women’s World Cups, and the 2009 and 2013 Confederations Cups (ESPN/ABC, incidentally, only paid $100m for the English-language rights to the same package). Univision is not messing around here:

The nation’s largest Spanish-language media company plans nearly 900 hours of World Cup programming from South Africa with all 64 matches broadcast live and in high definition as well as live streaming of events on UnivisionFutbol.com , video on demand, a futbol phone app and mobile alerts on everything from points scored to game finals.

A lot is riding on the World Cup for Univision, which has the exclusive Spanish-language broadcast rights in the United States mainland and Puerto Rico for the event.

Not only are Hispanic viewers crazy for soccer, but the World Cup — or the Mundial as it’s known in Spanish — is also regarded as the perfect vehicle to demonstrate the strength and growth of the U.S. Hispanic market.

“This World Cup is extraordinarily important to us,” said Cesar Conde, Miami-based president of Univision Networks.

It’s interesting that these massive $$$ numbers never seem to be printed in British newspaper articles about soccer in the US: the fact the World Cup is a richly valuable media property in both Spanish and English in the United States, but even more in the former language, doesn’t fit the narrative very well. The fact that the current $425 World Cup rights deal represents a four-fold increase in the value of the package from its predecessor suggests capitalist America has figured out the sport has a massively growing popularity and value, across American culture.

Then there’s the small matter that the US Men’s National Team is not the most popular American national team: at least, if we judge by the biggest television audience ever for a soccer match in the United States: that honour remains with the United States Women’s National Team, for the 1999 FIFA Women’s World Cup final in 1999, with 18 million tuning in. It’s safe to say that men’s soccer has grown in the US to the point that if a men’s team reached the final, that number would be beaten, but that’s besides the point. Speaking of women’s soccer, it’s so absurd to think the article might even mention the fact the United States currently has a professional women’s league (featuring the majority of the world’s best players) and England is vaguely hoping it might get one next year, that I almost didn’t notice its absence.

The success and the attention paid to the US Men’s National Team is important. But it also isn’t important, because soccer here thrives at youth level, at men’s club level, in women’s professional soccer, in colleges, in parks, in playgrounds, and elsewhere so much aside from that. A men’s national team game not being the Super Bowl does not mean that soccer is still trapped between success and failure as a whole. The Super Bowl is, and Soccer is. The latter is there for you, almost whereever you are, in some form. And maybe it’s better that as much as it grows, it never is the Super Bowl.

The Guardian used to convey both the elite and grassroots diversity of the sport of soccer in the United States to its readers easily, because it employed a man who understood better than most of us how soccer toils and bubbles and thrives and spits just below the surface of the American mainstream of sports, without it really mattering what the mainstream is: the late Steven Wells. So I’ll just leave you with this column from Wells on the Guardian’s site in 2008, and a nugget from it: “A Martian visiting the US for the first time would think soccer has been around forever and is hardwired into the American soul.”  Not a martian posing as an English journalist in New York, sadly.

The World’s Worst World Cup Diary

I like the Guardian and particularly their sports section. But when we think about the fact that the newspaper is apparently losing £100,000 a day, and that this has meant they’ve had to cut back on their quality football coverage, I do wonder what the fuck is going on when they’re apparently paying some awful columnist real, shiny sterling coins to write a World Cup diary that would do the word tripe a disservice.

I give you “Tim Dowling’s World Cup Diary”, and the first item in his entry today:

In the electric atmosphere – you can feel it, can’t you? – preceding tomorrow’s crucial match between the USA and Slovenia, there is still time to learn a few American chants from the planet’s newest football fans. Don’t worry, they’re not difficult. First up is the traditional “USA! [repeat]“, which is also good for situations ranging from Olympic ice hockey matches to Tea Party conventions. There’s also the strangely familiar “[clap-clap, clap-clap-clap] US!” Obviously it’s an art form in its infancy, but here’s a more recent effort from a Facebook page on the subject: “The yanks are coming/the yanks are coming/When you lose and we go through/ You will call it soccer too!”

That’s it. That’s the joke, I guess. Tim Dowling, by the way, is an American who lives in England.

I realise Dowling’s not been hired or paid by the Guardian’s sports department to cover the World Cup, and he’s a lifestyle columnist who has been told to do some ironic detachment on the World Cup for the general reader in a stupendously lazy fashion, but still. On the other hand, he did banjo playing an even bigger disservice a few weeks ago with this hilariously unfunny column, so it could be worse.

On The Amazingly Anodyne World Cup Television Coverage In Britain

I’m not old enough to remember World Cup television punditry in England being good; I was born at the arse-end of the 1970s, the decade the concept of men (and it’s almost always men, of course) sitting around in a television studio talking before, in the middle of and after games was born in Britain. Back then, I’m told, the likes of Brian Clough and Malcolm Allison were must-watch television with their forthright opinions.

Nowadays, it’s as anodyne as anodyne can be. As “A History of Punditry” puts it:

In truth, punditry has eaten itself. What began as a frank discussion designed to explain and enliven has now become something so saturated and over-analysed that it tells the viewer nothing. The stultification of punditry is in part due to the intense media focus on British football in general which turns the kindest of criticism into all-out war but it’s also because pundits are aspirant coaches, scouts, managers etc themselves and keen not to burn any bridges with potential future employees.

In the 1970s, however, Brian Clough was part of a golden age of punditry that didn’t concern itself with tact. It began with the 1970 World Cup and that unlikely revolutionary Jimmy Hill. Asked to revitalise the ITV coverage for the tournament and steal the BBC’s thunder Hill crafted a ‘panel’ of men he hoped would be “conceited enough to think that their opinion was the right one”. For one month, the flamboyant Man City coach Malcolm Allison, the footballing activist and Wolves’ skipper Derek Dougan, Manchester United’s midfield motormouth Paddy Crerand and Arsenal stalwart Bob McNab holed up in London hotel commuting to the studio each day. Allison, bouffant and cigar-smoking, was in his element denouncing the ‘peasant’ teams of continental Europe and the scurrilous ways of the ‘Latins’. Derek Dougan, as eloquent a pundit as he was PFA chairman, represented the players’ voices in a way never achieved before or since and Crerand added the barstool belligerence you can still enjoy on MUTV.

Living in the United States myself now, I haven’t been able to see how British television is covering the 2010 World Cup — though Twitter folks I follow over there have been pretty scathing.

The problem appears not just to be how dull the pundits are on the BBC and ITV, but how stubbornly resistant they are to knowing anything about any of the teams aside from England. In The Scotsman today, columnist Tom English absolutely demolishes the level of “insight” the likes of former England captain Alan Shearer has been offering to viewers on the tournament on the BBC:

Before the Algeria versus Slovenia game in Group C on Sunday, Shearer seemed to be speaking for the entire BBC panel when he said, “Our knowledge of these two teams is limited.” Limited! What the former England striker was saying was that he hadn’t done his homework, that he hadn’t spoken to any of his vast array of contacts in the game, hadn’t tapped into the BBC’s huge research machinery, hadn’t even bothered, seemingly, to peruse the internet for some background on Algeria and Slovenia or even flick through a newspaper or a magazine. Shearer was content to sit in front of the cameras and tell the viewers that, really, he didn’t know much. Hardly a revelation to those of us who have groaned our way through his anodyne commentaries in the past, but embarrassing all the same. [ . . ]

And here’s another one. The Beeb got carpeted by some viewers for their treatment of that Algeria game. So what happened before the kick-off in yesterday’s lunch-time match between New Zealand and Slovakia? In a six-and-a-half minute introduction just one player out of the 22 on show was given a name-check, and here is how it happened.

Lee Dixon: “Slovakia have got some decent players, Hamsik, the pick of them. Young player, plays on the left side.”

Gary Lineker: “He’s at Napoli.”

Lee Dixon: “That’s right.”

Alan Hansen (chuckling): “Somebody gave you him, by the way.”

What Hansen meant, I think, was that his colleagues must have been fed the Hamsik reference by another party, that they couldn’t have come up with his name all by themselves. It’s not like Dixon or Lineker produced a dossier of facts about Hamsik, a file of information on who he is and where he has been. All they did was mention his name and the fact that he was rather good. That was it. Hansen seemed to think this was worthy of a gently-mocking put-down, as if the other two were some kind of class swots. As such, he was almost revelling in his own ignorance.

English doesn’t spare ITV, either, with their highly paid new anchor Adrian Chiles embarassing himself before the U.S.-England game:

His introduction to England’s game against the Americans was mortifying. Wielding a baseball bat and sending a message to America, he said, “Just stick to your sports, why don’t you?” Chiles was also seen patting a burger, adding: “We really love Americans, just wouldn’t eat a whole one.” He made himself look like a clown.

Summing up, English concludes: “The level of punditry is cringe-making. It’s lowest common denominator stuff. Patronising and insulting, much of it.”

I’m not surprised to learn this, but it is amazing the coverage of the World Cup continues to get worse on British television. ESPN should think carefully before aiming to emulate everything about the British way of broadcasting the games.

Bloggers 1-0 The Sun

After we posted here yesterday on the Sun’s dubious World Cup bloggers sweepstake contest, citing Chris Taylor’s statement that his blog had been included in it without his permission, we had an inkling a shitstorm might break out as comments from numerous other bloggers came in that they, too, had not asked to have their logos or websites attached to the promotion by the newspaper.

The Guardian has just reported that the Sun have dropped the contest while they look into the matter. “We are investigating it [bloggers' claims of not giving permission] and contacting all the bloggers individually,” said a spokeswoman for the Sun. “We will make a decision [on whether to relaunch the promotion] once we have the full facts available.”

I can save the Sun some time: all the ones we listed as not giving permission, well, they didn’t give permission.

A couple of other perspectives on this worth reading. Firstly, Gary Andrew sums up that the whole approach of the Sun to this was patronising to bloggers, at best:

The sweepstake isn’t just a bit of fun. It’s being used to promote an iPhone app. The implication here is that these bloggers, by taking part in the feature, endorse the application.

This leads to the third point. Several of the blogs The Sun’s included have built their reputation on independent, thoughtful analysis and have positioned themselves very much as an alternative viewpoint to the tabloid football frenzy, often criticising these writers. They are a world away from The Sun and often don’t take advertising and will very rarely, if ever, accept PR pitches, especially for something like an iPhone application.

In short, it affects their reputation. Especially if, in Chris Taylor’s case, they have serious ideological differences with The Sun and are critical of their coverage.

Finally, aside from the above, the whole thing is massively patronising to the blogs involved, especially those whose analysis and writing regularly outdoes the national press.

The “aren’t you lucky to be taking part” attitude sticks in the craw, the taking logos without permission then expecting an uncritical link back is sheer chutzpah and the prize for winning this sweepstake – an interview with The Sun’s chief sports writer – is a piece of condescending bone-tossing from old media to new media, to remind bloggers of their place in the hierarchy.

Secondly, Ashley Norris points out that pissing off a bunch of bloggers, some of whom hate the Sun with quite some venom, is not a wise move, and mentions that the promised “traffic” the promotion would bring has been minimal:

Personally I think it is pretty low of The Sun really to do this and would like Pies removed from the chart asap. Also The Sun ought to know better. There are several bloggers on the list whose instant word association with The Sun is Hillsborough, followed by Apology. It isn’t a clever thing to do to annoy those guys.

If they don’t remove us then we will be setting up our own World Cup sweepstake and The Sun will get the plum team of Slovakia (by far the weakest team so far) or maybe it should be France (because like The Sun they are not adverse to bending a rule or two).

From my perspective the most interesting part is that The Sun promised to drive shed loads of traffic to the site. So far I am pleased to say that of the 60,000 people on whoateallthepies. tv in the last 24 hours only two have come from The Sun. Cheers guys.

Gary and Ashley’s comments bring up an interesting point: bloggers with any half-popular soccer/football blog have spent the last month deleting the dozens of sloppy PR email pitches that have come in inviting us to do promotional work for, well, nothing much in return except the odd link (if that). The lazy assumption that we’d all be doing ourselves a favour by promoting their products, for free, doesn’t exactly surprise me, but maybe there’s a lesson in here that the idea we’re all in this to get a few hits or to post blatantly promotional filler content is a bit off.  Someone call Adbusters, or something.

There was also some interesting discussion of all this in the comments to our post yesterday. Thanks to everyone for chiming in and making the Sun take notice. I’m glad they have recognised their error and taken the contest down, pending their “review”. Maybe an apology to the bloggers involved will follow?

The Sun Newspaper Fucks With The Wrong Blogger

Chris Taylor, an occasional contributor here and author of the sadly sporadic (sad because he’s a damn fine writer) unofficial FC United of Manchester blog It’ll Be Off, received one of the many emails sent out by the Sun newspaper in England recruiting bloggers to some kind of bizarre World Cup sweepstakes contest.

Since Chris hates the Sun with a passion — for good reason, since it’s a pile of steaming shit — he ignored the email. The Sun decided to ignore his ignoring and just use his blog as part of the sweepstakes anyway. I’ll let Chris explain:

So yeah. I got an email from The Sun. It basically said that I was to be involved in some sort of sweepstake, and that my blog would receive loads of coverage through The Sun’s website, and Facebook page. And how amazing would that be? The fella who sent me the email signed off by saying, “Let me know your thoughts! I know The Sun isn’t everyone’s cup of tea to say the least but hopefully this will be a bit of fun.” Which is one hell of an understatement.

I ignored this email, hoping that if I didn’t respond, I wouldn’t be involved in all this savage wankery. But sadly I am. My blog is now apparently Chile, and The Sun have publicised this site in a YouTube clip and on their website. I received another email from them yesterday asking for a little coverage of all this on my blog. So here you go:

I want to make it abundantly clear to everyone: I have nothing to do with this. I want nothing to do with this. And I am furious that the good(ish) name of my little blog, that ceased to be a concern some six months ago, is being used by the worst of all tabloids as some fucking publicity machine for their horrendous sweepstake generating iPhone app, and their even more horrendous newspaper. As I posted on Facebook when all this started, “Yeah, sure, I’ll be part of your World Cup blogging network.I’ll sign up the day you explain how it took 15 years to apologise for your Hillsborough coverage. The day you aren’t part of Murdoch’s News International empire. And the day you aren’t a bunch of odious, scare-mongering, right-wing cretins”.

And indeed, yep, here Chris’ blog is, listed as representing Chile (you can Google to find their actual page if you want, I’m not giving them any linkage help):

sun-world-cup-bloggerI’d be curious to know if all the other bloggers in there also gave their permission for their names and logos to be used. I’m kinda sad they didn’t use mine, as there’s surely something legally fishy about the Sun doing this crap.

Edit: So, just from the comments left here, we also know the following blogs names & logos were used by the Sun to promote this crap without their permission: It’ll Be Off; Unprofessional Foul; Sport Is A TV Show; Run of Play; the Onion Bag; Two Hundred Percent; The Ball Is Round; twofootedtackle; The Football Blog.


TV Watch: England and the United States (Nearly) Tie In Ratings

16.8 million viewers tuned in to the England-United States game on American television, broadcast on Saturday afternoon: 13 million on ABC, and 3.8 million on Univision.

17.65 million viewers tuned in to the same game on English television, broadcast in primetime on ITV.

America, as you may well know, has many more people than England. But the next time the World Cup is broadcast live in primetime on American television, which should be in four years when it is hosted in Brazil, American television numbers will undoubtedly be substantially higher than any nation in Europe’s. According to Media Life Magazine, ratings on U.S. television are up 80% from the 2006 World Cup (of course, this is helped so far by both Mexico and the U.S. having played already). The rising trend will continue, and it will help if many games aren’t kicking off at 4.30am on the west coast.

Which I guess is one indication of the growth of the sport here and the demographics that justifies this piece in the New Republic:

The problem for England is that, in another couple of decades, the U.S. will have a reasonable soccer history of its own, and its population isn’t getting smaller, and its economy isn’t likely to, either. Advantage: USA. Ditto for other former soccer minnows, African and Asian sides included. The reality for the St. George’s Cross brigades is that, while England will remain in the second half of the first division of soccer nations, it’s going to have more company there down the road. Winning a World Cup is by no means a predictable venture, requiring as it does sustained player health, favorable elimination-round match-ups, and the occasional good bounce, errant red card or well-timed opponent meltdown. But the odds of little England winning a World Cup are only going to get longer as the quadrennials march on.

Yep, even Matt Drudge is paying attention now.

Every Four Years: Idiots On Soccer

As Media Matters puts it, the old cliches about soccer in America are out in force on cue: “As the 2010 World Cup begins in South Africa, conservative media figures have seized the opportunity to attack the tournament and the sport of soccer. They have also used soccer as a proxy to attack President Obama and progressives.”

Glenn Beck: “Barack Obama’s policies are the World Cup.” In an extensive rant on the June 11 Glenn Beck Program, Beck purported to explain how President Obama’s policies “are the World Cup” of “political thought.” Beck stated, “It doesn’t matter how you try to sell it to us, it doesn’t matter how many celebrities you get, it doesn’t matter how many bars open early, it doesn’t matter how many beer commercials they run, we don’t want the World Cup, we don’t like the World Cup, we don’t like soccer, we want nothing to do with it.” Beck stated that likewise, “the rest of the world likes Barack Obama’s policies, we do not.”

As Media Matters previously put it, seeing soccer as a conspiracy against America is pretty odd when Fox runs the main soccer channel in the United States. Fox! But, oh well.

Then there’s Paul Harris in London’s Observer today (the Guardian’s sister paper published on Sundays), doing the typical once-in-four-years go to New York and wander in a bar (in this case, Pete’s Place in NYC) and report casual conversation as serious analysis thing on the state of the game in America:

The failure of Americans to fall in love with soccer is as old a story as the World Cup itself and the social reasons are the same as ever. Americans love their own sports. The “big four” of American football, baseball, basketball and ice hockey are faster, more intricate and higher scoring than football, with a tendency to create single moments of high drama and a strong aversion to anything that resembles a nil-nil draw. According to Stephen Colbert, Comedy Central’s fake conservative pundit: “Soccer is just one more thing the rest of the world is trying to jam down our throats, like the metric system.”

Colbert’s persona is a joke but his point is true. Yet every four years the American media promises a great breakthrough in the nation’s attitude to the “beautiful game”. This year was no different. Time magazine put the sport on its cover and an inside article was titled: “Yes, soccer is America’s game.”

But not many really agree. The bubble of football popularity soon deflates. Almost 17 million Americans watched the last World Cup final, but 106 million tuned into the last Super Bowl – and 48 million to the final of the men’s college basketball championship.

So, while the passion was there at Pete’s – and the rest of America – it appeared a transitory thing. “I don’t expect any fisticuffs between American and English soccer fans after this,” laughed Hauge. “The World cup is great but soccer is not that important.”

It’d be funny to go to England and write an article about soccer there without mentioning the professional soccer league there, but Harris manages to do this, with not a word about Major League Soccer’s growth. And not a word about the changing landscape of soccer in the States that anyone who has lived here for some time and paid attention to it can patently see, from massive participation at youth levels to diverse vibrant fanbases that see growing audiences for the sport on television and in person. Yeah, it’s not the national game. So what?  17 million people watching the World Cup final is still a shitload of people, and that number will rise again this year, probably beating out a number of other major sporting events (the NBA finals are currently averaging 15 million viewers per game, for example).

Harris continues, “The build-up to the World Cup in America has been a distinctly quieter affair than most of the rest of the world. The back pages and sports sections of the newspapers are still dominated by baseball and basketball.” Yes, this is true compared to the coverage in England. But the World Cup is not exactly invisible here, and the presence of the game on the prime national sports network ESPN is saturation to a level not often seen. Yesterday, I went through several hundred newspaper front pages (not back pages), and found the World Cup front and center on dozens of them around the country — not just in the major metropolitan areas where outside of Harris says soccer is “seen as an exotic, foreign beast.”  Sure, to some extent that’s still true, but it’s probably less true than Harris thinks (not that he bothered to go anywhere besides New York to draw his conclusions, judging from the article).

Harris is painting a static picture of the game when that’s just not the true story. Wandering into a bar in one city and garnering a few random opinions is not good enough as a basis for judging an entire nation of 300 million people’s appetite for anything.

As for this: “While virtually every pub in England is draped in the flag of St George, the bars in America feature all the flags of the World Cup nations.” Well, actually, that’s kinda cool. Instead of every person being expected to wrap themselves in the U.S. flag, we have a diverse country with millions of soccer fans who support different teams (sorry, Glenn Beck). Sure, there’s a growing passion and audience for the US team, and many bars (most of them official partners of US Soccer) are US team-focused now. But it will probably always be the case that there won’t ever be simple absolute kneejerk support for one nation in the United States by all soccer fans, even as the game as a whole continues to grow. It’s pretty awesome to see how Korean fans packed out a Chicago bar yesterday morning at 6.30am.  And then for the same bar to be packed with US national team fans starting US chants just hours later.  There’s a beauty in that and if you can’t see it, you’ve been staring at way too many St. George’s flags for your own good, my friend.

SmallBar Fullerton, June 12th, Chicago (photo from the SmallBar Fullerton Twitter feed), South Korea vs. Greece:


America Wakes Up To The World Cup

-york-postIs America a soccer nation, now?  On the morning of the United States’ most-hyped ever game against England, I combed through the front covers of every single American newspaper listed at Newseum, a good couple of hundred of them (which is not comprehensive, but is a pretty hefty sample-size), to see what Americans were waking up to read about it on their front pages — if anything at all.

I found broad coverage and feature stories in surprising places, from Las Vegas to Detroit. Some states, though, had complete black-outs; other sports stories such as Nebraska’s move to the Big 10 in college sports or the Chicago Blackhawks’ Stanley Cup celebrations wiped out any reference to the World Cup from the front pages in large areas of the midwest.

We see a tabloid, the New York Post, trying to stir hysteria; a Las Vegas daily telling soccer fans to “ignore the haters”;  and a North Carolina newspaper fairly summarising that “We like soccer, but we love hoops.”

We see that newspapers dispatched their photographers to local bars and Mexican restaurants to capture local passion, with few having correspondents in South Africa. It’s often not presumed that readers are fans of the United States: “National pride, but for which nation?” asks The Daily Breeze in California.

The vast majority of the  coverage is enthusiastic: “What a kick!”, the Miami Herald headlines, while the Sarasota Herald-Tribune says “a proper sports fan’s heart will beat a little faster today.” It will indeed.

Scroll below for the cover of every newspaper that had a major feature, in a state-by-state listing; click the image to open a readable PDF, and big ups to Newseum for the cover images.

Alabama: The Anniston Star led with a feature on “The Best Game”, as “local soccer fans catch World Cup fever.”  The Tuscaloosa News took a similar approach. The Montgomery Advertiser took a youth soccer angle while featuring the World Cup

Anniston Star, published in Anniston, Alabama

Anniston Star, Alabama

Montgomery Advertiser, published in Montgomery, Alabama.

Montgomery Advertiser  	Montgomery, Ala.

The Tuscaloosa News, published in Tuscaloosa, Alabama

 	The Tuscaloosa News  	Tuscaloosa, Ala.

Alaska: No coverage.

Arizona: Phoenix’s The Arizona Republic has a colourful feature explaining “The World’s Passion”, while the Arizona Daily Star in Tucson offers tips on how to cope with your “World Cup fever”.

The Arizona Republic,  published in Phoenix, Arizona

 	The Arizona Republic  	Phoenix, Ariz.

Arizona Daily Star, published in Tucson, Arizona

Arizona Daily Star  	Tucson, Ariz.

Arkansas: No coverage.

California: No surprises with the Los Angeles Times featuring the World Cup in a major feature. Numerous regional dailies also have feature stories, or at the least, teaser blurbs on the front page. Surprisingly, the San Francisco Chronicle did not feature the event on its front page, and the San Jose Mercury News also lacked a feature story. The Daily Breeze in Torrance asks “National pride, but for which nation?”

Press-Telegram, published in Long Beach, California

Press Telegram, California

Daily News, published in Los Angeles, California

Daily News, published in Los Angeles, CA USA

La Opinión, published in Los Angeles, California

la-opinion

Los Angeles Times, published in Los Angeles, California

 Los Angeles Times, published in Los Angeles, California

Oakland Tribune, published in Oakland, California

oakland-tribune

Daily Breeze, published in Torrance, CA

Daily Breeze, published in Torrance, CA

Contra Costa Times, published in Walnut Creek, CA

Contra Costa Times, CA

Colorado: The Denver Post is “futbol crazed”, and asks “whether the U.S. team, eager to gain respect at home, can upset mighty England.” Coverage is thin on the ground elsewhere, though the Greeley Tribune offers a reminder to catch the game today.

The Denver Post, published in Denver, Colorado

denver-post

Connecticut: Coverage is very thin in Connecticut, with The Hour featuring the only major frontpage story.

The Hour, published in Norwalk, Connecticut

The Hour

Delaware: Wilmingont’s News Journal offers a major feature on  an event “worth getting wild about”, taking in a Mexican restaurant for their game yesterday.

The News Journal, published in Wilmington, Delaware

news-journal

District of Colombia: Very surprisingly, the Washington Post, only features one tiny blurb on the World Cup on the front page.

The Washington Post, published in Washington, DC

Washington Post

Florida: Newspapers in Florida offer extensive coverage: “It’s a futbol revolution”, says the Sun Sentinel in Ft. Lauderdale, while the Sarasota Herald-Tribune says “a proper sport’s fan’s heart will beat a little faster today.”

Sun Sentinel, published in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida

The Sun Sentinel

Florida Today, published in Melbourne, Florida

Florida Today

The Miami Herald, published in Miami, Florida

Miami Herald

Sarasota Herald-Tribune, published in Sarasota, Florida

Sarasota

Georgia: There is not a great deal of coverage in Georgia’s newspapers, though dailies in Athens and Atlanta offer feature stories.

Athens Banner-Herald, published in Athens, Georgia

Athens Banner-Herald

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, published in Atlanta, Georgia

Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Hawaii: No coverage.

Idaho: The Idaho Statesman has a World Cup fans’ guide.

Idaho Statesman, published in Boise, Idaho

Idaho Statesman

Illinois: Shockingly, there is no coverage of the World Cup on the front pages of Illinois’ numerous newspapers, though for the Chicago dailies, there is a simple excuse: the Chicago Blackhawks’ victory in the Stanley Cup completely takes over today.

Indiana: Bloomington’s Herald-Times is the only newspaper in the state to cover the World Cup on its front page.

The Herald-Times, published in Bloomington, Indiana

Herald-Times

Iowa: Soccer features on the front page of just one newspaper in Iowa, The Gazette in Cedar Rapids…but it’s a story about a local women’s team, not the World Cup.

Kansas: Kansas also draws a blank, with sports news focused more on Nebraska’s move to the Big Ten than the World Cup.

Kentucky: The biggest coverage comes from the Lexington Herald-Leader, with some lovely front page imagery and a number of stories on the World Cup.

The Kentucky Enquirer, published in Fort Mitchell, Kentucky

The Enquirer

Lexington Herald-Leader, published in Lexington, Kentucky

Herald-Leader

Louisiana: No coverage.

Maine: A couple of teaser blurbs, the biggest in the Portland Press Herald.

Portland Press Herald, published in Portland, Maine

Portland Press

Maryland: “It’s soccer, er, football fever” says The Capital.

The Capital, published in Annapolis, Maryland

The Capital

Massachusetts: Surprisingly, there is no coverage in the Boston Globe. The Cape Cod Times has a small blurb reading “U.S. team beings World Cup quest today”. The biggest coverage is in Worcester’s Telegram & Gazette.

Telegram & Gazette, published in Worcester, Massachusetts

Telegram

Michigan: The Detroit News offers a major feature on the World Cup in general, while the Times Herald in Port Huron focuses on one fan.

The Detroit News, published in Detroit, Michigan

Detroit News

Times Herald, published in Port Huron, Michigan

Times-HeraldMinnesota: There’s the briefest of blurbs in Mankato’s Free Press, but the major daily Star Tribune in Minneapolis centres some World Cup imagery on their front page.

Star Tribune, published in Minneapolis, Minnesota

star-tribune

Mississippi: No coverage.

Missouri:The Kansas City Star pronounces its city to be “one of the biggest soccer towns in the U.S.”

The Kansas City Star, published in Kansas City, Missouri

Kansas City Star

Montana: No coverage.

Nebraska: No coverage.

Nevada:Las Vegas’ daily tells its readers to “ignore the haters – U.S. Soccer, led by Landon Donovan, is cool.”

Las Vegas Sun, published in Las Vegas, Nevada

las-vegas-sun

New Hampshire: Just tiny blurbs in Manchester’s Union Leader and Nashua’s The Telegraph.

New Jersey: The biggest coverage is in The Record; the same photo used below is also featured on the front page of The Herald News.

The Record, published in Hackensack, New Jersey

The Record

New Mexico: Another Mexican restaurant is visited, this time by The Santa Fe New Mexican.

The Santa Fe New Mexican, published in Santa Fe, New Mexico

New Mexican

New York:The New York Post does its best to out Sun England’s Sun newspaper, tying in Obama’s criticism of BP to the game today in a fit of attention-seeking hysteria, while the New York Times takes a pictorial approach.

New York Post, published in New York, New York

New York Daily Post

The New York Times, published in New York, New York

New York Times

North Carolina: Raleigh’s News-Observer offers a different perspective with their feature piece: “We like soccer, but we love hoops”, commenting on “America’s tepid interest in soccer.”

Asheville Citizen-Times, published in Asheville, North Carolina

asheville

The News & Observer, published in Raleigh, North Carolina

news-observer

North Dakota: No coverage.

Ohio: The biggest coverage is in The Repository of Stark-County, giving a typical local angle to the World Cup.

The Repository, published in Canton, Ohio

repository

Oklahoma: No coverage.

Oregon: Only a tiny blurb on the impending “World Cup dust-up” in Salem’s Statesman-Journal.

Pennsylvania: Erie’s Erie Times-News pluckily reports that soccer has “small but growing fan base in Erie.”

Erie Times-News, published in Erie, Pennsylvania

Erie

The Philadelphia Inquirer, published in Philadelphia, PA

philly-inquirer

Rhode Island: Nothing but a small blurb on the cover of the Newport Daily News.

South Carolina: No coverage.

South Dakota: No coverage.

Tennessee: No coverage.

Texas: The biggest features come from the dailies in smaller cities, with the Dallas Morning News and Houston Chronicle offering little.

The Beaumont Enterprise, published in Beaumont, TX

enterprise

The Brownsville Herald, published in Brownsville, Texas

brownsville

The Monitor, published in McAllen, Texas

The Monitor

Utah: Provo’s Daily Herald offers one of my favourite feature titles on the World Cup today: “Drink Up”.

The Daily Herald, published in Provo, Utah

http://www.heraldextra.com/

Vermont: No coverage.

Virginia: Some nice imagery in The Free Lance-Star.

The Free Lance-Star, published in Fredericksburg, Virginia

free-lance

The Roanoke Times, published in Roanoke, Virginia

roanokeWashington: Little coverage, aside from the Seattle Times.

The Seattle Times, published in Seattle, Washington

seattle-times

West Virginia: Just a small blurb on the cover of Huntington’s Herald-Dispatch.

Wisconsin: Milwaukee’s major daily offers a primer for newbie soccer fans.

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, published in Milwaukee, Wisconsin

milwaukee

Wyoming:“It’s on,” says the Laramie Boomerang.

Laramie Boomerang, published in Laramie, Wyoming

boomerang

Of course, there are omissions nationally here, but it took me three hours to comb through all those as it is. If you noticed any other interesting cover stories today, let us know in the comments.


ESPN’s World Cup Coverage: So So So Far

As we’ve discussed here a few times, ESPN’s American television coverage of the 2010 World Cup not only marks a shift in their approach — with their “sophisticated” British commentary team (!) — it also faces greater pressure than ever to deliver a quality production.

Mere minutes after their coverage of today’s opening games concluded today, the verdicts were flying in on ESPN’s expensive work so far:

Soccer America loved the production values, but lamented the failure of Efan Ekoku to correctly call the offside decision given against Mexico for their disallowed goal: “The production quality of the opening game — from camera angles to well-timed close-ups — promises us a month’s worth of delightful viewing. One hopes the ESPN commentators will start getting the rules right.”

Ben Gossman at Broadcasting & Cable gave a full-on scoresheet on every aspect of the coverage. He rightly praises ESPN for dropping the traditional update ticker from the bottom of ESPN2′s picture and for the judicious use of onscreen graphics: “Kudos to ESPN for not bombarding viewers with tons of graphics, which so often add nothing to a broadcast. The few times a graphic popped up, it was useful, such as the fact that host nations were 14-0-5 in opening matches prior to Friday’s affair.”

The AP’s television writer David Bauder provides perhaps the oddest review, lauding the use of the British use of “football” by Martin Tyler, but offering a very confusing summary of the mess made around the offside call in the first half:

The broadcasters’ experience wasn’t used to help viewers in the first half, when a Mexican player’s goal was disallowed by a referee’s offsides call.

“What an awful decision,” Okoku said.

He didn’t explain why, however, assuming his audience clearly understood rules about where players need to stand. Because ESPN was taking a worldwide feed of the game’s video, it couldn’t make its own production decisions – so after one, quick, inconclusive replay the play was largely gone and many viewers were left baffled about what actually happened.

What Bauder leaves unsaid is that it remains unclear if Ekoku did understand the rule correctly, or if anyone in ESPN’s production team at all did even well after the incident, as the failure to clear up what had actually happened was unacceptable: the replay clearly showed it wasn’t “an awful decision”. Many made initial misjudgments about the call — I tweeted “huh?” right away before being corrected myself — but never explaining what happened on a national broadcast (as far as I saw) does a disservice to the game and the officiating crew, who got it right.

My opinion on it all? Aside from all that, Ally McCoist might be British, but he’s making me wish for the days of Marcelo Balboa as a co-commentator at the World Cup again with his inane pronouncements. Well, almost.

I Thought We’d Moved On, Mainstream American Media?

Maybe I was fooling myself, but I thought with the unprecedented coverage of the World Cup in the American mainstream media — much of it intelligent and insightful — that we’d moved on from simple soccer-bashing. And then one stumbles on something like this “World Cup Primer” by Chris Erskine at the Los Angeles Times:

In soccer, there is a lot of falling down, most of it on purpose. As a nation, the Italians fall down the best. Portugal also falls down a lot. When the Portuguese collapse to the ground, it is almost operatic. Cellos play. Madame Butterfly sings. Guys in leotards look forlorn (as guys in ‘tards always should).

In fact, falling down well is one of the most important skills in soccer. By falling down convincingly, a player can sometimes fool the referee into calling a penalty kick. Penalty kicks are like free throws, in that they are remarkably easy. Winning a game on a penalty kick would be like winning a basketball game by drawing a charging foul in the second quarter.

So as you can tell, the referee plays a critical part out there on the pitch (the field). To qualify as a referee for a World Cup match, you must be extensively trained and legally blind. If you can distinguish day from night, ketchup from mustard, John Malkovich from Jennifer Garner, you see far too well and would be considered ineligible to be a ref for the World Cup. Because the ref’s job is so vital to the outcome, there is only one.

The ref is assisted by two linesmen, whose main role is to run in a dorky fashion up and down the sideline to determine who knocked a ball out of bounds. This is virtually inconsequential, but they do it anyway.

The most important call a linesman makes is probably offsides. When offsides is called, there is usually lots of jumping up and down. It is almost as exciting as an actual goal, which you will almost never see.

Singing and conga drums are also important elements of soccer. The stands of a World Cup match are like a nightclub, but there is more nudity and drinking. Out on the field, players are fond of removing their shirts after scoring. This might be the best part of soccer. In real life, most people undress, then score. In soccer, it is the other way around.

Yeah, this is an actual column in a major American newspaper in 2010. But perhaps the biggest sign of progress is just how dated it feels — even the commenters can’t even be bothered with it, one witheringly asking “A hack’s a hack, whether in soccer or writing.  Did you recycle this one from 1986?”

Note to newspaper editors: it’s not worth it, it’s not even bait at this point (oh, OK, you did earn a link).

On the Cuts in the Guardian’s Football Coverage

A couple of weeks ago when discussing English newspapers, I mentioned that I’d much rather consider paying for the Guardian’s football coverage than The Times’ (of London), as the latter embarks on a probably doomed paywall experiment.

What’s interesting to note, though, is that the Guardian’s own financial problems are beginning to impact on the bottom line that determines the quality of its football coverage.

Buried in the comments to this Guardian piece announcing its “Fan’s Network” is an interesting response by Sean Ingle, the sports editor of the Guardian’s website, to complaints about the falling quality of the site’s content in general.

The exchange began with a comment by WillQuinn that lamented the decline of world football coverage at the Guardian online:

Not so long ago this site used to have the best world football coverage of any major website in the world. There were weekly reports on Argentine football, from the wonderful Marcela Mora y Arujo, Brazilian football from Fernando Duarte, Dutch football from Leander Schakelens, French football from Paul Doyle, USA football from Shaka Hislop (!), there was even some Middle Eastern football anaylsis (can’t remember the chaps name, apols).

I came here because I knew that if I wanted something different to what was on offer everywhere else, I would find it. The site seemed to be hosting some of the most intelligent, diverse football journalists from around the world.

All of these columns have disappeared. I imagine there are two possible reasons for this a) a change of editorial policy or b) a lack of money. Given the guardian’s well publicised losses, I reckon it has more to do with the second. More and more your blog pages are just stuffed with articles taken out of the newspaper, invariably on England and the Premiership. What has happened to all those other features you used to do? Like On Second Thoughts and the Forgotten story? That was some of the best sports writing on the web.

And now you reveal that you will be paying for blogposts from amateur fans! You may uncover the odd gem – some of the bloggers are excellent – but to be honest I would far rather read more Marcela, more Jon Wilson, more Rob Smyth, more Paul Doyle, more Barry Glendenning and more Scott Murray.

Sean Ingle’s response to this comment is honest, and accepts that severe financial constraints at the newspaper  have meant quality writing that does not attract huge readership has had to be sacrificed:

I’ve been sports editor of guardian.co.uk since 2004 and I receive at least a couple of emails like yours every week, wondering where this feature or that has gone, or lamenting what was. The problem, as you suspect, is resource. Last year the Guardian lost £100,000 a day. Freelance budgets have, necessarily, have had to be slashed. Many people have taken voluntary redundancy. Given the sorry state of the economy, it’s impossible for me to go cap in hand for a regular column on Dutch football, say, when it’s read by just 5,000 people.

One has to feel for Sean Ingle. When your company’s losing £100,000 a day, you can well imagine the response his bosses might give when he asks for a few grand for a year’s coverage of Mongolian football, or whatever.

The problem, of course, is the perennial one we’ve discussed many times here about today’s media landscape: how is good writing going to be paid for?  Answers on a postcard to Sean and I, please.

ESPN’s Unprecedented World Cup Coverage

It’s the most expensive production in the history of ESPN, with a crew of 300 ensconcing themselves in South Africa as I type. Breathless AP articles praise this unprecedented level of commitment:

The same network that drew criticism for calling 20 matches from U.S. studios four years ago is putting together a staff of 300 people to produce the event in South Africa. ESPN has hired British announcers and plans 65 hours of live studio programming from Johannesburg.

“We have a production plan that we think is up to the level of ambition of this event with a great group of commentators that we’ve assembled, a broadcast operation that is far and away the biggest we’ve ever amassed outside of the U.S.,” Drake [executive producer for ESPN’s World Cup coverage] said.

ESPN aren’t doing this for the sake of shits and giggles. The World Cup has become a major draw on American television, as this New York Times article highlights:

“If you ranked World Cup viewing by countries going back to 1998, the U.S. ranked 23rd,” said Kevin Alavy, director of Initiative Sports Futures, a London-based analysis firm. “In 2002, the U.S. jumped to 13th, and in 2006, it jumped again to 8th place. And we expect America to keep on jumping.”

In 2006, the ESPN-ESPN2-ABC broadcasts of the World Cup reached 70.2 million viewers while Univision reached 29.5 million, according to Nielsen Media Research.

It’s pretty obvious those rankings-by-country are aggregate numbers rather than proportions of the viewing public, but there’s no doubt ESPN are tapping into a growing audience for soccer in a massive market: “We’re definitely selling the World Cup as if the U.S. has been converted to soccer,” Ed Erhardt, the president of ESPN customer marketing and sales told the New York Times. “It’s a more diverse country than it’s ever been.”

Many bloggers and journalists, though, are less sure about whether ESPN is covering the game in the right way, particularly in the broader sense of what’s good for the game in the United States.

Paul Gardner highlighted the ambiguity of all this in his SoccerAmerica column yesterday, criticising again ESPN’s decision to go with British announcers, wondering if their approach will prove popular, and whether it will do any good for Major League Soccer:

I happen to think that ESPN has made a frightful mess of trying to work out who its World Cup television coverage should be aimed at — but I’d have to admit that it’s not an easy task. ESPN has decided to go for the Eurosnobs. What makes this rather hilarious, is that ESPN has done this without knowing anything about the Eurosnobs or about the various factions of the U.S. soccer landscape.

All we know is that the man in charge, Jed Drake, is a soccer ignoramus who is in love with British accents. And what will make matters even more hilarious is if this turns out to be the right decision.

Fake Sigi piles on from a different angle, highlighting an article on ESPN Soccernet (that’s actually wire copy from AP) about the stampede at Makhulong stadium on Sunday, summarising the piece as follows: “Mayhem! Violence! Not Uncommon! With the subtext that this is something foreign to be distrusted and viewed with suspicion.”

Fake Sigi concludes, “Maybe I’m a little sensitive, but I honestly thought ESPN of all outlets would be past this sort of thing. If this is what their idea of audience-targeted content looks like, they really do have it all wrong. ”

Maybe Fake Sigi is right in saying he’s a “little sensitive” on this one, but it does highlight the challenge ESPN faces in presenting its content (across a myriad of platforms, including television, radio, mobile, its magazine, and online) to diverse audiences, some extremely knowledgeable about soccer, some still hostile to soccer, some simply curious about soccer. Hell, that stampede article Fake Sigi links to has 265 comments to it, a good few weeks worth of comments here. Blogs like this one with a largely American readership who know the sport inside-out are but splattered bugs on the windshield of ESPN’s soccer juggernaut (just a few years ago, putting those last three words together would have seemed laughable).

The broadest conclusion to be drawn about ESPN’s unprecedented World Cup coverage is simply the good news that it reflects the growth of the sport. But that growth is fragmented, hard to measure and hard to direct appeal to (ask an MLS marketing department in the United States outside of Seattle), and this presents a massive challenge to ESPN as the premier sports outlet in the United States. It’s no wonder their coverage is something of a”frightful mess”.


The Portage Zine: World Cup Writing In Print

The Portage

If you’d like to read some words of mine and from others that will never appear online, you may be interested in purchasing the inaugural issue of The Portage, a soccer zine with a global focus published out of Chicago by WB05 and co-edited by myself.

The first issue contains six original, lengthy essays on the World Cup, covering the history of the event, the meaning of global fandom and the past and future of the World Cup in Chicago, as follows:

The Summer of ’94 // Marc Bahnsen
Football’s Coming Home? // Tom Dunmore
The World Cup & International Greatness // Ted Harwood
Little Guys On the Largest Stage // Benjamin Kumming
The United States’ World Cup Bid & Chicago // JL Murtaugh
From Cork to Chicago, via Belgrade // Stephen Piggott

Most of the above writers have also written for Pitch Invasion in the past, and each essay is pretty damn good.

Here’s a teaser of my own entry:

I knew it was coming. When I went to the Globe Pub in Chicago, sitting alongside dozens of friends and acquaintances from the city’s soccer community to watch the draw for the 2010 FIFA World Cup unfold, I had an uncanny sense that my native land, England, would be drawn in the same group as my current homeland, the United States. Somehow, it seemed inevitable to me, and of course, there is no greater egocentrism than presuming this random act of chance in an event that will be watched by hundreds of millions of human beings somehow means something just for me.

But at the least, it does mean something special to me, and it means something odd for me as well.  Something related to what being a fan means, to what being a citizen is, to what patriotism is, to what the World Cup is all about as a global televised event.

Someone far smarter than me might be able to unravel all this in an academic way that makes sense, something about identity in a post-national age or something.

But I’m just going to tell you my feelings about this game. About why despite all reason to the contrary, I’ll be rooting for England against the United States.

And that’s the case even though I just used the word “rooting”, even though I’m increasingly fighting an urge to spell words in Americanis/zed fashion, even though I’m losing my British accent, even though I live in America, I got married in America (my wife is also an immigrant to the US, born in Poland), and that American soccer has given me more than I ever could have imagined: including my wife.

To read the rest, you’ll need to order the print zine, which runs 26 quality pages long, with original illustrations. It’s $5 plus $1 shipping for domestic US readers and $3 for international readers. You can order through the Paypal link below, though you don’t need a Paypal account to order, just a credit card.

Amaze your friends by reading about soccer on paper! Order now!




 

To Link Or Not To Link?

This is more about blogging than football, but Nicholas Carr at Rough Type has a provocative piece about the potential distraction that links in blog posts provide that I would be interested in hearing your opinion on:

Links are wonderful conveniences, as we all know (from clicking on them compulsively day in and day out). But they’re also distractions. Sometimes, they’re big distractions – we click on a link, then another, then another, and pretty soon we’ve forgotten what we’d started out to do or to read. Other times, they’re tiny distractions, little textual gnats buzzing around your head. Even if you don’t click on a link, your eyes notice it, and your frontal cortex has to fire up a bunch of neurons to decide whether to click or not. You may not notice the little extra cognitive load placed on your brain, but it’s there and it matters. People who read hypertext comprehend and learn less, studies show, than those who read the same material in printed form. The more links in a piece of writing, the bigger the hit on comprehension.

The link is, in a way, a technologically advanced form of a footnote. It’s also, distraction-wise, a more violent form of a footnote. Where a footnote gives your brain a gentle nudge, the link gives it a yank. What’s good about a link – its propulsive force – is also what’s bad about it.

At Pitch Invasion, our essays usually feature plenty of links, though while Peter Wilt peppers his weekly pieces with often very clever and even sometimes snide links (that provide a commentary on the topic linked), others here like Andrew Guest are more restrained, though he still uses links to note where information has come and to provide further reading — often very helpfully.

But is this all distracting our brains from properly processing the points being made in the text?

One solution from Nicholas Carr? Instead of inline linking, collecting all the links at the end:

Laura Miller, in her Salon review of The Shallows, put all her links at the end of the piece rather than sprinkling them through the text. She asked readers to comment on what they thought of the format. As with Gillmor’s early experiments, Miller’s seemed a little silly on first take. The Economist writer Tom Standage tweeted a chortle: “Ho Ho.” But if you read through the (many) comments her review provoked, you will hear a chorus of approval for removing links from text. Here’s a typical response:

Collecting all the URLs into a single block of text at the end of the article works very well. It illustrates Carr’s point, and it improves the experience of reading the article. It also shows more respect for the reader – it assumes that we’ve actually thought about what we’ve read. (Which is not to say that all readers merit that level of respect.)

The comments to Carr’s piece delve further into other possible solutions, such as using CSS to hide links unless the user mouses-over looking for a link — though I suspect this would prove more distracting, as users “hunt” for links with their pointers.

In general, I wonder: should we try essays here without links in the text?

David James on World Cup History

The ever-candid David James offers some interesting responses in an interview with the Guardian’s David Hytner.

He’s particularly confused by why a save from Gordon Banks that helped England win the 1966 World Cup final is less famous than the save Banks made four years later in England’s 1-0 loss to Brazil in the group stage of the 1970 World Cup:

“Banks’s save in the final wasn’t just a continental tip-over-the-bar, fling-your-legs-about job, it was a proper decent save and I never knew anything about it until I saw the DVD,” James said. “It’s bizarre. We lost the [1970] game 1-0 to Brazil but the overriding memory was of Banks’s save, whereas he made a save in 1966 which was more important because it contributed to a win for England. But no one talks about it.

“It was a better save because of the outcome. It was the unsung bit of goalkeeping – he does something that influenced the outcome of the match.”

Perhaps what made that moment from the 1970 World Cup, along with a number of others (Pele’s two famous near-misses seem to be played more than any goal he actually scored), was it was the first to be broadcast in technicolour, with highlight reels blasted around the world.

The luminous colours, the performance of Brazil, the growing media coverage and feedback loop surrounding the tournament: all made many moments more memorable than ever before. In England, there was greater television coverage of the tournament in Mexico than there had been of the previous World Cup on English soil in 1966, with ITV’s television studio crew changing the way the game was presented.

Two of the three television channels then available in England showed the England versus Brazil game live, with unprecedented hype leading up to the clash between the two countries who had won the previous three World Cups between them:

The favourites vs the holders, and the most keenly anticipated match of the group round. Both channels showed it live – BBC1 were first on air at 6:20-8:55pm (with David Coleman commentating), ITV were on from 6:45-9:10pm. Ten minutes into the match England keeper Gordon Banks made the most famous and seemingly impossible save of all time, diving to the foot of his far post to scoop a downward Pelé header up and over the bar, Jairzinho scored on the hour by finishing off a fine move involving Tostao and Pelé, England then made a double substitution and within minutes of coming on both players had missed great chances, first Alan Ball who misskicked and then a terrible miss by Geoff Astle in front of a practically open goal. There were also some iconic masterly tackles by England captain Bobby Moore in which he dispossessed Pelé and robbed Jairzinho inside the penalty box.

It wasn’t so much about the save, or about the result, but about the moments and the media coverage that made them iconic.

More On Paid Content: The Generational Question

A quick follow-up thought to my post earlier today on the forthcoming paywall being erected at The Times — how will the next generation of readers discover the newspaper’s content and quality?  Articles aren’t even able to found on Google. Nobody will  be tweeting links to Times articles. It will exist in its own bubble, like academic journals. Except, as we discussed, its content is mass market and not niche. It won’t survive on university subscriptions.

When I was growing up, my mum religiously purchased The Times. I would always immediately turn first to the backpages for the latest football, cricket or tennis news, devouring pretty much every word, appreciating the prose of a Simon Barnes or Brian Glanville. As I got older, I developed more interest in the rest of the newspaper, but even today on my rare visits home to England, I still turn first to the backpages.

Except my mum doesn’t get The Times every day any more, because she reads her news on the internet. Like nearly everyone in my generation does. So for someone in the generation growing up now, how will they stumble on The Times when it’s not a daily presence in physical form at their parents house or their grandparents house or their friends house?

We now share and pass down via the internet: emailing, tweeting and facebooking articles. From Google searches. From links. It’s our broad network that’s replaced the tighter circle of reading our parents’ newspapers. The Times is exiting from that conversation and I have a really hard time seeing where they’re cultural relevance is going to come from as time passes and very few people read or share the newspaper on or offline.

Football and The Times’ Pay Wall Experiment

From next month, you will not be able to read The Times (of London, as they say here in the US of A) or Sunday Times newspaper websites without paying a subscription fee of £2 a week or £1 a day. In fact, you won’t even be able to stumble on links to their content via Google, as Paid Content reports:

That means the sites – which are fine, focused products – could be passing up their greatest customer acquisition opportunity: their content itself. Non-members who reach a story page are greeted by a Times+ sign-up and login overlay, obscuring the article; there’s no taster, no excerpt and no way that anyone will find those articles via search sites.

It’s all a more conservative strategy than News Corp stablemate WSJ.com, but: “When we showed it to people, that was the model they preferred,” said Times executive editor Danny Finkelstein. “We’re completely unashamed about this. We’re trying to get people to pay for the journalism and we wanted to do it in a very simple way.”

The Times’ new site, available for a limited time as a free preview of the coming service, is fairly impressive design-wise, with a sophisticated look that aims to mirror the style of the print edition. It works well.

But people won’t pay for a newspaper site because it looks nice (or not). They pay for content, particularly for sophisticated niche content (see the Financial Times).

Over the past two decades, more and more of The Times’ content has been about football: as the sport has become ever more a part of British culture regardless of class, so has a snotty Sunday Times that condemned football as “a slum sport played in slum stadiums and increasingly watched by slum people who deter decent folk from turning up” made it a central part of its daily coverage.

The Times football section

The problem is, there isn’t anything compelling about The Times’ football coverage that would make me want to pay for it when I have free alternatives that provide pretty much the same service. The Guardian has promised to remain free, and it would be absurd for me to pay to read inferior coverage at The Times.

This problem for The Times is brilliantly dissected by John Gapper in the Financial Times, as he analyses the path the two Times newspapers have taken since they were purchased by Rupert Murdoch in 1981, which has steered them away from the path of elite appeal that might have given their content the scarcity value worth it for a certain demographic to pay for, instead going mass market:

Newspapers have found that chasing page views in the hope that advertising will save them is hopeless. Premium news and information providers either have to have another source of revenue – like the BBC, Bloomberg and Reuters – or a solid subscriber base.

The future of general online news is in doubt. But if any titles are to survive, they will have to be more like The Times Mr Murdoch bought in 1981 than the title he publishes today – more focused, deeper, with rarer data and information.

They will, in short, have to be elite – a quality that Mr Murdoch has always hated. The alternative is to keep rushing into a world of low-cost content aggregation and “curation”, a fight that will be impossible to win against such low-cost upstarts such as The Huffington Post.

When it comes to its football coverage, the Guardian is much closer to providing something “more focused, deeper, with rarer data and information” than The Times is, from its chalkboards to its podcast to the analysis of Jonathan Wilson or the humour and insight of Sid Lowe. If all that cost me $10 a month, well, I might just pay for it. But £2 a week or £1 a day for The Times’ coverage with the Fink Tank and their one good columnist, Gabrielle Marcotti, along with the same news stories about the England team I can read in a dozen other places? No thanks. And that essentially mirrors the larger problem of the paper’s unexceptional content as a whole.

Perhaps not coincidentally, The Times itself has two recent articles on the possibilities of success for paid content: on the iPad’s launch in Britain, and on the launch of a paid version of El Mundo newspaper online in Spain. The latter, the Times reports, has attracted 10,000 subscribers at €14.99 per month per month or €0.60 per day (it’s unclear if that’s 10,000 people who have paid €14.99 or 10,000 people who have at some point paid €0.60 for one day’s access, a rather crucial distinction monetarily).

But in the piece on the iPad, there’s a killer quote that sums up the challenge despite the shiny new devices like the iPad: “It’s interesting, it’s pretty, it has lots of advantages for news,” Benedict Evans, from Enders Analysis, said. “But 10 million pay for a daily newspaper in the UK. They spend roughly £30 a month each. There will not be 10 million people spending £30 a month on the iPad any time soon.”

As a whole, The Times’ paywall seems a bit of a reach, and a slightly desperate move that’s doomed to failure. It’s a shame I won’t be able to read Gabrielle Marcotti’s thoughts on the final stages of the World Cup, but I’m pretty sure Sport Is A TV Show will have something more interesting for me to read anyway.

The Sweeper: Wither Guardian Football?

With the Lord Triesman affair garnering the headlines earlier in the week, England football supporters rallied round one of their favourite causes: trashing tabloid newspapers for ruining football.  The target of course was the Mail on Sunday‘s insidious entrapment of the now ex-Football Association chief, publishing a private conversation recorded and sold to the Mail by Triesman’s lunchtime fling.  Suddenly, it seemed a few remarks on nations bribing referees made by an official of some importance in a private moment meant England’s bid to host the 2018 World Cup was dead (even though FIFA said it would look into the allegations, meaning the FA chief may have done the anti-sport corruption movement a world of good).

Joining in the subsequent anti-Mail pile on was the Guardian, notably Barry Glendenning in Monday’s Guardian football email, the Fiver, ruthlessly trashing respected Mail columnist Martin Samuel for defending his employer’s actions.  This is Guardian writing at its best, what many have come to expect from one of the most reliable, and interesting sources of new and opinion on European football in the world.

Yet despite the ire lobbed at the Mail this week, there are signs that the Guardian too may be losing some of its lustre.  This has not been a good week for Guardian Football op-eds.  Earlier in the week the two Pauls—Wilson and Hayward—came out with a curious pair of righteous screeds directed at Fabio Capello.  Wilson’s was merely curious, a contrarian call for the inclusion of everyone’s favourite right-back, Gary Neville.  Yet it included some bizarre sermonizing about Capello sowing the seeds of heinous doubt prior to South Africa: “Where there was harmony,” Wilson pounded the pulpit, “he brought discord. Where there was faith, he introduced doubt.”

Wilson’s reasoning is a bit odd; he reasons that because the right-back is the “least important” position, Capello should have just gone ahead and added Neville because, you know, why not?  Wilson:

There is a theory that right-back is the least important position on the field, on the basis that every other position is more specialist. Even left‑back generally requires being left‑footed, and relatively few players are equipped for the role. This argument can be extended into the rather brutal suggestion that a right‑back is often the worst player on any given team, since were he better in any other position he would find himself there. In other words, the position ought to be easy to fill, not a persistent problem like left-wing or goalkeeper. So if there is really only one decent right-back to be found in England, we could be in more trouble than we think.

Many readers were quick to point out the other Wilson—Jonathan—last year made the opposite argument: full-backs are highly technical specialists and vital in modern footbal, meaning you wouldn’t want to just stuff Neville in there just to fill the position.   But that’s beside the point.  Perhaps the slow news week following the end of the football season left a bored Paul Wilson to idly nit-pick where there were no actual nits.

Paul Hayward’s entry was much stranger.  Disgusted that Capello picked several players with one type of knock or another to go to South Africa, Hayward called Capello “the Nick Clegg of international management” for backing out on his promise to break the English football star machine.  Hayward:

No wonder the martinet has turned pragmatist. Like all England managers pre-World Cup, Capello has dragged his cart round the Premier League clubs, calling: “Bring out your dead.” From the start he warned the Wembley congregation that England’s chances would hinge on how many of his best players still had both legs attached in June. Yet the strategic shifts we have observed from him amount to a complete re-scripting of the policies he laid out in his early days.

While some comments originated from the “Don’t Slag Off England” brigade, a great number were from readers perplexed at Hayward’s ire.  Most were overwhelmingly negative, with one reader commenting, “I kind of feel sorry for the writers. How do you fill up so many column inches when nothing is happening?”

This could equally be said of Barney Ronay’s bizarre attack on Barcelona just prior to this weekend’s Champions League final (a match which did not feature the Catalan club). Ronay was responding to Barca’s acquisition of Valencia’s David Villa and Arsenal’s Cesc Fabregas, and he arguably had the wind at his back, with many observers pointing out Barca’s policy seemed no different from Real Madrid’s galacticos redux this year.  So he could have also made a good argument about the dark side of flash football in a European system that rewards success with wealth, but instead he posited that Barca’s worst sin was being “annoying.”  There’s so much to choose from in this article, but this will do:

Even more annoying, but related, is Barcelona’s unshakeable conviction that they are intrinsically good. We are the ewoks here, they shriek. We are the Dukes of Hazard. Never mind that as a regional powerhouse they have such economic might they can even self‑righteously abjure shirt sponsorship (the Bono-style Unicef endorsement is also annoying. You keep thinking: just get Carlsberg on the phone and buy a proper centre-forward). No other football club anywhere insists with such needy, weepy fervour that you love it. This is cloying and I refuse to swoon.

A Tweet from the Run of Play‘s Brian Phillips summed it up best: “How much of Barney Ronay’s critique of Barcelona also applies to the Guardian’s football coverage?”  Even the best have their off periods it seems, and I’m not about to call a negative trend just yet.  But certainly idle hands are indeed the devil’s tools when it comes to football writers—for the Guardian’s sake, the World Cup can’t come fast enough.

The Sweeper: Sweeping Up Something New for the Weekend

As Tom has already explained, Pitch Invasion is currently regenerating in a good, Doctor Who sort of way—think of a stiff, cauliflower-haired Jon Pertwee shape-shifting into the adorably insane Tom Baker.  The Sweeper, like little K9, will be changing too.  As you have may have noticed, the daily Sweepers have gone, and so it seems a bit insulting to your intelligence to chuck together the weekend news with no mention of the week’s happening.

So over the next few weeks leading into the World Cup, I will be compiling the week’s news and articles of note, and make an attempt at some sort of hamfisted synthesis to give the week’s soccer news the shiny illusion of meaning.  Because I trust most of you know how to use an RSS Feed, this is not going to be an exercise in finding something that looks interesting, glancing at it for forty-five seconds and then chucking up a link with a bullet point.  Besides, Bob over at mustreadsoccer.com already actually finds and reads captivating articles from around the globe in their entirety, writes pithy summaries on them, and presents them with eye-catching photographs.  The last thing the Interwebs needs is duplication of work, and Bob’s work is excellent.

Seeing as we’re embarking on a new direction, now would be a good a time to look at why we do what we do here at Pitch Invasion.  A well-worn topic in North American soccer writing circles, Tom Meagher returned this week to the subject of the future of soccer journalism in America in the age of the Internet in an excellent two-part series.  Meagher is pleased with the flurry of online American soccer writing, although he is worried about the lack of basic journalistic practices, like rigorous fact-checking and avoidance of conflict of interest.  Meagher writes:

It’s been great to see the level of engagement by so many regular fans, but I still find myself yearning for more. I want deeper reporting, better writing and smarter analysis. I want it all packaged in an attractive design, and I want more of it every day. I daydream about a soccer publication that embodies some of the best values of newspaper journalism infused with all the potential of the digital realm.

Meagher points to the chaotic amateur nature of online blogging as part of the problem.  Who has the time (or access for that matter) to schedule day-time interviews with MLS team personnel or players, do their own fact-checking, strive for clear unbiased reporting, and do so in a new and interesting way, with only the prospect of a couple of hundred bucks a month from on-line ad revenue as motivation?

Unlike the rest of the world, most of what is written about soccer in North America is done online by poorly paid hobbyists without editorial direction, without professional fact-checkers, deadlines or accreditation.  Those were the luxuries of the bygone age of the newspaper publishing, an industry that used to own the only print press in town thereby forcing you to buy the whole paper, soccerless sports section and all, to subsidize the boring-but-important long-form journalism.  This is the kind of journalism that Internet zealots like Clay Shirkly have long declared dead and buried in the age of the universally accessible, million-fold online printing press.

But as the Atlantic’s James Fallows discovers in an absolute must-read article this week, there are some people, particularly at Google, who do not share Shirkly’s blood-lust for old print media.  They are more inclined to use words like “transition” in favour of “extinction”.  In fact, they are enthusiastic about the future of online news gathering for several reasons which are best read in the article.  Fallows is quick to mention these are not all-encompassing solutions, nor do they necessarily mean that ten years from now all these great online soccer writers will be paid a living wage and given the resources to cover soccer as disinterested journalists.  But they do indicate there is real potential in the coming years for more of what both Tom Meagher and Fake Sigi want: in the latter’s words, “the need for more critical questioning of those in power from the whole spectrum of internet soccer coverage in America.”

Yet is that all the vastness of American Internet soccer coverage has to offer? At one point in Fallows’ piece, he asks Google News developer Krishna Bharat to tell him what he had learned from traditional news publishers.  The response deserves full reprint here:

[Bharat] hesitated for a minute, as if wanting to be very careful about making a potentially offensive point. Then he said that what astonished him was the predictable and pack-like response of most of the world’s news outlets to most stories. Or, more positively, how much opportunity he saw for anyone who was willing to try a different approach.

The Google News front page is a kind of air-traffic-control center for the movement of stories across the world’s media, in real time. “Usually, you see essentially the same approach taken by a thousand publications at the same time,” he told me. “Once something has been observed, nearly everyone says approximately the same thing.” He didn’t mean that the publications were linking to one another or syndicating their stories. Rather, their conventions and instincts made them all emphasize the same things. This could be reassuring, in indicating some consensus on what the “important” stories were. But Bharat said it also indicated a faddishness of coverage—when Michael Jackson dies, other things cease to matter—and a redundancy that journalism could no longer afford. “It makes you wonder, is there a better way?” he asked. “Why is it that a thousand people come up with approximately the same reading of matters? Why couldn’t there be five readings? And meanwhile use that energy to observe something else, equally important, that is currently being neglected.” He said this was not a purely theoretical question. “I believe the news industry is finding that it will not be able to sustain producing highly similar articles.”

When American writers talk about online soccer coverage, they usually frame the discussion as follows: North American print journos don’t cover soccer, so it’s up to the Internet to do it instead.  But should that mean independent bloggers should attempt to imitate their contemporaries in print?  I’m going to go out on a limb here, but there are very few mainstream print sports writers, for ESPN, Sports Illustrated, hell, most North American newspapers (outside of the Globe’ and Mail’s Stephen Brunt) that I’d want covering soccer. The American author Richard Ford, speaking through his epic character Frank Bascombe in his book The Sportswriter, nails the vapidity of that genre well:  “If there’s another thing that sportswriting teaches you, it is that there are no transcendent themes in life. In all cases things are here and they’re over, and that has to be enough.”  I’m going to be a bit insulting here, but that’s how Ives Galarcep and Grant Wahl write: like traditional, ethical (at times), news-gathering American sports writers who dispense facts in a pithy way and then walk away. When’s the last time you came back to reread an Ives weekend MLS roundup?  Or one of Steve Goff’s link-a-thons?

Yet there are Run of Play post-game reports I return to again and again.  This week, Fredorrarci wrote one the most masterful pieces I have ever read on the importance of players in football.  Dan Loney is incapable of writing a boring summary at Big Soccer (even if it sometimes grates).  Fake Sigi’s screeds are always worth a couple of looks back, and you’re here right now because you know Tom Dunmore is one of the most capable soccer writers on the planet.  Were always told about the disposable nature of blogs, but everything ever published online is there forever, and the good writers know it.

This sort of sports writing isn’t native only to the Internet (When Saturday Comes has led the way in transcendent soccer writing for years), nor as the Guardian has ably demonstrated is it native to amateur writers alone, but the Internet nourishes it among independent writers like no other medium.  I write this so that we’re careful about what we mean when talk about journalistic writing on soccer.  Like Bharat observed, we don’t want to all produce solid, objectively clean match reports on DC United v. Seattle.  We need more of what Stephen Wells did in Philadelphia up to his death, what sometime soccer author John Doyle mentioned to me about his approach writing about the game, more writers willing to step outside the stadium with eyes wide open, observant to what’s happening outside the field of play.  As Fallows’ concludes. it’s the risk-takers that will be rewarded as the print news industry transforms in the next ten years.  Risk-taking doesn’t mean playing hard and fast with the facts or casting old fashioned journalistic integrity aside; it means regarding journalistic integrity one of many tools in writing a better story.  American soccer could provide the perfect staging ground for those who dare to seek those stories out in their own communities.

The Best? Football As Never Before

In looking at George Best Fußball wie noch nie (Football as Never Before) it would be logical to set the work next to the more widely viewed 2006 film, Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait and analyze the similarities and differences, but, in my eyes, I don’t think it would be fair to either film.  There’s no doubt the Zidane edition is a direct descendant of the 1971 work by German filmmaker Hellmuth Costard, with the exact same premise driving both the storyline and singular character focus.  But where the two differ is outside the film itself - particularly, in the eyes of this viewer. Anyone who has followed the game during the past decade and a half would need no introduction to Zidane.  The player crowned as Best in the World (three or four iterations ago, depending on whom you ask) performed in the hyper-individualistic environment of the modern game, with super stardom fueling jersey sales and advertisements.  Growing up in middle America long after Best had hung up his boots, and not a particular fan of Manchester United, my exposure of Best as the player was next to nil.

Football as Never Before

Contrarily, my perception of the Zidane film was already influenced by knowledge of his entire career, from the time I was first introduced to him in the 96-97 Champions League final via a borrowed VHS tape from a middle school teammate, all the way through to the infamous incident in which he decided to mark the end of his career.  I have to only assume that the era and football world Best played in was far different from that of Zidane, but that Best played a major part for the existence of the modern football superstar. So what follows is a raw attempt to interpret Best as the player and what he brought to the game, technically, through the limited focus of the 6 camera lenses. (The film is rarely screened in the United States, but I was lucky enough to catch it recently at an indie filmhouse in Chicago.)

The film flyer set the tone, Football as Never Before was a work that followed “the mercurial George Best” for an entire 90 minutes of a 1970 match between Manchester United and Coventry City. In absolute terms, a camera following George Best for 90 minutes is exactly what we were treated to.  But it is the “mercurial” nature of George Best that allowed a football aficionado to derive more of his footballing lore from only the limited view of what met the eye. Whether he was out wide on the left letting loose raking balls towards the final third, or at the corner of his own 18 beginning a counter-attack, there was an immediately apparent higher quality to everything surrounding Best.  This quality is somehow different than the word “quality” we loosely throw around describing players or the game today.  This sort of quality, in the most literal sense, is the type that words do no justice, the one that sets players possessing a rarefied singular talent apart from the rest of pack.  The once-in-a-generation quality, if you will.

This being my first exposure to any sort of extended footage of Best in action, his talent was instantly recognizable and the impression left on my mind was a lasting one. Such was his life that, as a twentysomething football junkie, I knew far more about his off-the-field exploits than the specific skills he possessed while on it.  And those skills were nothing short of brilliant. Once again, a word that is thrown around so much these days to the point where it’s nearly devoid of its meaning, but brilliance seems well suited to sum up the play of Best.  Watching the film I had to think back to the Northern Irish phrase “Maradona good, Pele better, George Best” and wonder if it wasn’t something more than just an exaggerated witty colloquialism…

George Best

Languid, yet not lazy – extremely quick, but still efficient with his runs – he held the ball well under pressure, while not afraid to get stuck in himself – and had that shared quality that all the Greats possess, a true vision of the game which allowed him to stay one step ahead of the pace.  Yes, perhaps it is a stretch to ascertain so much of the player and his importance to the team while watching with such a limited viewpoint, but I think in a way this restricted profile only magnified his incredible talents.

By my count, there were only 2 or 3 legitimate tackles where Best lost the ball, and to the credit of Coventry City players in this match, they were well-timed and well-executed tackles.  It seemed that only such would do to dispossess the ball from the feet of Best.  Weaker challenges were shrugged aside, and even if they were momentarily successful, Best was quick to regain possession of the ball and continue the play forward.  His sublime approach looked cool under pressure, as Best was never hurried and decisive with his actions.  If we only relied on the limited frame of the picture, it would indeed make it hard to say he was certainly playing the right ball… but for this conclusion we owe to the Old Trafford faithful.  Often times in the middle/attacking third the ball Best played forward would eventually be met with a collective sigh from the crowd, followed by applause – which leads us to assume that the ball went on to be part of a chance (or near-chance) on goal.  An interesting way of deducing the end product, but at the same time it was a pleasure to see Best observe the play he orchestrated.

His pace was blistering, but what impressed the most was how quickly he reached that top gear.  At the drop of a coin, Best was off and flying down the flank in support of an attack, or starting the attack itself.  Numerous times Best dropped into the middle of the pitch to receive the ball around the center circle, turned and off he went.  The turn, in many instances, was where the beauty of his play truly shone through.  Almost an afterthought, he changed the direction of the ball with his thigh or outside of the boot and was off and running.  He had the mind to look for what was next, while making the turn with an effortlessly second nature-like approach, while a lesser being may have been caught up in the turn itself and fault all that followed.  After the turn, how the ball stayed glued to his foot as he slalomed past defenders was another element of wonder.

George Best

Best had obviously mastered the simple drop of his shoulder to leave challengers yards behind scrambling in a futile attempt to catch him. We were lucky enough to see this move executed to ultimate perfection, as 10 minutes into the second half Best dribbled a few defenders to leave him one-on-one with the Coventry keeper. The ball ever-attached to his boots, the keeper came to meet Best at the top of the box. At full speed, Best merely suggested of a dipping shoulder feint to the right, and the goalie went to ground with the intention of getting the ball, Best, or both.  None troubled by this mortal creature in his path, as the prey bit hard on the feint to the right Best simply cut the ball across to his left and he was well alone for a tap-in. All the while so eloquently executed.

The workrate George Best displayed was perhaps the most surprising thing to me about the film. The idea of him as a glamorous footballer, even the first glamour footballer, led me to believe I would be watching a somewhat relaxed player spraying passes around the pitch as he pleased.  Much to discredit my thoughts, Best worked tirelessly to receive the ball, in the build-up and during the attack, as well as the occasional tracking run on defense.  One sequence showed Best dispossess the opposition near his own 18, and go on a rampaging run for a good 40-50 yards as the people in the front rows of the terrace blurred in the background, releasing an unseen player, followed by an assumed near-missed opportunity and a round of applause a few seconds later.  The second goal of the match was scored in a similar fashion, where Best beat a few defenders, unleashed a shot towards goal…. and after a presumed botched effort by the goalkeeper or a Coventry defender, Best is running towards his teammates in celebration.  And 2-0 is the way it ended.

There are some points during the match that he appears to be standing around, but never is it in a disinterested fashion.  To the unaware eye this may be interpreted as laziness, but it would be foolish for any player to be running for the full 90 minutes. Even in his idle moments, Best was keenly aware of the right moment to unleash a flying run on the side, or when to come to and receive the ball.  He even cracks a smile here and there, leaving us only wondering what could be playing out on the rest of the pitch.

George Best

Later on this workrate and pace must have dwindled, accelerated no doubt by his social excesses off the pitch, so it was a blessing that we have this game preserved while he was still fully fit.  It’s not hard to imagine Best still dominating without the pace, though, as this was clearly not only aspect of his game.  One of the first clips I can recall of Best in his later years, showed he had kept that mastery of the dribble after his physical prowess was on the decline.

Judging from where Best was filmed most often, United were the better side and Coventry appeared to rarely threaten the opposing goal.  This experience was not really one of watching the game itself, but it was the act of seeing the game through the eyes of a genius that gave us an understanding of what was happening on the pitch. To be so focused on a single player for the entire game carries the inherent risk of monotony, but with Best the dull points are carried as an exercise of watching a man operate in his natural surroundings.  The focused cameras give us an opportunity to get an almost primordial feel of what is like to see the game as a top class footballer…. and a legend who shaped the groundwork for the lifestyle and scrutiny afforded to those superstars that followed after his playing days were long gone.


The Sweeper: New MLS Website Disappoints

mls-soccer-site

Big Story

Let’s say this first: as far as English-language football league websites go, MLS already had the best, as cluttered and ugly as it was in parts. There’s really never any reason to visit the English Premier League’s site, for example, whereas MLS’ site at least has long had plenty of content, video and information.

It was just buried in a design that suggested someone got way too excited when they discovered the hyperlink HTML tag.

A new site was needed, and MLS have clearly made a considerable commitment to beef up the content in a cleaner design. All good intentions from the league’s perspective.

And today, their new site, MLSSoccer.com, launched.

In lieu of a full review to come later, here are a few first reactions. I understand that a new site has rough edges, but overall, I’m  fairly disappointed. Quick thoughts:

  • The design is cleaner; fewer links, larger headings. Unfortunately, it’s grey. Really grey. Why not incorporate more of the colours of the logo into the design?
  • The news section has good, clear formatting in the main column, but the sidebar  bullets don’t even align correctly with the links.
  • This points to an obvious fact: this site is not finished. I realise the first game is tonight, but a standings page that doesn’t even list the teams in MLS does not look good.
  • The “supporters” page has a prominent link, which is nice, but the actual content is abysmal. It links to two poorly-formatted listings of bars and supposed “stadium guides”, which is in fact a badly presented list of links to existing information elsewhere. There is nothing about supporters’ groups; how about some links to each team’s recognised groups? How about some creative, fun information about being an MLS supporter? Some photos? Some video? A visitor who clicked on supporters to find out about fans in MLS would learn absolutely nothing from this section.
  • The stats page is a good overview of things from on the field numbers leaders to attendance figures, though again, the table formatting is sloppy, and the information is hardly comprehensive.
  • The schedule page is sadly not sortable by team, but just a complete list of every game. An option to sort and view nationally televised games would also be useful.
  • The clubs page is just a list of links, with the actual link to each club’s site a curiously small button. How about some general information on each club from a league-wide perspective? A listing of trophies won, for example?
  • Apparently, the Chicago Fire have no players. Crap!
  • The video page looks good. Unfortunately, I can’t play any of the videos from Firefox on Windows; attempting to auto-find the plugin needed fails. Maybe it works in IE?
  • The Photos page is simply bizarre. The most prominent link is to “Hot Players” — seriously?? It appears to mean “hot” as in Adriana Lima hot, and features 12 photos of players with their shirts off. I’m sure Kickette will like it, but your average MLS fan? Huh?
  • I can’t even find a link to the MLS Insider blog anymore, when one would think it would be featured on the homepage. The front page of the site’s largest sub-section is curiously about Americans Abroad, rather than about MLS.
  • The mobile site isn’t done yet.

You know what I think? Development on the site fell seriously behind schedule, and at some point the decision was made to simply launch it in time for the season opening tonight regardless of the quality of the production. Big mistake. Frankly, it’s amateurish in quality, with incomplete information, poor formatting, and at-times bizarre content.

MLS 3.0, hope to see you soon.

Quick Hits

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


Our Wednesday: Developing an Official Social Networking Site for Fans

our-wednesday

A few weeks ago, following our piece on Man City’s innovative online work, I was tipped off to a website in beta being built by Sheffield Wednesday’s web team that is one of a kind as an official club production in England: a social networking site that gives fans a forum, the ability to blog, upload photos and videos, make “friends” and create groups.

Unlike Manchester City’s expensive effort, this was built by a Championship club at a much smaller cost, and is an interesting experiment in how clubs can use social media to reach out to fans and build community online.

It’s called Our Wednesday, and we talked to one of the men behind it, James Hargreaves of Sheffield Wednesday.

1) Tell me about the thinking behind the launch of Our Wednesday, the club’s new online social community site. Why was it felt important to create this for fans? What can it do that the main official site doesn’t?

JH: To set up a bit of background – when internet entrepreneur Lee Strafford (founder of UK ISP PlusNet) took over as Chairman of Sheffield Wednesday just over a year ago, online messaging and functionality was identified as one of the ways to effectively communicate to and involve supporters whilst providing convenience for them as customers.

The first step in this was to create a useful online retail environment, where fans can quickly and easily buy merchandise and tickets. The club set about creating a functional portal where supporters can buy their tickets online, print at home and scan their barcode on it for entry on the turnstiles, creating real value for the club and convenience for the fan.

The next step was then to create an ‘official’ community. Online engagement had been neglected by the club’s previous management team and there was a real desire to interact with and involve fans again. Sheffield Wednesday has gone back to its roots of being a ‘community’ club – as evidenced with the gifting of the shirt sponsorship space to The Children’s Hospital in Sheffield. Online engagement is one of the keys to getting supporters re-engaged with their club.

There are plenty of unofficial forums that do a superb job of allowing discussion space for supporters and Sheffield Wednesday have an extremely active online audience through those channels. However, due to the problems surrounding the club over several years a lot of mistrust had built up between – and even within – those communities. We sought a way to counter this and create something different but ‘official’ to begin the long process of getting the majority of online community back into a trusting and productive wider online community.

OurWednesday.com was built mainly as a social networking site to create not only a bond between the club and its fans, but also strengthen bonds between the fans themselves. At the very heart of OurWednesday are positive messages – the ability to add friends, the ability to create groups and find commonality, the ability to share memories with photos and videos, the ability to have discussion – and to have your say – with other supporters and people from the club itself. It’s less about just shouting messages at people via news on an official site and more about involving the supporters in the goings on.

The main difference between OurWednesday.com and the official site is that conversation. The official site is a formal place to go for all your news and information, whereas OurWednesday.com is then about informally discussing all those things and more; thus creating an involvement, buy-in, ‘stickiness’ and adding real value to the wider community. It is our view that the internet is not only about serving information, but about creatively involving all the stakeholders.

The idea is not to replace the main official site or the other unofficial fan sites and forums, but to compliment them in an official, yet informal, manner to build up a meaningful online community.

2) What were some of the drawbacks considered about creating a site that allows fans more freedom to interact with each other on an officially sanctioned site?  How do you moderate all the photos and videos fans add, and do you keep a tight rein on what’s discussed on the forum?

JH: Of course there are a number of potential drawbacks with creating such an online community, especially when it comes to crowd-sourcing a lot of the content from the users themselves and allowing such freedom across the site. However, I am a believer of always trusting people to do the right thing in the first instance and as long as the guidelines are laid out from the start then people are generally very sensible.

I feel there could be an initial mindset that, as an officially sanctioned community, it would be a propaganda machine or that opposing views are not welcome, however we’ve all been involved in internet businesses and communities long enough to know that that simply wouldn’t work – and it’s not what Sheffield Wednesday would want from an online community either.

The content that is added or discussed on the site is entirely down to the users themselves – all that we ask, via the guidelines, is that it is not illegal and is in the spirit of a community club (i.e. no swearing or inappropriate comments). There is no ‘tight-rein’ as such; if a user is annoyed with the performance of the team on a Saturday, then they are entirely free to discuss their frustrations – after all, that is what football is all about!

Indeed, so far the moderators have only had the need to edit a few swear words that have inadvertently dropped through the net and hopefully that will be the case as much as possible on an ongoing basis.

In terms of moderation, currently I myself will monitor what content is added by users to the site along with a very small team of volunteer moderators from the fanbase. As the community grows we will recruit more of those moderators from the community itself and effectively allow the community to govern itself much more – this is an ongoing evolutionary process.

3) What kind of a budget did you have for the site?  What kind of tools did you find to build it for a reasonable cost?

JH: Without going into commercial information, I will say that the cost of developing the site to where it is has been minimal. Using a mixture of experience, open-source technologies, capable supporters from the fanbase and contacts throughout the internet industry we have managed to build a very functional site at a very reasonable cost.

4) How successful has the site been so far?  What has been the main positive and negative feedback that you’ve received about it?

JH: We are still in the early stages of our online engagement and still developing all our web properties (of which OurWednesday.com is just one piece) – and all early signs are good.

We currently have over 1,000 members of OurWednesday’s open BETA trial and that number continues to grow, with usage increasing in all areas across the site. Feedback has mainly been positive with each of our blogs (either departmental updates, or insights into happenings at the training ground) being discussed across both Sheffield Wednesday and opposition teams’ forums (opposition fans are generally impressed with how open and engaging our club is with its fans through OurWednesday.com). As an example of creative and open content that we look to provide, our most popular content to date (in terms of page views) is a blog on humorous applications received for the recent managers’ vacancy.

The only real negative feedback we have received is regarding the registration process and the information that is collected – however, supporters generally understand when we explain the reasoning behind it is to create an account at the online shop, to help make a seamless login across both sites. We’re looking at streamlining this somewhat and also introducing login for OurWednesday.com through a Facebook Connect feature in a future release.

Additionally, our Facebook page has reached over 10,000 fans – which we believe to be the highest number for a Championship club – and our Twitter profile now has over 2,000 followers, again believed to be the highest in the Championship. We believe that this, as well has having one of the most frequently updated official club sites in the Football League demonstrates our commitment to open online engagement.

5) Do any other clubs in England have a comparable official online community site?  If not, why do you think that is?

JH: Surprisingly, a number of football clubs in England do not even have a Facebook page or Twitter account, yet alone something along the lines of what we are doing. There have been one-or-two attempts by clubs at something similar through various hosted solutions, however we believe we are the first club in England to have our own dedicated social network platform for supporters.

There are a number of reasons clubs haven’t yet extended into these avenues. Resources is a big factor in an environment where a lot of clubs are cutting back, however I believe that most football clubs in the UK can be ‘old fashioned’ and are struggling to understand the online marketplace and the benefits of such engagement – we are happy to be a trendsetter in this respect!

Thanks to James for taking the time to answer — check out Our Wednesday to see how this all works in practice.

The Sweeper: Can Television Save Local Football?

nfl-sunday-ticket

Big Story

Here’s a curious proposal from one of England’s most thoughtful football writers: in order to increase ties to local clubs lost by national television broadcasts and migration patterns, Gabrielle Marcotti suggests that “if fandom is reached via television, then television should be fully embraced, albeit with some key safeguards, along the lines of what the NFL has done for years.”

What he means here is that Premier League clubs’ games should be shown only in their region and not nationally, as long as they are sold-out, a sensible enough provision to ensure games are seen by actual fans. As Marcotti explains,

“Scrap the notion of nationwide Premier League TV games, with the exception of one “game of the week” which would be on a terrestrial brodcaster and would be the league’s showpiece that week. Then, divide the country up into regions and show every Premier League game but on a regional basis as long as one of two conditions are met: either it’s an away game or it’s a home sellout.”

Marcotti accepts it’s a rough idea, but concludes by summing up the benefits:

Obviously it’s a radical re-think and requires a number of adjustments. You need to do a lot of fiddling for regions where there are many clubs (like London or Manchester). You need to spread the schedule out across the weekend which will, no doubt upset traditionalists (although, in fact, it’s already very spread out). But it would allow many who simply can’t go to games – whether because they are too young, too old or too poor – to follow their local club and develop (or rekindle) their passion for it. And, if done right, it would also boost attendances. By the way, technologically, it would be very easy to do: Sky boxes are already set based on postcodes, which is why if you move from Liverpool to London and take your receiver with you, you still get local Liverpool news.

This isn’t quite the NFL model, though. Yes, home teams have to sell-out their games 72 hours before a game or it will be blacked out on television within a 75 mile radius of the team’s home stadium. Meantime, when the local team’s game is airing, no other game can be shown on a local network station.

But there’s still a hell of a lot of nationally broadcast games, which is why the NFL’s television deal is even sweeter than the Premier League’s. A fan of an NFL team who does not live in that team’s local market can purchase NFL Sunday Ticket on satellite and watch all their team’s games that way. You don’t have to be local to watch every game your team plays, wherever they play. And through Sunday Ticket, you can watch pretty much every game every weekend.

Aside from the premium Sunday Ticket package, there’s an enormous amount of gridiron on American television broadcast nationally.  If your local team plays at say 3pm central time (in my case, the Chicago Bears), you can usually find two games on local network stations beforehand at noon, and then nationally broadcast games on both Sunday and Monday evenings. For the second half of the season, NFL Network (a dedicated station available on most cable or satellite packages for little extra charge) shows a live game on Thursday nights nationally as well.

The point of all this is to say that the NFL’s model isn’t exactly one of encouraging local fandom over following a team across the country. A Cowboys fan could watch every game Dallas plays even if he lives in Seattle by buying NFL Sunday Ticket or going to one of hundreds of bars that has it. He can also gorge on a dozen plus other games and entirely ignore the Seahawks if he chooses.

What the NFL’s model does do is encourage existing local fans of their team to go to games, or they will be blacked out in their locality on television. Essentially, though, this is presupposing a local fanbase for that NFL team, not encouraging one over national affiliations.  The NFL is obviously popular enough now that a team can move states and suddenly a sold-out stadium will appear in their new home. Part of this is precisely because of the amount of games shown nationally.

Marcotti’s model would surely result in a far less lucrative television deal for the Premier League. But I’m also not sure it would help local clubs outside the Premier League, as the regional behemoths like Liverpool would in this model have more of their games on television available to local fans.

The problem is that in most of the NFL, there is only one team per region. In England, ensuring every Manchester United game could be seen locally on television every week would surely only do more damage to other local clubs like Rochdale or Stockport County by increasing the availability of United games from the armchair, even if they were not shown at the same times as their games. It would actually encourage local armchair Premier League fandom, wouldn’t it?

The local television model works in the NFL with 32 teams spread across a geographic area so much larger than England, which is the size of Alabama and has over 90 professional clubs. Limiting broadcasts by locality and not damaging smaller teams is much harder to do in England.

Quick Hits

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

MLS Soccer Journalists and the MLS Labour Dispute

mls-soccer

There aren’t many professional American soccer journalists, so when they move digs, it tends to create a stir in our little media teapot over here. The latest announcement is from Steve Davis, a veteran whose work I admire, who has a new role at Sports Illustrated, leaving ESPN Soccernet.

The latter has practically abandoned American soccer, with SI beefening up its presence stateside.

At the same time, with MLS’ new league website about to launch, what’s now MLSSoccer.com continues to attract talent: in the past few months, they’ve hired as full-time staffers Offside Rules blogger Shawn Francis, Goal.com’s Greg Lalas and Jonah Freedman from Sports Illustrated.

Others like Greg Seltzer from No Short Corners will be writing for the site, and so will Steve Davis, as he tells us on his blog. Many American soccer journalist have and will continue to freelance for MLS’ official site.

All this is happening while MLS is embroiled in its worst-ever labour dispute, with the league on the verge of a strike.

MLS Communications is, of course, pretending none of this is happening; if you relied on their daily MLS Newsstand email service for your fix of MLS news, with the text of a dozen+ articles on the league included, you wouldn’t know a strike was even a  vague possibility. The MLS Insider blog has more about David Beckham’s injury than about the Collective Bargaining Agreement dispute, which hasn’t received a mention this week.

I can’t blame MLS staffers for this at all. Don Garber has been pretty clear that MLS employees are not to talk about the strike in public. Any communications regarding the CBA are presumably vetted by Garber’s dog, cat and mother  before going out.

Yet doesn’t this present a problem when many of the country’s best soccer journalists now work for MLS, just when we need insightful coverage the most?

And how does this impact on MLS’ hardy string of freelancers? Steve Davis’ first column at Sports Illustrated is on the biggest story in American soccer, the strike. It’s a good piece, fair and objective. Still, he takes a jab at the players (not for the first time):

“This is truly a case of guys who could make more money going out and getting a job, but they’re trying to live out the dream,” Keller told The Associated Press last Friday.

He may be right, but it may not matter. In the chill of national recession, the public may not be in the mood to hear about dreams — particularly not the 10 percent of population currently unemployed. Paying bills is the here-and-now. Chasing dreams is a luxury that’s off the table for many Americans today.

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that opinion, nor do I think that Davis would colour his thoughts due to his work writing for MLS’ website as well. But it still strikes an odd chord for me; I personally would not write at an independent publication about another company that periodically pays me to work for them on a labour dispute they are involved in, even as a freelancer.  At least, definitely not without saying up front I also take a few dollars here and there from them. I trust Steve’s writing and integrity as a long-time reader of his work, but many fans at Sports Illustrated coming across the piece won’t even know he also writes for MLS.

Naturally, freelancers have to make money to make a living, and the MLS site is increasingly where the pay checks are being cut.  Maybe there isn’t a problem until there’s a problem: when obvious bias creeps into reporting.

I’m not really worried about a guy like Steve Davis; judging from his columns, he’s not likely to start pandering to anyone anytime soon. But in the broader sweep of things, with newspapers cutting back coverage of all sports and content increasingly moving in-house, where are the genuinely outside perspectives on MLS going to come from?  You might tell me the blogosphere, and you might be right, but it ain’t easy to find the good coverage out here in the sticks, is it?


The Sweeper: The Brits Takeover ESPN for the World Cup

tea-crumpets

Big Story

ESPN has decided to go all British for its lead voices in all 64 World Cup games this summer on American television this summer, and Steve Davis is not happy about it. In an eloquent rant, Davis comments that:

I’m on this British accent thing again because you guys just announced your lineup for World Cup broadcasts. Talk about a kick in the nads to the American soccer establishment! Here’s the opening line from your announcement:

“ESPN’s World Cup telecasts will have a British accent.

“Adrian Healey, Derek Rae and Ian Darke have been hired by ESPN for its U.S. broadcasts at this year’s World Cup and will join Martin Tyler to give the network British play-by-play announcers for all 64 games beginning June 11.”

Man, that’s a fine “How Do You Do” for Yankee viewers …and announcers.

In an open letter to ESPN, Davis asks “couldn’t you guys at ESPN squeeze an American voice into the play-by-play lineup?  Is American soccer such a craphole wasteland that a guy like JP Dellacamera can’t get a bite of the play-by-play mic?”

Dellacamera is certainly hard done by here. Most odd of all, as EPL Talk has commented, is that United States games (including against England) will not have an American voice as lead commentator. The only American voice we will hear is the dull John Harkes.

What Davis doesn’t mention is the disappointing coverage provided by ESPN at the previous World Cup behind the microphone, led by baseball guy Dave O’Brien, as this New York Times article from July 2006 reminds us:

At the beginning of this tournament, we received so many comments from readers complaining about the ESPN and ABC announcers that we had to ask you to stop sending them in. It was true, however, that like many of you, I found it so hard to listen to their game commentary that I switched to Univision — even though I was describing matches live and needed a steady flow of information. It felt as if whatever information I was getting through half-understood Spanish was superior to what I was getting on the English-language telecasts.

After a few days, however, the ESPN and ABC announcers had gotten better. They had stopped shoehorning trivia facts, interesting sidelights and random statistics into the play-by-play and color commentary, and best of all, they had stopped making tortuous analogies to sports like baseball and basketball to “explain” soccer to their American audience.

This was true for all the announcing teams (although the English/Irish team of Adrian Healey and Tommy Smyth were getting it right pretty much from the start). Shep Messing, who had been particularly awful the first couple of days with constant explanatory references to baseball while doing color to Glenn Davis’s play by play, must have heard the complaints and thankfully kept it to soccer thereafter. Two other teams, JP Dellacamera and John Harkes, and Rob Stone and Robin Fraser, were straightforward and even insightful from a fairly early point. Sometime during the World Cup’s second week, I found myself gravitating back to ESPN.

Which brings us to the lead announcing team, Dave O’Brien and Marcelo Balboa. O’Brien in particular has come under a heavy barrage of criticism for his lack of feel for soccer, which is down to his being a baseball announcer who didn’t follow soccer until a few months ago. Some American soccer fans were upset with ESPN’s choice of O’Brien even before the tournament started, with one starting a petition to remove him in favor of a career soccer announcer, and certainly once the tournament got under way, the reaction has been consistently negative from fans in general, as anyone reading the comments sections to this blog’s live game reports can tell.

All true, though for my money Marcelo Balboa was worse; so inane and inaccurate was his commentary that I had to institute a house-rule to all visitors to my house for World Cup games not to point out his every annoying comment, so we might be able to talk about something else at some point. In any case, it’s pretty clear (and this was obvious in their Euro 2008 coverage as well) ESPN is committed to not repeating that mistake by going with more experience.

At the same time I think Davis is still right that it’s a shame ESPN could not find room for one talented American soccer commentator (rather than attempting another Dave O’Brien transplant from another sport), and Dellacamera would have done a decent enough job.

All things considered, though, it’s going to be much easier for every fan of the sport to listen to Martin Tyler in 2010 than it was to Dave O’Brien in 2006.

Then again, I have (the remnants of) a British accent, so perhaps this isn’t my place to speak.

Quick Hits

  • Cardiff City’s Supporters’ Trust has released a statement about the club’s financial crisis, issuing some alarm about the way the club is run following court proceedings: “It is obvious that our beloved football club is in a wretched financial state and yet there appears to be none of the drastic cost-cutting measures we have seen at other clubs who have encountered similar problems. Instead, it seems the only remedies being offered by the Cardiff City board are the hopes of substantial foreign investment or promotion to the Premiership.”
  • A sneak peak at the new MLS website. That’s MLSsoccer.com with two Sssss, then. We’ll have our own review of one MLS club’s new website up sometime this week. Bet you can’t guess which one.
  • Kinda wish someone would do this for every city in the US: Football in Miami and Beyond has an excellent roundup of all the media coverage out there for the sport in Miami.

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

The Sweeper: The Press, Spying and English Football

Q

Big Story

You probably read yesterday about the bugging of England team meetings by an unknown party, with several hours worth of recording offered up to media outlets.

It’s interesting to note that also yesterday, a court case settlement involving a newspaper, the News of the World, and well-known publicist Max Clifford offers insight into the lengths the press are prepared to go to peek behind the curtains of football’s leading figures.

The Guardian reports:

The News of the World was tonight accused of buying silence in the phone-hacking scandal after it agreed to pay more than £1m to persuade the celebrity PR agent Max Clifford to drop his legal action over the interception of his voicemail messages.

The settlement means that there will now be no disclosure of court-ordered evidence which threatened to expose the involvement of the newspaper’s journalists in a range of illegal information-gathering by private investigators.

This is not the first settlement the NofTW has made; £700,000 was paid to Gordon Taylor, head of the Professional Footballers’ Association, after a private investigator working for the NofTW hacked into his phone messages.

An expensive settlement, given the NofTW’s editor at the time said “I never asked for a Gordon Taylor story, I never commissioned an Gordon Taylor story, I never read a Gordon Taylor story, I never published a Gordon Taylor story. With all respect to Gordon Taylor, he is hardly a household name.”

But messages on Taylor’s phone featured many prominent football figures, including Sir Alex Ferguson and Alan Shearer.

Another known victim in football was David Davies, former executive director of the Football Association. There’s no information when he was targeted, but it’s fair to guess that it may have coincided with the News of the World’s “fake sheikh” sting of England manager Sven- Goran Eriksson in 2006.

Unfortunately, the willingness of those targeted to settle out of court with the News of the World means we may never know the extent of the operations the newspaper took to spy on prominent footballing figures.

Quick Hits

  • The reports by Deloitte on football’s finances always receive considerable publicity, and buzz with positivity about rising revenues in European football. At the same time, we know particularly in England, that this rising revenue does not mean clubs are stable or profitable, a key fact missed in Deloitte’s reports, as Paul Kelso says in the Telegraph: “As a test of financial health the focus on revenue alone borders on the specious, akin to complementing a man in intensive care for having a full head of hair.”
  • Two’s a crowd for a penalty kick, the J-League rules.
  • Chester City Football Club’s 126 year-old history is over. The club were wound-up today over unpaid debts. Time for a Phoenix club to rise from the flames. Cardiff and Southend, meanwhile, have a stay of execution from the high court.

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

A New Forum For Soccer Discussion in a Traditional Medium

Soccer Supporters and bloggers, the "Match Pricks" get a legitimate forum for their commentary.

Soccer Supporters and bloggers, the "Match Pricks" get a legitimate forum for their commentary.

Milwaukee, Wisconsin has no professional outdoor soccer team.  The last pro outdoor team in Wisconsin, Milwaukee Wave United, faded away in 2005 following two seasons in the second division A-League and one as an independent team.  Milwaukee has NEVER had a first division pro soccer team – even in the old NASL, which placed teams in 38 markets over 17 years.

So Milwaukee is an unlikely market to find an hourlong, weekly soccer show on a traditional over the air radio station. And not just any radio station, but 540 ESPN, a station branded with the most iconic American sports media name, the Disney-owned brand ESPN.  There are not very many English language soccer shows on American radio.  There is the Division 2 focused “Kick This” on Rochester, New York’s WHTK 1280 AM, Glenn Davis’ Houston Dynamo dominated Soccer Hour All Access on Houston’s SportsTalk KBME 790 and Sounders FC Weekly on 710 AM ESPN which, as the name implies, is limited to Sounders FC news and commentary.  Online there is the general soccer talk show, World Football Daily, but over the air, soccer talk is very hard to find.

Starting this Saturday at 8 am Central Time, however, there will be at least one over the air radio show in the United States that will discuss world, American, local and indoor soccer.  540 ESPN in Milwaukee will host the weekly “Soccer Saturday Presented by the Milwaukee Wave”.   As President and CEO of the Milwaukee Wave indoor soccer team, I recently negotiated a  partnership between the Wave, the oldest professional soccer franchise in the United States, and the Craig Karmazin owned 540 ESPN.

The weekly show is a major undertaking and commitment by the Milwaukee Wave and includes the skills and time of many people to make it work.  Wave VP of Communications Matt Schroeder serves as the show’s producer and director and coordinates the various moving parts of guests and hosts.  540 ESPN’s Matt Salmon is the show’s studio host and acts as the playmaker on the show’s team.  Wave Hall of Famer and television color analyst Art Kramer will serve as a regular co-host on the show as well.

It will of course have a segment on indoor soccer and the Milwaukee Wave featuring interviews and commentary with legendary Wave Head Coach Keith Tozer.  In addition to being the winningest indoor soccer coach in history, Tozer has also been the United States Futsal Coach since 1996.

Of great interest to me is the format and planned content for the show’s other four segments. Each week, approximately eight minutes each will be dedicated to local, American and world soccer plus an open segment for fan phone calls or discussion on hot soccer topics of the week.  Three of those four segments will be heavily influenced or even provided by local soccer fans and participants themselves.

     540 ESPN's studios face out onto Wisconsin Avenue in downtown Milwaukee.

540 ESPN's studios face out onto Wisconsin Avenue in downtown Milwaukee.

The local segment will include interviews with youth club leaders and feature accomplishments by local clubs, high schools and colleges. The world soccer segment is the most intriguing to me as it will have commentary from local supporters of clubs around the world.  Two of the featured commentators will be Arsenal supporter Colin Deval and Liverpool supporter Jim Kogutkiewicz who pen the entertaining Match Pricks blog. In the show’s test run last weekend, the Match Pricks provided intelligent and humorous comments on BridgeTerryGate, Portsmouth’s economic troubles and Manchester City’s upset of Chelsea which was playing out live on the studio’s television monitor.

World soccer segment guest hosts will include supporters of other European clubs and hopefully of Latin American clubs as well, which I hope will inspire honest and entertaining, if not always fully informed, discussion on a variety of world soccer topics.   Certainly Barclay’s Premier League, Champion’s League and this summer’s FIFA World Cup will dominate discussion in this segment, but other world soccer topics will be discussed as well.

I will likely host many of the American soccer segments.  The “Red, White and Blue” segment will only be as good as the guests we line up and my interviewing skills.  I am hopeful that Keith and my contact lists will take care of the former and my journalistic education and training, soccer management experience and intellectual curiosity will take care of the latter.

The show’s signal will be available over the air in Southeastern Wisconsin and will even reach to Madison, Green Bay and most of Chicagoland.  It will also be made available globally live via internet streams on both MilwaukeeWave.com and ESPNMilwaukee.com and will live on via segment podcasts, which will be stored on both websites. The 540 ESPN studios, which are in downtown Milwaukee and look out onto Wisconsin Avenue, have a pair of in studio cameras and we have opportunities for taped video segments as well.  So there is a chance that in the future, we may be able to produce a television version of “Soccer Saturday”, perhaps condensed to 30 minutes for broadcast, on the local sports channel and online.

If you’re interested in keeping updated on scheduled guests in the show, follow ”Soccer Saturday” on Twitter @soccersat540 or visit the show’s website.  If you want to participate, during the show you can Tweet questions to @soccersat540,  email them to soccersaturday@espnmilwaukee.com or call the studio line during the show at 800-990-3776.

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.

MyFootballClub is NOT a Good Model of Customer Relationship Management

I throw up a little in my mouth every time I hear fans of football clubs described as customers, as the relationship is so much more than that, yet there can in fact be benefits for fans in working with clubs on expectations of good  “customer” service. After all, we do pump huge amounts of money into their businesses, and yet fans are often taken for granted. Getting treated like a customer is a step-up from the attitude some football clubs have had to their fans over the years, especially in England.

One key avenue for businesses to do this is through what is called Social Customer Relationship Management (CRM, and don’t worry, I had to Wikipedia that) using the technology of new media. We’ve been big proponents here of football teams using outlets like Twitter to engage fans, as it can have considerable benefits for everyone in connecting clubs to their communities at low cost.

So when I stumbled upon a blog post on CustomerThink — apparently “a global online community of business leaders striving to create profitable customer-centric enterprises” — I was interested to see football clubs at the centre of Kristian Gotsch’s “11 reasons why sports clubs should take the lead in Social CRM”.

The first example he cites, sadly, is an awful example of “Social Customer Relationship Management”: Ebbsfleet United, best known as the club that became the victim of the MyFootballClub experiment as “The world’s first web community owned club”.

Assuming that clubs and leagues integrate their social media activities with their overall CRM strategies it could not be long before sports clubs – instead of being late adopters of CRM – stand out as thought leaders.

In the past years several sports clubs and leagues have taken steps in the area of social media. These initiatives range from clubs setting up online forums or using existing network tools to connect with fans to the other extreme of for example Ebbsfleet United, where fans own the club!

Although the adoption of social media in sports is still in its early stages (as it is in most industries) a range of industry specific factors – or accelerators – within the world of sports leads me to repeat the claim about the sports industry’s potential future leadership role in relation to successful (social) CRM.

Ebbsfleet United? Yes, a clever entrepreneur did put together a business model that saw “fans” buy the club two years ago. A savvy PR push by founder, former journalist Will Brooks, got momentum going as fans signed up at MyFootballClub.co.uk to pay and be a part of the takeover of Ebbsfleet.

The worldwide community of “fans” who came together typified the belief that boundaries and locality no long matter; a fan is a fan is a customer whereever he or she is. As the CustomerThink blog goes on to say:

Clubs are going international. The good old assumption that a certain geographical area is the (potential) fan base of a club has been disrupted. This is primarily due to advances in technology – both in terms of more widespread traditional technology as well as development of new technology. At every major sport club today one of the key focus areas is thus also looking beyond its own area and even its own country to connect with fans and the race is on for who gets the biggest piece of the pie first. This dramatic shift in focus by clubs in their marketing and sales strategies will only accelerate the clubs [sic] focus on social media as well.

Ebbsfleet were supposed to be the definitive proof of this, a sports team owned by a web fanbase without geographic restriction. But they have only served to prove the limitations of online social media, and remind us that clubs are still grounded in their locality first and foremost for their primary and essential fanbase, whatever the technology available for social media.

We first commented on the “bubble bursting” for Ebbsfleet just a little more than a month after the takeover, as discord about the entire purpose of the club broke out. Then, on the first year anniversary of the takeover, we learned that a staggering 23,000 of the 32,000 members had not renewed for a second year of membership.The club’s playing budget was slashed, and poor results have followed, with Ebbsfleet in a very precarious position in the Blue Square Premier league table.

A year on again, and 4,200 of Ebbsfleet’s remaining 8,500 members are up for renewal this Friday. How many will stay on? MyFC had all the web gurus in the world running a very impressive website for their members, connecting them in numerous innovative ways from video to active forums, but it hasn’t been enough.

Instead of Ebbsfleet’s disastrous approach, we’d suggest CustomerThink looks at how Women’s Professional Soccer teams in the United States or Sheffield Wednesday in the UK have at low cost used social media to get fans who are already invested in their “products” (if we must) more involved using social media.

The Sweeper: The Decline of SoccerAmerica

soccer-america

Big Story
It won’t surprise you to learn that newsstand circulation and subscriptions of American magazines declined 9.1% in the second half of 2009, after a 12.36% decline in the first half of the year. Double digit declines were previously recorded in 2008. Newsweek’s circulation fell 41.3%.

I don’t know what SoccerAmerica’s decline was, but we can presume they were hit hard as well, based solely off their recent announcement that they are ending their monthly print issues, instead offering special print guides to events like the World Cup and the MLS season.

Their next issue will be their “Complete Guide to MLS 2010″, which promises the following:

  • In-Depth Previews of
    All 16 MLS Teams
  • Features on MLS’s Top Stars
  • Profiles of MLS’s
    10 Best Young Players
  • All-New Fresh & Dynamic Look
  • Brilliant Photography

Will you be buying a copy? At $12.95, I won’t be, and that’s not meant as a slap to SoccerAmerica. It will probably feature some fine writing. The problem is, my google news reader will be chock full of “in-depth previews” and “features on MLS’s Top Stars” before the magazine drops in mid-March. I’ll already be saturated, for free.

The question Steve Davis asks on his Daily Fix column is whether we are losing quality with the decline of a respected print magazine and its replacement by the plethora of bellicose voices on the internet and television.

Ridge [Mahoney], Mike Woitalla and Paul Kennedy at Soccer America have long been the leaders in providing smart, moderated voices in domestic soccer. It was always a shining example of how specialized media can work exactly as it should, with intelligent people using their access to influencers to help readers (and the outside media at large) develop a better understanding of it all.

They’re still doing the same good work, but their influence has waned. Their diluted voice has nothing to do with diminished skill or desire. Rather, it’s about their platform. Soccer America, like so many other print platforms, has simply struggled to keep pace in a rapidly changing media world. The words and wisdom still exist – but it gets short shrift, frequently obscured among the everyday tsunami of quasi-informed opinions.

In all honesty, I truly don’t know of anyone who gets the magazine anymore. Ridge’s excellent MLS Confidential is known and respected inside the industry, but I don’t know how many fans/readers it reaches. Same for Woitalla’s good work. (If you’re interested to any degree in youth soccer, you absolutely must check out his ongoing work on kiddoes in soccer. It is truly terrific and essential reading.)

There are other good sources of information and opinion on the U.S. soccer scene out there. But only a precious few have the ability and inclination to layer it all with context, perspective and supporting data. It’s much easier, after all, to fire off a few sentences, sprinkle in some outrage in the appropriate places (but with no consideration for offering alternatives) and then head out to lunch.

SoccerAmerica has tried to make the move to the internet, with their daily email subscription service. But their website’s never been compelling, and doesn’t appear to generate more than minimal revenue itself. Taking a glance at it today, the headline piece is “Rooney ranks among the greats” by Paul Kennedy, a 314 word recap of the Madrid-Man Utd game from yesterday that offers absolutely zero new information or any insight not available at dozens of other outlets I’d visit before SoccerAmerica to read about European football. It’s a completely pointless piece.

Buried below, Paul Kennedy has another brief piece that’s interesting and well-done because it offers me some information on something I haven’t seen a million times already, covering the latest recruitment by Virginia in college soccer. Digging through the site, there’s obviously a ton of unique and interesting content on parts of the American soccer scene going under-reported everywhere else, especially on youth soccer.

So why is SoccerAmerica wasting Paul Kennedy’s time having him write a wrap-up of yesterday’s Champions League action when he’s obviously capable of so much more?  The magazine, with a core staff of quality reporters, should focus 100% on their niche to stay relevant: they have to adapt to the new platform of the internet, and part of that is recognising there is little point covering what’s already covered everywhere else now we all have access to so many information sources.

Quick Hits

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.

The Changing Landscape of American Soccer Media: Good for MLS?

directv

It’s almost cliché to point out the growth of television coverage of soccer in North America. The announcement this week that Fox would screen the UEFA Champions League final on  Fox Sports, rather than as originally planned on subsidiary FX, made major waves. It’ll be broadcast in the afternoon on a Saturday, so strong ratings are expected, as the event continues its march as the world’s most popular annual sporting event on television.

Fox have done a tremendous job since winning the rights to the Champions League this year, with their multi-channel HD broadcasts on DirecTV an oustanding advance from ESPN’s previous, more limited coverage.

ESPN and ABC are not sitting on their hands, though. In June, ABC will show the United States play England, in what’s expected to be the most watched soccer broadcast of all-time in the United States. ESPN’s coverage of the World Cup is expected to be the most expensive production of a sporting event in their history. Hell, if you’re really a masochist, you can even listen to every game on ESPN radio this summer…lead commentator, one Tommy Smyth. ESPN will be showing 83 Premier League games next season, up from 48 this. One day soon, Fox Soccer Channel will appear in HD on our televisions (please, god!).

The media landscape is also changing for writers. Brooks Peck’s irreverent soccer blog Dirty Tackle was bought by Yahoo!, and Ives Galarcep this week announced he was moving his freelance work from ESPN Soccernet to join Fox. We side with Fake Sigi on the quality of Ives’ writing (and check out the brilliant fourth comment there), but hell, it’s good to see soccer writers being picked up at a tough time for the media as a whole.

The question as ever is whether all this is good for the domestic leagues. ESPN is adding more Premier League games to its broadcast schedule this year, and once again, bloggers like Jason Davis are asking if this is really good for Major League Soccer:

MLS will always remain a second class citizen in the United States as long as it’s taking a back seat to leagues from distant shores. While the lack of visibility and money constraints are the major reasons for that situation now, television will play a large part in the future. Though watching the English game (thanks to the time difference) doesn’t preclude people from watching MLS as well, the juxtaposition of the two does the American product no favors.

There’s certainly some truth to that. At the same time, it’s been pretty clear for some time that when MLS targets its marketing to people that already like soccer — and much of this “liking” comes from watching overseas broadcasts of it — it bears fruit.  See the early days of DC United and Chicago, see Toronto, see Seattle. The combination of the massive youth participation in the sport by men and women now in their 20s who have also taken a serious interest in overseas football and the World Cups shown on television in the past decade is a demographic that MLS rightly recognises as prime for pumping in the coming years.

An interesting minor move was made this week reflecting that approach by Seattle, who picked up Arlo White from the BBC to be the main commentator for their games this year. Expansion team the Philadelphia Union has partnered with local network 6ABC with all games to be broadcast in HD featuring commentary by the solid ESPN-vet JP Dellacamera. The production of MLS games on television needs to match that of overseas broadcasts, and MLS appears to understand that.

This doesn’t, of course, address the issue of the quality of the play on the field in MLS, which Davis is implying will put-off fans of the Premier League from watching MLS. This subjective and age-old argument is very hard to prove based on anecdotal evidence, even though it’s clear there is a kernel of truth to it.  The next year for MLS might prove it one way or the other, though: the explosion in coverage of overseas football will or will not lead to a bump in attendance and TV ratings as the league attempts to market itself to the growing audience for the sport.

BBC’s Jacqui Oatley Unfazed at Breaking Barriers

Jacqui Oatley

This week, we’ve looked at the addition of the Womens’ Pro Soccer Commissioner to the US Soccer Board of Directors and at the first female referee in the Football League.

And now we have come across a fantastic interview with Jacqui Oatley on a new, interesting blog, Between the Lines: Oatley is a female pioneer in the traditionally male world of football commentary.

We recommend you check the whole thing out, but what comes across as most interesting is that despite the Facebook groups set-up to complain about a female voice appearing on Match of the Day (“Make MOTD female free….f**k off Jacqui Oatley” — 681 members), Oatley seems unfazed by all the fuss.

She simply rose through the ranks like any other commentator: cutting her teeth in hospital radio, chancing on a gig doing non-league games, moving on to Radio Five Live, and then progressing to Premier League clips on Match of the Day.

The interview presents her as unflappable and unbothered by the attention of her unique rise; she suggests many female journalists she knows would much rather not get all the attention she does by appearing on MOTD:

The most important thing is that I don’t know anybody who’s ever wanted to do it. It’s not like I’ve come through the last few years and found all these women desperate to commentate but not getting a chance. I’ve never seen that. All the female reporters I know can’t think of anything they would like to do less than commentate on Match of the Day. You’re putting yourself up there to be shot at and that’s not something people naturally want to do.

Soon enough, perhaps it won’t seem so unnatural at all, thanks in part to Jacqui herself.

Thanks to NedvedsNotes on Twitter for the tip…and follow Jacqui Oatley as well while you’re at it.

Why Manchester City Get Social Media

man-city-facebook

Unlike their neighbours in Manchester, who seem to think social media is the work of Satan himself, Manchester City have made an extremely impressive marketing push via their official accounts on Twitter and Facebook — at least by Premier League standards.  They have 11,758 in the former and 78,549 fans on the latter.

Importantly, that presence has grown thanks to some creative work, including letting fans decide on the playlist before the game via a Facebook discussion (a surprising lack of Mick Hucknall on there). Indeed, their online presence as a whole is unparalleled, with the best website design in the Premier League.

An interview on UK Sports Network with Chris Nield, Social Media Executive at Manchester City, is well worth reading for some of the details on how City see the benefits of their investment in social media, and how they’ve rolled it out.

Nield sensibly asserts that this investment in connecting people via social media cannot easily be measured in the short-term for Return On Investment.

How do you measure R.O.I of your social media activities?

The simplest way we measure the ROI of our social media activities is by tracking the rate of growth of members to our social networks (number of fans on the club’s Facebook page, followers on Twitter and members of our Flickr group) however we regularly review analytics, link tracking and interactions using various tools in order to gauge its real value. Unlike other large organisations, I’m of the opinion that social media is not simply a numbers game. Every supporter who has decided to embrace what we’re on these networks has a voice that we must listen and respond to in order for us to be properly utilizing the power and potential of social media.

Yet it’s a little surprising to see other clubs not following suit, and the suggestion from Nield is that most are simply too afraid of platforms they cannot clamp complete control on.

Why do you feel many Premier League clubs have been slow to pick up on social media?

I think a lot of that is down to how the club perceives itself within the footballing world. Some clubs may see themselves simply as a brand that exists separately from the day to day lives of their supporters and because there are no real direct revenue stream, do not see the value of social media. For various reasons, others may feel that social media is not a worthwhile endeavour for them and somewhat of a minefield that is best steered clear of. At City we’re proud of the way that the club is able to reach out to supporters and we’re proud of the way the fans have reacted and embraced what we’re trying to do. We’re also keen to ensure that the club remains at the forefront of new developments in the field of social media whilst it is imperative that the club’s soul, the very reason why people fall in love with Manchester City, is retained.

Of course, all this stems back to the extraordinary investment made in the club since the takeover by the Abu Dhabi United Group. City can afford to do this, and at the end of the day, it’s about branding for them too. It’s all part of an extremely expensive campaign to make City as one of the world’s leading club’s and buy instant success.

But it’s one that they do seem to understand takes some smart use of social media to keep connecting to the community of City fans online, and many other clubs around the world could learn from it.


Media Freedom at 2010 World Cup Under Question in South Africa

freedom-press

FIFA are under fire for their press accreditation rules at the 2010 World Cup, with the South African National Editors’ Forum (SANEF) at loggerheads over numerous restrictions the governing body is putting in place, most of which follow on similar tight controls from previous World Cups, which have been criticised before.

One South African report says “Local journalists have accused world football governing body FIFA of acting as a bunch of ‘bullies’ and ‘dictators’ with a neo-colonialist mentality, following what analysts see as ‘unreasonable’ media restrictions on the 2010 FIFA World Cup coverage.”

Of most obvious concern is that FIFA’s rules include a stipulation against bringing FIFA itself it into disrepute, defined as anything that ‘negatively affects the public standing of the Local Organising Committee or FIFA’.

Yet after the last World Cup, the World Association of Newspapers & News Publishers (WAN-IFRA) worked to ensure this stipulation did not restrict press freedom in practice, and in 2009 — under the threat of legal action from WAN-IFRA – FIFA agreed to insert the following clause to the accreditation regulations: “For the avoidance of doubt, nothing in these Accreditation Terms and Conditions is intended to be, or shall be interpreted as restricting or undermining the editorial independence or freedom to report and comment of Accredited Parties.”

Play the Game quotes Larry Kilman, director of communications & public affairs at WAN-IFRA, as saying the question mark over press freedom had been resolved: “The issue of press freedom, and concerns that FIFA intends to restrict critical reporting by preventing anything that brings the game into disrepute, have been dealt with by the insertion of a clause that says nothing in the terms is meant to inhibit press freedom.”

It appears that the South African media remains concerned that WAN-IFRA has only received a verbal promise from FIFA that journalists who violate accreditation rules won’t be removed without prior discussion and explanation.  SANEF is asking for written confirmation from FIFA. Some have cited the long struggle for press freedom in South Africa as motivation for an uncompromising stance towards FIFA.

Several other practical restrictions have perhaps been and remain of greater concern: FIFA’s terms also placed restrictions on the use of images by media organisations in order to maximise commercial revenue, which again after pressure from WAN-IFRA, have been loosened for World Cup 2010, as the World Editors Forum explains:

WAN-IFRA, which promotes press freedom and campaigns on behalf of the newspaper industry on international issues, is involved in debates over sports rights. It has presented the concerns of the news media about coverage of the World Cup to FIFA.

“The free and open coverage of sports events is under attack,” Kilman said. Sports companies want to control news publishers’ coverage of their events, he says, limiting editorial and commercial freedom. In return for accreditation for journalists, sports organisations require strict contracts to be signed. Conditions can include preventing a print publication from superimposing a headline over a photo of the event, in case it blocks the names of sponsors, and not allowing articles to be presented in a way that would damage the reputation of the clubs, that is, in a critical way, he says.

Indeed, the newspaper industry faces a variety of restrictions, including the delay of text reports to websites, restrictions on who can attend press conferences, the assumption of copyright over photos, and the blocking of innovations such as audio-visual reporting for websites. Some legitimate news entities have even been banned from covering sports events.

Negotiations about sports restrictions are not public. He points out that sports organisers see sports news as entertainment, and news coverage as for commercial gain, which leads them to support restrictions on such coverage. Sports organisers also define newspapers as print-only, while new technology allows them to bypass the press in distributing information about their events.

WAN-IFRA is lobbying for changes. An industry declaration has called on sports organisations to recognise the right and duty of the free press to report on matters of the public interest without interference. Indeed, the press has an important role here as an independent representative of the public, Kilman argues, and its coverage develops and promotes sport. Similarly, the News Media Coalition, a group of publishers and press associations, aims to end unreasonable restrictions and promote consensus.

Kilman has been involved in the FIFA – World Cup negotiations, and a mechanism has been established for regular discussions on terms and conditions. In the 2006 World Cup, a very public debate was held when FIFA limited the use of still photos on websites. This was eventually dropped. For this year’s World Cup, there are some improvements. There is no limit on photos used on websites. Mobile browsing is allowed, but “push” to mobile is not, and video is allowed from training grounds but not from venues. The ban on headlines across print photos has also been removed.

The South African media remains concerned about several of the remaining restrictions, including on video and use of pictures on mobile platforms, and FIFA has work to do to appease the local media before kick-off, with six areas of contention highlighted:

  • Newspapers will not be able to push pictures on to their mobile platforms (they can, however, push text);
  • There are restrictions on newspapers doing video packages for their websites;
  • That reporters will not be able to report on the names of hotels in which the teams are staying;
  • No newspapers will be able to sell papers within the restricted zone around stadiums, which has a radius of about 800m;
  • Although Fifa commits itself to guaranteeing freedom of expression there is also a clause that says that news organisations may not bring Fifa into disrepute; and
  • Many of the terms and conditions apply to reporters and photographers and their “organisations” (suggesting their colleagues, some of whom will not be covering the World Cup) rather than “employer” (ie, their editors).

Kilman’s conclusion is perhaps the most balanced take on the demands of the press and the need for FIFA to protect what it would see as its commercial property:

Many news organizations wake up to these terms when a major event comes to their country. What used to be a simple request for a press pass has now morphed into a contract with far-reaching implications. It should really be a publisher or managing director looking over and signing this contract. We have no objections to sports organisers trying to increase revenue from their events, and we don’t think that conflicts with maintaining open press coverage — in fact, press coverage helps enhance the sport. We think there is room for both

The Future of Journalism is Not Paid Content

newsday

That’s the conclusion one could draw from this New York Observer piece on the dismal failure of the decision by Newsday, a Long Island daily newspaper, to put their content behind a pay wall.

In late October, Newsday, the Long Island daily that the Dolans bought for $650 million, put its web site, newsday.com, behind a pay wall. The paper was one of the first non-business newspapers to take the plunge by putting up a pay wall, so in media circles it has been followed with interest. Could its fate be a sign of what others, including The New York Times, might expect?

So, three months later, how many people have signed up to pay $5 a week, or $260 a year, to get unfettered access to newsday.com?

The answer: 35 people. As in fewer than three dozen. As in a decent-sized elementary-school class.

That astoundingly low figure was revealed in a newsroom-wide meeting last week by publisher Terry Jimenez when a reporter asked how many people had signed up for the site. Mr. Jimenez didn’t know the number off the top of his head, so he asked a deputy sitting near him. He replied 35.

Michael Amon, a social services reporter, asked for clarification.

“I heard you say 35 people,” he said, from Newsday’s auditorium in Melville. “Is that number correct?”

Mr. Jimenez nodded.

Now, there are some mitigating factors here; a good chunk of Long Island’s population doesn’t need to pay to access the content, as they get free access already due to their print subscription to Newsday or to the local cable company (part-owned by Newsday’s owners).

Having said that, Newsday invested $4m in the website redesign and relaunch (Jesus, was it coded in caviar or something?). A $9,000 dollar return isn’t exactly good business.

I mention all this in the context of our regular discussions here on the future of soccer media, which in the United States is particularly vulnerable to the failure of newspapers to find a profitable model to continue paying for real journalism.

This snippet about Newsday is just another indication that the paywall model needs serious refinement if it’s to work outside the confines of business reporting, which has what at least readers will perceive as a direct monetary value and scarcity value for subscribers.

But in terms of a general interest newspaper, the fact Newsday has attracted a whole 35 subscribers is right now sending shudders up the spines of executives from the Times of New York to the Times of London.

The Illustrated Possibilities for Good American Soccer Writing in the Internet Age

Do we want to read “interesting and entertaining stories well told” about soccer?  I presume the answer to that is pretty obvious: hell yes. This is the same presumption that J Hutcherson at US Soccer Players ends a very interesting piece about the state of American soccer writing with:

I’m going to start the new year by making an assumption. Most of us have probably read enough live-blogs, ‘takes’ on other people’s reporting, baseless speculation, and lists. To put it as simply as possible, the internet is doing us no favors.

Here’s the thing, and I’m making it soccer-specific. I can only hope that anyone trying to run a soccer site gets what I’m describing and would prefer a different model.

Think of it like this. How many writers and editors working from multiple locations would it take to really cover every single issue that arises during the 24-hour Worldwide soccer news cycle? 30? 50? Approaching a hundred experts getting paid for their time? Yet we’re operating with the expectation that all sites should be general. Even specialty sites fall for it, looking for ways to extend rather than deepen.

[ .. ]

Right now, the web doesn’t think much of those that go against the idea of multiple posts every single day. Forget about taking time, there’s an audience to serve.

Short or long form, it becomes about churn. The more the better, and a site’s numbers will prove the point. That has very little to do with building an audience of real people genuinely interested in what a site covers.

Getting past the idea that there’s a ‘have to’ and replacing it with a ‘want to’ would cure a lot of this immediately. Narrow the focus, commit the resources, and see what happens.

I’m not going to go to MLSnet for international soccer news. I’m not going to visit The Guardian for their MLS coverage. I’m not checking any soccer site for happening bands, fashion advice, or the latest in pop culture. I don’t have the patience for writers that want to make everything a joke or a crisis. No thanks to anybody confusing ‘long form’ with ‘bad editing.’ Spare me the instant expert.

What I want to read is simple in theory: interesting and entertaining stories well told. I’m going to assume I’m not the only one.

You’re certainly not, J (of course, to plead guilty, we here spit out multiple posts a day and our remit is as broad as the global game, though we only occasionally offer fashion advice).

There are several sites telling good stories in the manner that I think J would appreciate: the point here isn’t to name names on who does and who doesn’t, but it’s no secret the respect yours truly has for the likes of the Global Game, Run of Play, This Is American Soccer, and a few others.

But there’s no doubt they are buried under an avalanche of poorly written, repetitive or speculative pieces regurgitating the same stories with little original insight. Sadly, professionals are often even more guilty than amateurs of this in American soccer writing. Newspaper coverage is unlikely to improve in this economy and era for the printed press; the amateur blogs do not make enough money to allow the good writers the luxury to really research and write original pieces often enough; the freelance writers pop off one good story in ten, showing at times they have the talent, but too rarely the necessary editorial oversight or motivation. Too often, as J says, we are simply in churn, counting pageviews for pennies.

regurgitate

The question, then: are there any models developing that might give us more “interesting and entertaining stories well told” in the future?

Official, or Pravda, Journalism

Let us start with the least obvious possibility: that MLS itself will tell us these stories. We speculated a few months ago that MLS teams would go down the route of some other American sports teams and vastly increase their in-house content production to fill the void caused by the lack of coverage of their teams in the local and national press: the death of the newspaper beat writer bodes ill for deep coverage of MLS teams. This appears to be exactly what is happening, judging by a comment left by Chris Schlosser of MLS on J Hutcherson’s piece:

Very interesting column, I am in the middle of relaunching MLSnet.com. For the 2010 season you will have an entirely new site on both the national and local level. We started local with the realization that fans are fans of a club first and a league second (if at all). Each local club will have independent editorial control over their site, every club is in the process of hiring dedicated local writers and content producers to cover each club and the soccer scene in each city. This local coverage will be suplimented with a new national editorial team, the national team will provide coverage of national stories, the league and analysis of what is happening in and around MLS and soccer in the US. We have a ton of work between now and March to put all of the pieces in place but are excited about the prospects for 2010.

Pravda

This can, of course, be done very well or very badly, as we commented before: we will simply have to wait and see what happens. MLS has already launched its MLS Insider blog under the guidance of Shawn Francis (see the interesting comments to our post about that hire by MLS), but as of right now, it’s too early too tell what this aggressive in-house effort will mean for the Truth in American soccer media. It is, however, at least one model that will give numerous writers payment and attention to allow them to write deep, locally driven pieces: albeit, in that awkward situation of being paid by your subject to cover it.

Paid Content

The lusted after elixir for publishers from your smallest local newspaper to Rupert Murdoch, the return of the pay wall around content to fund journalism as the old dead trees model dies continues to rear its head, with the forthcoming Apple Tablet the latest wet dream of magazine publishers to resurrect their format and business model in the digital era. Our discussion of the possibilities for paid content recently came from a proposal by American Soccer News that this model could work in a niche are like American soccer. To reiterate:

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.”

pirate-bay

Could this work? The only way we will find out is if someone has the balls to smack down $100k+ to find out. I don’t see that happening anytime soon, and the future of paid content on the internet remains doubtful: the Free is not easily defeated.

Citizen Journalism

Not as trendy as it once was as a model for the future of journalism,  but we have seen some green shoots for citizen journalism in American soccer this year. Several bloggers have produced some excellent reporting in the areas often too little covered by the mainstream outlets: the lower leagues, this offseason more interesting than ever, thanks to the fantastically bitter battle between the USL and NASL to earn US Soccer Federation recognition as Division II leagues. Particularly passionate but well sourced work has come from Brian Quarstad at Inside Minnesota Soccer and Kartik Krishnaiyer at his various outlets.

citizen-journalism

Unfortunately, the good citizens are hurt by the bad citizens. For every good piece on the USL/NASL crisis, there have been three poor ones by bloggers and even paid professional writers with speculative theories that wouldn’t look out of place in a John Birch Society publication in terms of their grounding in fact. Certain sites — you know who they are — suck up a lot of page views despite their lack of quality, and hurt the reputation of the soccer blogosphere as a whole; this makes it hard for the good citizen journalists to be noticed, respected and make any money.

An Incomplete Future

I do not know which, if any, of the above possibilities might aid the development of good soccer writing. But perhaps it is wise to remember how young the soccer media is here; sure, the sport has a long history in America, but it has hardly been a steady rise likely to prompt regular, established media coverage.

As we know, the mainstream sports media largely ignores American soccer: there are few opportunities here for a budding Tim Vickery, David Conn or Gabrielle Marcotti.

Still, once upon a time in England, the mainstream media did not ignore football so much as it was openly hostile to it (The Sunday Times in 1985, after Heysel: football is a “slum sport watched by slum people in slum stadiums”). Fans responded through self-published fanzines, and eventually, much higher quality football writing developed out of this. From When Saturday Comes came Fever Pitch (in a roundabout way). This was crucial to the rehabilitation of football in cultural consciousness in England (along with many other factors, but this point should not be missed).

Fans turned around the medium of print that had been used to disparage them into something to build the discourse of the sport positively from the ground up. Whatever the particular and peculiar circumstances of all this, the fact is it essentially took one hundred years of professional football before “interesting and entertaining stories” were regularly written about the sport in England. There were some exceptions to this prior to the fanzine explosion, but as few as far between as the good writing is today in American soccer.

zines

We are of course writing in a new medium that is still inventing its own rules about how content is paid for and appreciated.  J Hutcherson wrote in the column we began with that “the internet is doing us no favors,” and independent soccer media ventures earlier this decade did not end well. But I will deliberately take J the wrong way here and say let us not blame the medium; the internet offers us an opportunity to do ourselves a big favour with the ability to write, learn about and appreciate the world of soccer in so many deep and unique ways not possible before, and to share this with each other.

We do need to find a way to ensure the churn and chatter does not overwhelm our ability to think and reflect, and for original voices to emerge and be heard — and paid for. Whether it is one of the models mentioned above, or something new, remains to be discovered, but the passion and talent I see out there despite the obstacles makes me think it will come.

Image credits: Regurgitated, by love-my-dog on Flickr; Pravda, by Clashmaker on Flickr; Paid Content, by Stefan on Flickr; Citizen Journalism, by The Blackbird on Flickr; Zines, by artnoose on Flickr.

The Sweeper: Has Television Killed Football?

death-television

Big Story
“Today the stadium is a gigantic TV studio. The game is played for television so you can watch it at home. And television rules.” So wrote Eduardo Galeano in Soccer in Sun and Shadow.

That has long been the view of the football purist. Such a thought was echoed yesterday by the Guardian’s Jonathan Wilson, a purist if ever there was one, arguing that television’s focus on the moment is killing the game’s broader development, with elite players and teams increasingly falling to the demands of television for speed and flashy skill: “The focus on tricks is a trend only likely to be accentuated by programmes such as Wayne Rooney’s Street Striker, and the danger is that football produces a generation of posturing show ponies incapable of producing the incisive pass or making the right run.”

Wilson’s argument has an awful lot to it that needs unpacking, and seems a little confused in parts. Is it “harum-scarum running and clattering tackles . . .praised as representative of the seductive hurly-burly of the Premier League” that television demands?  Or is it “that players become focused on their showreels at the expense of the game itself, or that young players learn how to flick the ball over their heads rather than learning about the shape of the game”?  How exactly did they both develop out of the demands of the same medium?  Has this worked the same way the world over?

As Richard Whittall comments at a More Splendid Life, Wilson is onto something, it’s just not quite clear what; Whittall makes an alternate suggestion that “The panopticon of live global television has brought us McFootball” because “the frequency and availability of full-length match broadcasts from across the globe that has affected football tactics. You can easily see why; there are no surprises anymore, tactics have become homogenized, formations streamlined, because there isn’t any possibility of surprise when everyone can see everyone else, live on satellite.”

Either way, the impact of television on the development of soccer since the first attempt at a live outside broadcast was made in 1937 has been far greater than could be probably addressed in any piece as short as Wilson or Whittall’s, as it has weaved its way into every sinew of the game. Yet call me a romantic, but I think Galeano would concur: deep-down, even television cannot kill the ultimate unpredictability of football’s development. Upsets, beauty and tactical innovation are still broadcast to us and come in unexpected ways every year regardless of the box.

Let us return to Galeano’s introduction to Soccer in Sun and Shadow:

Play has become a spectacle, with few protaganists and many spectators, soccer for watching. . .The technocracy of professional sport has managed to impose a soccer of lightning speed and brute strength, a soccer that negates joy, kills fantasy and outlaws daring.

Luckily, on the field you can still see, even if only once in a long while, some insolent rascal who sets aside the entire script and commits the blunder of dribbling past the entire opposing side, the referee and the crowd in the stands, all for the carnal delight of embracing the forbidden adventure of freedom

Worldwide News

  • For a breather from the daily grind of following televised sport, the Global Game has an (as ever) thoughtful piece in football in Peru covering a competition you won’t have heard about: “A six-team fulbito tournament in Lima in December concluded a nationwide competition involving more than 40,000 indigenous Andean women, who don colorful skirts(polleras) and play on weekends as respite from hard labors at home and in the fields.”
  • Back to England, and David Conn makes the obvious but telling observation on the financial divide in Manchester: “In simple terms, the lottery of English football clubs being companies up for sale on the open market has delivered a winning ticket to the Blues, not the Reds. Mansour has made an enormous financial investment in City, while the Glazers, since they bought United in their bitterly contested takeover, have given the club not one penny to spend. Quite the opposite.”
  • Outside of Conn, Portsmouth’s perilous plight has meant many more journalists covering the financial madness of the Premier League. Paul Kelso (who to be fair has covered this angle in the past) looks at the debt mountain and comes to the conclusion that — the many jibes against Platini aside — UEFA’s moves towards some financial restraints might just make some sense “to protect clubs from themselves.”

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.

Pitch Invasion Contributors Bring the Goods: Favorites From 2009

Beckham-Donovan

There are few things more enjoyable than a good soccer story well-told.  A well-played blog post, article, essay, book, movie, video, or even a clever tweet manages to enliven, enrich, and educate—and then most often evaporate into a mass of wasted time and the distractions of real life.  Could I have back the time I spent contemplating whether David Beckham and Landon Donovan could just get along?  Do I want it back?  Okay, in that case yes—but with many other of the year’s soccer stories I consider the distraction time well spent.

During 2009 that consideration led me to Pitch Invasion, for which I’ve been trying to write something weekly since the summer.  Up to now the biggest part of that process has been trying to figure out what exactly it means to craft a good soccer story well-told.  So during this season of year end lists, I decided to consult the best sources I (don’t really) know—other voices who’ve popped up on Pitch Invasion during 2009 with their own well crafted writing and insights.  I’ve never had the pleasure of meeting any of these folks in person, but in this odd world of the internet I consider them esteemed colleagues—perhaps the perfect colleagues since they are people I know virtually nothing about other than the quality of their work.

So in recent weeks I asked an assortment of Pitch Invasion folks via email about their favorite soccer media from 2009—most (Peter Wilt, Richard Whittall, David Keyes from Culture of Soccer, Elliott from Fufanatico, and Tom Dunmore) were able to respond and, in fine blogosphere spirit, offer me their free labor for my weekly column.  Rather than focusing on whole blogs, the idea here was to tribute specific pieces of good work and identify the most engaging stories.  And to offer readers the pleasure of going back to some of the year’s best.

I specifically asked about their favorite soccer related on-line reads from 2009 (with a separate category for favorites from Pitch Invasion itself), other good soccer media (books, movies, etc.), and the stories of most interest from last year along with prospective stories for next year.  But I also told everyone to feel free to ignore my tendency towards lists and go free form.  They are presented below in reverse alphabetical order.

I also hope that the esteemed Pitch Invasion readership will add their own favorite soccer reads in the comments section—I’ve got time to read, much to learn, and a lingering confusion about why Becks and Landon still matter to me anyway.

Peter Wilt, who writes weekly for Pitch Invasion, is the President of the Milwaukee Wave, and the former President of the Chicago Fire and the Chicago Red Stars:

MLS Rumors Rumors

Loney’s blog on Big Soccer is consistently one of the best reasons to log on to the often appropriately acronymed BS. Part of the reason I love Dan is because his life is more than soccer and I tend to agree with his opinions about life, too…and my good friend Kenn Tomasch loves Dan, as well.  Any of Dan’s posts are entertaining, but I liked this one, because it was in response to Paul Demko’s interview of me for DuNord, which was one of my favorite interviews of me this year.

Oh, and I’m not sure who writes the MLS Rumors Rumors blog, but that’s hilarious, too.

Favorite reads from Pitch Invasion:
This.

Other good soccer media:
Among the traditional American soccer writers, I always enjoy reading Steven Goff and Jack Bell, but my must read is usually Soccer America’s Ridge Mahoney.  He always writes about topics I have an interest in with a very good insider perspective and he crafts his words very well.  He has the luxury of space and time that many other American soccer writers can only dream about and he takes full advantage of both.  This article on WPS star Marta and this piece previewing the Seattle Sounders FC remarkable successes are good examples of Ridge’s 2009 articles I enjoyed.

I believe the explosion of Twitter as a communication tool was the most important development to soccer media in 2009.  It changed forever the speed and style of communication and changed how soccer teams, Leagues, players and supporters distribute information.

The Jozy Altidore Twitter controversy highlighted this evolving medium.

Twitter changed news cycles from days to hours.  Layers of barriers instantly crashed down, allowing immediate, personal and direct access to the high and mighty and the low and meek.   While the content in 140 characters is limited, the speed and invasive nature of Tweets along with the links they can provide make Twitter a major media force.

While some will decry Twitter as another means to dumb down important topics, I’m a believer in its benefits and in particular I believe the benefit of spreading more information more quickly improves soccer dialog and analysis at all levels.

Most interesting soccer stories:
While the United States accomplishments at the FIFA Confederations Cup and the Seattle Sounders FC organizational accomplishments were both tremendous success stories, I thought the breakup of USL1 and the creation of the North American Soccer League was the most interesting American soccer story of 2009.

MLS Talk’s Kartik Krishnaiyer and Inside Minnesota Soccer’s Brian Quarstad were the constant conduits of information in this ongoing saga. Kartik has been accused of lazy journalism, but he cares more than most about the USL and other lesser covered parts of the American soccer landscape.  Kartik’s coverage on MLS Talk of the USL1 breakup shown here, here and here, provided a window into one of the year’s biggest American soccer stories and provided important insight into a huge story that otherwise would’ve been missed.

Pro Vercelli, the bestseller

Richard Whittall, who writes A More Splendid Life, is the Pitch Invasion weekend editor.

Favorite on-line reads from around the web in 2009:
In the soccer world, hell, in the on-line world, you normally read a life-changing piece and then forget about almost immediately the next day.  That said, there were a couple of on-line pieces I read in twenty-ought-nine that stuck with me.  The first was Brian Philips farewell post on his saga managing Pro Vercelli on Football Manager 2009.  Philips, as always, sums up his virtual managerial experiment brilliantly, in his inimitable, oddly moving style.

The other was Steven Wells’ final article for the Guardian before he died of lymphoma in June of this year. Wells was the sort of writer I, and I think a good number of other soccer bloggers and journalists, aspired to be.  His tongue-in-cheek-but-totally-serious call for the nationalization of the Premier League is as prescient as ever, with Wolves surrendering to Manchester United and Man City’s managerial ruthlessness occupying the headlines.  His bitter humour and pomposity-popping prose will be greatly missed.

A couple favorite reads from Pitch Invasion from 2009:
The addition of Peter Wilt as a contributor to Pitch Invasion this year has been nothing short of a coup; outside of his invaluable insights into the inner workings of the MLS backroom, I particularly enjoyed his live blog-ish post on his own take watching an MLS game.  I also enjoyed Tom’s response back in August to Simon Kuper’s provocative Independent piece on the non-importance of Big Club managers.  It’s an article I find myself coming back to again and again.

Other good soccer media (books, movies, essays, etc..) from 2009:
While Tom Hooper’s The Damned United, an adaptation of David Peace’s stream-of-consciousness novel of the same name, was no The Queen, it did give some cinematic attention to a rich period in English football, and tried to do so with some measure of realism.  While I have yet to see anything yet that comes close to Zidane: A Twentieth Century Portrait, the movie might hopefully draw others into making half-decent historical football movies.

And perhaps Grant Wahl’s book The Beckham Experiment should get a mention this year, if only because it provided outsiders with some interesting insight on MLS, if perhaps an unflattering and sometimes sensationalistic insight.  It certainly makes good reading ahead of the USA-England match at 2010′s World Cup.

The soccer stories you found most interesting from 2009:
For some reason, I have no idea why, two odd soccer stories linger with me from this year.  The first was tussle between the Team Owner’s Association and USL-1 in late September of this year, which has led to the resurgence of a league called the NASL.  This is one of those stories so big and yet so small, with so many implications or non-implications, so many symbolic meanings with the history of back-biting, splits and recrimination that is North American league soccer, that it becomes a singularity on which no light can be shed.  Ever.  Awesome.

The other was the United States’ success in this year’s Confederations Cup, thrashing Spain 2-0 with some bright attacking football, and nearly doing the same to Brazil before their defensive gaps were duly exploited in the final.  Important yes because it demonstrates what the USMNT is capable of ahead of South Africa, but remarkable for me at least because I was, for a solid couple of weeks, a USA fan in something.

Any soccer related stories you’re looking forward to in 2010:
What sort of role Danny Dichio might play as part of the backroom coaching staff at Toronto FC?  No I’m kidding; the World Cup in South Africa.  FIFA’s flagship tourney hasn’t really been good, I mean, really good, since 1986.  It would be nice if Africa could be the showcase for the World Cup’s revival as a sort of World Exhibition of football; chances are however, as tactics are increasingly streamlined, everyone is in peak physical condition, and the growing corporatism of the sport makes Coca Cola out of Côtes du Rhône, it ain’t gonna happen.

David Keyes, who writes Culture of Soccer (which Tom Dunmore identified as “one of the blogs that inspired me to start Pitch Invasion”), recently offered Pitch Invasion its only coverage of the Dayton Dynamo:

Favorite on-line reads from around the web:
I’ve been really interested to read pieces about the aftermath of the Egypt vs. Algeria World Cup qualifying games, both in terms of the violence that erupted and for what it has meant for Egyptian identity and self-esteem. Here are some links to stories I found particularly interesting: from the BBC, from Foreign Policy, and from the NY Times.

I also found the coverage of Switzerland’s multicultural U-17 team fascinating, and I liked Jaime Jackson’s Guardian piece on the development of soccer in the US.

Favorite reads from Pitch Invasion:
I’ve found Peter Wilt’s pieces on PI quite interesting. His recent one on hiring coaches gave me a perspective I had not heard before.  I’ve also found Tom’s pieces on American journalism interesting, especially his piece on MLS hiring Shawn Francis to work on its website.

Other good soccer media:
I’m going to have to be honest and say that with grad school I haven’t gotten around to reading soccer books this year nor have I seen a soccer-themed movie (yes, I know, embarrassing). I really want to read Soccernomics though.

Most interesting soccer stories:
I think I may have listed these in the first section above. I’m looking forward to the first World Cup in Africa next summer, of course. I also have found the stories about the potential large-scale betting scandal in Europe to be interesting and scary. I feel like little bits of this story keep dripping out and there may be much, much more to come.

Andrew Guest, who compiled these selections (in lieu of actually writing his weekly column by himself) and has been contributing to Pitch Invasion since August:

davies-9

Favorite on-line reads from around the web:
This was harder to come up with than I thought it would be—there’s lots of good stuff out there, but much of it is shorter commentary and for the sake of a tribute I’d like to offer some things that are a little more in depth.  But since my two main interests are US soccer and African soccer, I’ll pick some related to each: I found a post by / with US and MLS fan / artist Prairie Rose Clayton fascinating—the mix of imagery and fandom seems like a perfect 21st century American soccer story.  The addition of a comment (from a reader) questioning the use of nationalistic images to support sports made it all the more intriguing to me.  For a second, I enjoyed the Guardian.co.uk series by Owen Gibson and Jamie Jackson on South Africa’s World Cup preparations (part 1, part 2, part 3, and part 4).  It seemed even-handed, intelligent, and had a great mix of the local and the global about South Africa and the World Cup.

Favorite reads from Pitch Invasion:
As a Portlander, I loved both the March piece by Zach Dundas on the Timbers Army and the August piece by Benjamin Kumming on Timbers and Sounders soccer culture.  I also enjoyed reading Tom’s supporter’s perspective on the Fire, and his clever use of the site to tactfully pressure the organization to talk—quite an interesting version of community organizing.

Other good soccer media:
This also proved harder to come up with than I thought it would be.  The two big books of the year in my soccer worlds were probably The Beckham Experiment and Soccernomics.  I liked both reasonably well—The Beckham Experiment just for being a decent book about life in MLS, and Soccernomics for offering interesting food for thought (though with a frustratingly Eurocentric message).  But both of those books have already had lots of hype.  Maybe as a quieter book I’d mention The Global Game—even though it came out in late 2008, I didn’t find it until this year.  I love the concept of putting together eclectic selections about the game from smart people and good writers all over the world—though in some cases the selections were so short and eclectic that it was hard to fully sink into.  But still a worthy effort.  My thoughts on movies are also not that original—like many others, I thought The Damned United was brilliant.  But can’t think of others from 2009 I’d want to strongly recommend.

Most interesting soccer stories:
A lot actually come to mind here; for me having grown up in Seattle seeing the MLS Cup come off as a genuine event was quite something.  But I was probably most interested in stuff going on in Africa—and there has already been a lot.  The whole vuvuzela thing was intriguing, and raises beguiling questions about the nature of sports “culture.”  The ebbs and flows in the debate about whether people should be scared to travelling to South Africa is fascinating to watch (and even caught me a bit off-guard in comments on my post about whether or not I can afford to go).  Finally, I loved seeing Ghana win the U-20 World Cup.  Even though it wasn’t a huge event, it kicked off a series of major competitions in Africa and seeing an African team start with a win felt apropos.

Any soccer related stories you’re looking forward to in 2010:
The attention to the first World Cup on the African continent is why I started to write for Pitch Invasion—there are so many interesting stories related to soccer in Africa, and though I’m now at a distance I hope my mix of academic and personal perspectives has something to offer.  For me some of those personal perspectives are based on time in Angola, which also makes me particularly interested in January’s Africa Cup of Nations.  I expect both Angola and South Africa will be fascinating to watch not just for the game on the field, but for offering something like empty signifiers absorbing attitudes toward Africa and global inequalities in the 21st century.

Elliot from Fufanatico, who offered a Buenos Aires soccer story to Pitch Invasion earlier this month, offers much wit and wisdom on his own site, and put his own spin on the ‘best of’ concept by offering:

“The 2009 Futfanatico list of writing concepts that went absolutely nowhere.”

5) The Pele Guide to Financial Investment and Estate Planning. Tentatively titled “Your Friends are your Enemies are your Friends.”

4) The Eric Cantona Assistance Manual for Public Relations. Tentatively titled “Hardball.”

3) A fictitious aa meeting between two all time greats, Garrincha and George Best, which ultimately ended in a heated dispute over who was the greatest of all time: Bono or Roberto Carlos (the singer). Tentatively titled “Samba pa’ Dois”.

2) The Ryan Giggs “retirement from football” speech for his testimonial match. Tentatively titled “The Not Quite Floundering Fledgling.”

1) A detailed, comprehensive, and comprehensible analysis of how FIFA objectively determines seedings for the World Cup. Tentatively titled “Euro-stuffed Briefcases.”

[With some encouragement, Elliot also suggested curious readers might enjoy some pieces from futfanatico: “We did have a ‘only futfaanatico can win’ election which Pitchinvasion somehow managed to win.  We also had a special apparition by a dead Hungarian footballer.”]

damn-united

Tom Dunmore, who is the Pitch Invasion founder and editor:

Favorite on-line reads from around the web:
Any time someone can turn spending way too many hours playing a football management video game into one of the most creative series of writing I’ve read in years, they deserve some kind of award (or perhaps therapy). Brian Phillips’ brilliant saga of Pro Vercelli’s odyssey under his virtual management was the highlight of the soccer blogosphere by far, from the player interview published on Amazon Kindle in 2020 to the hardcover nonfiction book that A.A. Gill called “as slick as a whore in a bank”.

Similarly, the creativity of Sport Is a TV Show was superbly illustrated in this wonderful Premier League preview in the style of David Peace.

We need more blogs written by literary geniuses obsessed with football who have too much time on their hands, methinks.

Favorite reads from Pitch Invasion:
Anything not by me. We were very fortunate to have many talented writers contribute to the site; as others have mentioned above (ah, the privilege of the editor…). The addition of Peter Wilt brought a unique insight to a fan-based site: that of those that get paid to run teams, and even more uniquely, one who loves doing so. I thought his piece on “creating tribalism” , on hiring front office staff and on putting together a winning team were particularly informative for those of us who only glimpse at the other side of the fence.

The debate about Portland and Seattle’s soccer culture sparked by Benjamin Kumming’s outstanding essay on the local rivals and their styles of support was fascinating to see, with some of the 94 comments surprisingly insightful, as well as illustrating the complex (and at times also base) level of rivalry between the two that many outside the US won’t have known about. Our other regular columnist, the compiler of this post itself Andrew Guest, won’t want me to embarrass him, but the consistent quality of his insight means you should simply check out his archive for anything you missed, though my personal favourite was his unique perspective on “Playing White While in Africa”.

Other good soccer media:
Book: I enjoyed Jonathan Wilson’s Inverting the Pyramid: The History of Football Tactics. I wish the title didn’t have that definite article as it’s not the definitive history of something always evolving (as Wilson well documents in his own weekly columns), but it is an oustanding historical overview of the development of the game tactically, and a refreshing change for myself, sometimes too focused on the game off the field.

Movie: Similarly, The Damned United movie wasn’t as intoxicating as the novel, but it was probably wise that the screenplay wasn’t as hardcore. One of the best football movies for quite some time.

Website: This one’s a little obscure, but I’ve come to enjoy enormously the links to esoteric football history dug-up by Karl at footysphere. Just this week: Swedish groundhopping; swastikas over Ibrox; Arsenal’s dodgy 1919 maneuver; and how hay protected the pitch from frost in pre-World War II days. I remain convinced that 99% of blogs could be a lot more interesting with just a little more digging around the treasure trove that is the internet.

Most interesting soccer stories:
I’ll raise three questions based on stories from 2009 that will run into 2010, on the two countries of my greatest interest, England and the U.S.:

(1) Are we seeing the start of the decline and fall of English football’s financial dominance due to the ever-greater debts laden on its biggest clubs, Sheikh Mansour’s apparent disillusion with Man City and other smaller clubs discovering the road to riches does not come inevitably from anyone who comes along and says they have a shitload of money?  Will we finally see real substantive steps taken by UEFA and perhaps even the Premier League towards some enforced financial sustainability on English football, by finding a way to require clubs’ spending has some relation to their income?

(2) Will we have professional outdoor soccer in the United States come April?  We probably will, but with the current lower league impasse between the NASL and USL remaining unresolved and a labour shutout in MLS looking likely, there remains a chance the sport could be seriously damaged just when hype about the game will be hitting an all-time high with ESPN’s buildup to the World Cup. If everyone is sensible, we could even have two functioning Division II leagues and a strengthened MLS with a higher salary cap to bring in more quality. But there are a few warning signs that leadership in a few places might not have the ability to negotiate reasonable conclusions quickly enough without getting higher authorities involved in the various disputes. Which would get ugly.

(3) On both sides of the Atlantic, I saw growing signs that fans realise collective grassroots organisation substantially advances their own interests in the game, as opposed to those of the sponsors, players or owners, from involvement in individual teams to broader networks advancing common agendas. Will we see this grow in 2010, and a little of the game’s power balance tip towards the many millions who fund its professional existence with their support?

Any soccer related stories you’re looking forward to in 2010:
Well, I guess there’ll be a few stories about that whole World Cup thing. . .

In all seriousness, a World Cup fills me with hope and fear in equal measures. I would like to see a final worthy of the irritating number of times we will hear the words “the beautiful game”, with a post-game ceremony featuring David Beckham sacrificing Sepp Blatter to the footballing gods (sponsored by Visa). But that’s probably not going to happen, so I’ll just drink some beer and enjoy the games while nursing a little frustration at the standard of play and commercial blather, while wishing I was in South Africa for all the fun. And then I’ll see England lose on penalties again, an inevitable story I am not looking forward to.

Twitter Trends and the Football World: From 2009 to 2010

Darren Bent Twitter

The English football season started off with Steve Bruce wondering what the hell Twitter was when a media storm broke following Darren Bent’s expression of frustration on his then-stalled move to Sunderland from Spurs in the summer. “Someone says Darren has been Twittering,” Bruce told the Sunderland Echo. “I don’t even know what that is, but I have seen a few things in the papers about it.”

Bruce now knows very well what Twitter is, as he commented to the Daily Mail on the power of the social internet earlier this month: “It never used to get out of the dressing room. The manager would get hold of you and there would be a fight every other week. The number of fights I’ve seen . . . that’s the way it’s gone, with the media spotlight, Twitter, it spreads like wildfire.”

2009 has been the year of Twitter, and its impact on the football world was similar to its impact on the rest of the world: as a new go-to spot for real time news on big events, for its unprecedented peeks into  our hero’s and heroine’s lives, for an explosion in viral marketing and for its ability to connect people around the world.

Let’s take a look at four key Twitter trends from 2009 reflecting those four aspects of the service’s impact, and consider what’s in store for us in 2010.

1) @DBtheTruth and @JozyAltidore17
Bent dominated Twitter in English football, provoking the first major tweet-induced controversy with his comments about Spurs chairman Daniel Levy: “”Do I wanna go Hull City NO. Do I wanna go stoke NO do I wanna go sunderland YES so stop f****** around, Levy. Sunderland are not the problem in the slightest.” Bent’s original account, @DB10theTruth, was quickly closed when word spread, but he soon reemerged as @DBtheTruth, now boasting over 26,000 followers. Another of his tweets hit the headlines recently, as his mention of racial abuse of his mother made the headlines (an arrest was later made).

Like Bent, Jozy Altidore’s use of Twitter illustrated the issue teams are having controlling the flow of information about their own club. Altidore was fined for revealing on Twitter that he had been dropped from Hull’s squad for being late, with Hull manager Phil Brown saying “That for me is information that stays in house. The reason he wasn’t on the bench was our business.”

Communications directors and coaches across the football world will have to deal with more and more of this kind of issue. Information that was once in house can much less consistently be kept there. Teams are trying to educate their players about what they can and can’t say on their public accounts, but now a player can instantly tell a practically unlimited number of people anything they want as easily as sending a text message, and that’s not going to be possible to tightly control. We will all find out more about the stars of football than we might ever even have wanted to know.

2) #confedcup
The Confederation Cup now provides something of a dress rehearsal for the World Cup the following year, and in the Twitterverse, South Africa in 2009 was a tiny taste of the insanity we can expect in June when the big event arrives there. The flow of tweets about the tournament was considerable given its relatively low profile, trending on Twitter several times, and giving a big publicity boost to the US team with their unexpected run to the final.

Tim Howard was a trending topic at the Confederations Cup, and expect him to be one again come June 12th, when Twitter will explode on both sides of the Atlantic as the US takes on England. Michael Jackson’s death almost broke Twitter, and one could imagine that if we have another Zidane-like incident, the World Cup just might do so too. The magnification lens and chatter on any and every incident will be unprecedented in the history of sport.

twitter-follows-sports

3) @womensprosoccer
On November 22nd, Womens Professional Soccer hit 100,000 followers. As of today, that had exploded to 185,713. One of the world’s newest professional leagues is cleaning up in new media savvy in the soccer world; the world’s oldest league, for example, England’s Football League, have (as of right now) 185,394 less followers than WPS: that’s right, just 319 people follow @football_league. The Premier Legue? I just spent ten minutes on google and their official site trying to find out if they even have an official Twitter account (anyone know?).

WPS’ teams have also been in the forefront in using Twitter for marketing, as we commented back in March about the Chicago Red Stars, with the low-cost ability to reach people a big boost for lower income teams. Still, it’s also worth thinking about just how much impact even this relatively small investment actually has on the bottom line: consider this tweet from Chicago Red Stars Director of Sponsorship and Marketing Pat McNamara a few weeks ago: “A typical WPS Suburban Soccer Fam is not on Twitter. We put a lot into SMM. Stay the course & grow into it or divert resources?”

The rest of the football world, though, will be playing catch-up, especially as their target audiences most definitely are on Twitter. In 2010, expect a new emphasis on Twitter from new media laggards like the Premier League and MLS (already working on it with @MLS_Insider tweeting regularly and growing its following substantially in recent weeks).

4) @CharlieDavies9
News of the American forward’s terrible car crash broke quickly on Twitter in October, with speculation spreading even more widely than fact. It was odd to see many of Davies’ teammates write about their fears for Charlie almost immediately. Davies’ own Twitter following suddenly grew enormously in the weeks after his crash, with over 15,000 following his recovery. His near two-month silence was recently broken, and he recently tweeted “I’m truly blessed to have survived and have people that care. I’m doing much better and I’m able to walk. Rehab is going very well.”

U.S. supporters used Twitter to coordinate their 9th minute tribute to Davies on October 15th against Costa Rica at RFK stadium, and it has been touching to see the American soccer community — from players to fans — come together online over such a serious trauma for one of their own.

Perhaps this is a reminder of why we use Twitter; to be better connected to more people, to be part of a community. The good, the bad and the controversial of the soccer world will only be tweeted by us ever more in 2010.

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

Time Magazine

Big Story
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.

ESPN, the World Cup and MLS in 2010

ESPN the Magazine -- Fan Issue cover, Kobe Bryant playing soccer

The love-hate relationship American soccer fans have with ESPN is legendary. The sports television behemoth (and I’m not sure even that word captures how much ESPN bestrides the world of American sports in the 21st century) is at once derided (too dumbed down in its coverage; too focused on the Beckham-cam) and desired (ratings are picked over with a Bigsoccer-sized toothcomb; HD coverage is drooled over) by fans for its coverage of the sport.

What can’t be doubted is ESPN’s commitment to the World Cup next year and beyond, and executive vice president of content at ESPN John Skipper was recently added to the US Soccer Federation’s 2018/22 World Cup Bid Committee. He is also an actual fan of the sport, regularly travelling to England to watch Tottenham Hotspur. ESPN has of course begun showing Premier League games in both the United States and England this season, with strong ratings achieved over here.

But how will they approach the World Cup in 2010, and how does MLS fit in next summer?

Skipper was also in charge, though much newer in his job, in 2006, spending the tournament in Germany. ESPN’s coverage of the tournament was high-quality, though marred by baseball guy Dave O’Brien’s newbie commentary (though he did improve noticeably on the job) and Marcelo Balboa’s amazingly atrocious performance as a sidekick (I had to institute a rule in my house for everyone watching to stop criticising Balboa’s irritating inanity, so as to be able to talk about anything else over the 90 minutes of any given game).

We can expect much better in 2010, with Martin Tyler already signed up as the lead voice. And then there’s the Sports Guy’s new found interest in soccer, a bajillion ESPN folks seemingly already on location in South Africa, and SportsCenter ready to explain the offside rule 80 times over, or whatever. ESPN knows how to overload coverage.

Yet will this mean that MLS will get lost in the shuffle in 2010?  The league will break for two weeks of the World Cup (though not the entire tournament) but will still be on ESPN the rest of the summer, most of it without ratings drawing cards like Beckham and Blanco. Many MLS teams are already sensibly planning to tie-in their marketing efforts with World Cup watch parties (helped by the break teams will be taking), so at a local level, we should see a vast improvement on previous attempts by MLS to keep playing soccer and pretend nothing else was going on in the rest of the world.

ESPN’s own approach to MLS was explained by Skipper to reporters at a media availability session last week to promote ESPN’s World Cup coverage, with Kyle McCarthy at Goal.com providing an excellent summary:

The key for Skipper and ESPN remains finding a way to transfer the viewership in big-ticket items like the World Cup and the English Premier League to the domestic scene in greater numbers. In order to advance that goal, Skipper said ESPN plans to use its emphasis on the World Cup to increase interest in its MLS property as it enters the fourth year of an eight-year, $64 million deal. ESPN2 will feature a MLS game as part of its 24 hours of coverage before Mexico and South Africa kick off the World Cup on June 11, while other tie-ins are also expected to help raise awareness.

This is welcome, but the key for any momentum to immediately transfer to MLS will surely be a couple of post-World Cup major signings, as Skipper essentially went on to say: “If they sign somebody prominent, it’s a great story for us and we can build around it. It’s just that they (need to) get better players in, too. (Players such as) Fredy Montero in Seattle, if they can find players like that. The soccer just has to get better. You’d like to have some big names to have some stories around, get a few more people to the stadiums and poke up in the ratings here and there, but as long as it just keeps getting better, we’ll be fine.”

Zidane v Kobe: Documentary Films and Sport Cultures

Kobe coverLast week, as the new NBA season settled into its groove, Spike Lee released the DVD of his documentary film Kobe Doin’ Work.  The film, which follows Kobe Bryant through a single 2008 game for the LA Lakers, intrigues me as a fan of documentaries, as a casual NBA fan, and as a fan of the movie that ostensibly inspired Kobe Doin’ Work—the 2006 soccer opus Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait.

My intrigue also relates to the fact that while I’ve always been a soccer fan, as a red-blooded American boy I also grew up watching the NBA and other “American sports” leagues.  And I often find myself engaging in the debate about whether different sports fit better or worse within particular cultural contexts.  Do Americans really prefer basketball to soccer because there is more scoring?  Do Europeans really prefer soccer because it is more emotional and artistic?  Or are different sport cultures just an accident of the fact that we tend to like what we know?  Comparing Kobe Doin’ Work with Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait strikes me as a chance to tangentially address that debate.

Of course, the movies are not directly comparable in that they were made for different purposes.  Kobe was made for ESPN by Spike Lee, who is almost as famous for his NBA fandom and his courtside presence at New York Knicks games as he is for his filmmaking.  The makers of Zidane, on the other hand, are more artists than filmmakers—and, one suspects, more artists than sports fans.  Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parreno, Scottish and French respectively, are both more known in the art world for their expositions than their filmmaking.  And their work has a decidedly eclectic European aesthetic, particularly considering the movie was filmed in Spain with funding from Iceland.  It is probably safe to assume that ESPN and the Icelandic film council have very different ideas about what makes for a good documentary—but that itself may say something about the cultures of sport.

The films

While many reviewers have noted that Kobe Doin’ Work was inspired by Spike Lee’s encounter with Zidane at the Cannes Film Festival, fewer have noted that Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait was itself preceded by a 1971 German film Fußball wie noch nie (Football as Never Before) following George Best through an entire Manchester United game.  Though the makers of Zidane only learned about Football as Never Before after initiating their own work, the idea of immersing oneself in a consideration of a single athlete’s experience seems to appeal as a bridge between sport and art.

Zidane-movie

And Zidane is very much an artistic consideration of a single athlete’s experience.  The film relies on 17 cameras to follow Zidane, and Zidane alone, through an otherwise ordinary 2005 Spanish league game between Real Madrid and Villarreal.  The shots focus on ground level views of Zidane’s movements amidst the sounds of the crowd alternated occasionally with pixilated downward angles and background commentary, constantly reminding the viewer that the game itself is an artificial production.  There is no audible narration, but late in the first half subtitles appear to offer Zidane’s own abstracted thoughts:

“As a child I had a running commentary in my head when I was playing. It wasn’t really my own voice.  It was the voice of Pierre Cangioni, a television anchor from the 1970’s. Every time I heard his voice I would run towards the TV, as close as I could get. For as long as I could.  It wasn’t that his words were so important but the tone, the accent, the atmosphere, was everything.”

In Kobe, on the other hand, the atmosphere of the game is primarily a platform for the player’s own voice-over describing his game.  The film uses 30 cameras to follow Bryant through an otherwise ordinary 2008 game between the LA Lakers and the San Antonio Spurs, moving from some pre-game preparation through most of the game’s action.  The camera shots of Bryant playing come at all angles, and allow for some appreciation of his athletic grace.  But unlike Zidane, Bryant also offers a constant verbal commentary on each scene and shot, most of which involves explaining mundane details and clichéd observations: “that home court advantage is so important;” “I hate turnovers;” “My high school coach told me a long time ago: you don’t build a house without blueprints.”

The commentary comes to dominate the film—in the same way many American soccer broadcasters feel compelled to talk through every second of play.  Even in an otherwise complementary review of Kobe Doin’ Work, a basketball writer noted how Bryant’s commentary overwhelms:

“If there was anything I came away with from watching the full ninety minutes of Kobe Doin’ Work, it was this: Kobe does not shut up. Not in the locker room, not in the huddles, not on the court. Heck, not even on the voiceover. If we are to take this film of one game as a sample representation of what it is like to play basketball with Kobe Bryant, then being a teammate of Kobe Bryant must border on unbearable. Because Kobe is constantly telling his teammates what they are doing wrong.”

The contrasts

Kobe_Doin'_Work DVD

I’m tempted to claim that the unfortunate tendency to expect players to both play and offer verbal insight into their play is distinctly American, but that’s probably not quite right.  Realistically, the contrast between Zidane and Kobe is not so much Europe v America as it is different hybrids.  In fact, in watching Zidane I took a strange pleasure in multiple scenes where the players’ lugubrious intensity took place in front of large electronic advertising boards promoting Kellogg’s Frosties with the cartoon image of Tony the Tiger—a prototype of silly American marketing.  And, similarly, Bryant (who spent much of his childhood in Italy) seemed to take great pleasure in emphasizing his ability to converse on the court with his European teammates in Italian and Spanish—and even playfully used his soccer skills to juggle a basketball on his way to one timeout.

Even the influences on the filmmakers goes both ways, as Douglas Gordon notes a debt to American football in describing his vision for Zidane in an interesting interview with the San Francisco Bay Guardian:

“I wasted my youth watching 16mm, fantastically well-photographed NFL [footage]. Beautiful stuff, [shot by] cameramen who’d just come back from the war [in Vietnam]. Seagulls might flap by in front of them, and it wouldn’t be edited out. There was something rough about the NFL stuff that we wanted. There’s a couple of scenes in Zidane where the camera drifts up. That was deliberate, but it’s a reference to the sort of accidental beauty that can happen in that type of footage.”

That emphasis on “accidental beauty” is, however, more characteristic of Zidane rather than Kobe.  Both at the start of Zidane and then at halftime we are told that the scene is Madrid, Saturday April 23rd 2005 and “who could have imagined that in the future an ordinary day like this might be forgotten or remembered as anything more or less significant than a walk in the park.”  And at the very end, after Zidane has been red-carded for charging and swinging his way into a scrum of players that he originally had nothing to do with, the subtitles note only that “magic is sometimes very close to nothing at all.  Nothing at all.”

On the whole I enjoyed such affectations, but I also understand that watching Zidane, and watching soccer, can be frustrating precisely because it does sometimes seem to be “nothing at all.”  When I sit down to watch my Trail Blazers play an NBA game I can be assured of a consistent baseline of entertainment, but when I watch soccer I have to actively engage.  In fact, the rhythm and flow of Zidane the film is much like the game itself.  At first there is the settling in.  For twenty minutes we just watch Zidane move, and get used to his rhythms.  Then come the subtitles, the thoughtful interlude where Zidane’s words allow us to consider the game’s meaning.

In the second half the pace quickens, alternating between words, movements, and abstract images.  There are subtle touches of aggression, with Zidane engaging in small bits of contact while his face—without changing expression—becomes more angry.  The tension builds, accompanied by haunting music from Mogwai, and then for perhaps the first time Zidane smiles.  He has a brief exchange with Roberto Carlos, they share a laugh, and we briefly relax.  Minutes later a Real player drives along the endline, a Villarreal defender adds relish to his tackle, and Zidane accelerates into a brief rage.  When the referee shows him the red card, he shows no emotion.  But the emotion of this meaningless game feels suddenly overwhelming.  The movie ends.

There is energy to Kobe Doin Work as well, but it is more a persistent buzz—a bubbling enthusiasm that feels like a summer’s day at the carnival.  It is an easy entertainment, built partially around sideshows.  In fact, when American sports fans criticize soccer for lacking in scoring and action, I often wonder how they define action—watching an NBA game is as much about commercial breaks and sideshows as it is about basketball.  If I spend two hours watching soccer I know I will see 90 minutes of the game; if I spend two and a half hours watching my Trail Blazers I see 48 minutes of basketball and learn much about the latest specials at Standard TV & Appliance.

Considering the differences in the action, it is perhaps ironic that the key to understanding both films seems to lie not during the play but during halftime.  In Kobe we follow Bryant into the locker room where he leads the team in an analysis of film from the first half.  Having this kind of access to a locker room is considered a rare coup in a sports broadcast, and the scene serves to highlight that the documentary is about the importance of Kobe mastering the game.

At halftime in Zidane we leave Madrid, running through a collage of the world on that particular day.  An Ipanema beach puppet show.  Floods in Serbia-Montegnegro.  Elian Gonzales on Cuban TV.  And most powerfully: an image of a man fleeing a bombing carrying an injured child and the text “Car bomb in Najaf, Iraq kills 9 in escalating attacks.”  On the side amidst the horror another man is wearing a replica Zidane jersey.  The interlude is brief and seems random, but it clearly conveys that the documentary is intended to raise, rather than answer, questions: how can a game simultaneously mean so much and so little?

Zidane

“The script has already been written”

Some critics find Zidane too sycophantic—occasional Pitch Invasion contributor Jennifer Doyle discussed the film in an excellent review and argues: “Zidane … is too beautiful, too controlled, too glossy. You can buy the DVD in supermarkets in France – a sign of how deeply the film co-operates with and expands Zidane’s celebrity.”  But for me that cooperation is part of the fun—I know the athletic gifts of Zidane and Bryant do not warrant real hero status, but I willingly submit to a degree of that illusion (though only to a degree).

If I have a complaint of both movies it is that they portray the game as being about individuals—though they do so in slightly different ways.  In Kobe the individualism lies in the naked celebration of Bryant’s every move and thought; in Zidane the individualism lies in the lonely intensity Zidane exudes through his movements and his portrait.  But those movements are themselves beautiful—the movies share a core appreciation for the aesthetic beauty of the elite athlete.

And together they highlight how much of our fandom depends upon where we happen to be born, and the sport cultures we happen to learn.  Kobe Doin’ Work is much more of a jaunty piece that offers basic entertainment—which seems appropriate to the ethos of the NBA.  Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait is much more of an abstract impression that requires some active engagement—which seems to befit European soccer.  Ultimately, as a subtitle in Zidane observes “Sometimes when you arrive in the stadium you feel that everything has already been decided.  The script has already been written.”

Andrew Guest writes weekly for Pitch Invasion. He is an academic social scientist and soccer addict living in Portland, Oregon.  Having worked (and played) in Malawi and Angola, he has a particular interest in Africa.  He can be contacted at drewguest (at) hotmail.com.

The Sweeper: The Future of Soccer Journalism Debate

Journalism RIP

Big Story
There is an excellent debate going on at the pages of A More Splendid Life about the future of soccer journalism (or really, the future of journalism in general), with his post yesterday on the impending doom for us all as the “so-called “newspaper model” seems as yet irreplaceable when it comes to affording a living wage for journalists”.

This sparked something of a debate as a few pointed out some blogs have found ways to generate significant income. Certainly, and good for them. But it’s quite clear how one has to target editorial content very specifically to generate significant traffic and monetary reward. The time and expense needed to do serious longform journalism — including travel — is not rewarded well monetarily in the online era, even if you end up writing the greatest 2,000 word blog post ever on African youth development.

Richard’s follow-up post today addresses this very well.

I know there is a route whereby money can be made from bloggin’ about soccer, and I know several of us have commandeered that route with great success. However, that approach, sorry to say, has little or nothing to do with the sort of long-form journalism and first person reporting we’ve come to take for granted from print media.

For one, a money-making approach to blogging requires one, in part, to cover those areas that will garner the most web traffic possible. Because newspapers were traditionally purchased as a whole unit, leaving consumers at the whim of the entire editorial staff to read what they chose to cover, beat writers had the luxury of chasing some out-of-the-way stories on their individual merit, rather than having each and every individual tailored to the interest of the broadest audience possible.

Will this freedom ever be possible in the era of digital content? Answers on a postcard, please.

Worldwide News

  • It’s lockdown in Sudan ahead of the Algeria-Egypt World Cup playoff game. We all heard about the violence surrounding the weekend’s clash, with the head of the Algerian football federation Mohammed Raouraoua stoking the fire by blaming his Egyptian counterpart Samir Zaherfor the trouble. “He is the origin of all the events that occurred, including the barbaric aggression that injured… our players,” Mr Raouraoua said.
  • England’s World Cup bid has been much criticised, with FA Chairman Lord Triesman under fire, but David Conn suggests much of this furor may be fueled by another agenda: Triesman’s occasional critiques of the Premier League.
  • Relegated Oita Trinita will receive $6.7m in emergency funding in Japan, the first time the new fund has been dipped into.
  • Alex Ferguson expresses his distaste for the increasingly prominent role played by agents, in a speech contrasting past and present.
  • Authorities in Cyprus are taking the unpleasant step of forcing all fans to present state ID cards to purchase match tickets, saying they need to enforce banning orders as violence continues to plague the sport there.
  • There is an absolutely disgraceful piece of “journalism” in The Times today (the freedom of the old model still generates plenty of crap), as James Ducker attempts to polish the image of Manchester City Chairman Garry Cook, much vilified in the past for his greedy, elitist ideas. It’s all fair and good to say we should take another look at Cook or his ideas, but please don’t present as your main piece of evidence the fact that he helped rescue your credit card at a fancy restaurant, James. Maybe journalism is already dead.

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

The Damned United: Dirty, dirty Leeds.

The Damned United

Dirty, dirty Leeds. Dirty fucking Leeds. After reading David Peace’s novel The Damned Utd these words cycled through my head for days. They work as an obsessive refrain in Peace’s account of Brian Clough’s infamous 44 days as the manager of (dirty, dirty) Leeds.

I knew nothing about Clough, Leeds, and this bizarre story before reading Peace’s novel. Nevertheless, his writing drew me in – aggressively.  I felt as if Clough himself, in all his puerile genius, had wormed his way into my head.  And that voice was irritating – arrogant, monomaniacal, defensive.  The intensity and distinctiveness of Peace’s writing is such that it makes you care about, even identify with this deeply flawed and narcissistic character.

The writing bears no resemblance to traditional sports narrative – the novel borders on experimental, in fact. Its momentum is entropic. Things don’t come together in this story, they fall apart.

Like any fan of a novel, I reacted to the news that it was being turned into a movie with suspicion.  I couldn’t imagine how a novel with such a narrow range of focus, a novel whose setting is really one man’s emotional landscape, could possibly be translated into a commercial film.  If it has a happy ending, it is well outside the novel’s plot – in what happened after he left Leeds, and reconnected with his partner, coach Peter Taylor.  (They led Nottingham Forest in the late 1970s through an amazing run of League Cups, European Cups, and went unbeaten for an insane 42 games.)

In the movie theater, a couple near me asked if this was a “sports movie, you know, like an underdog story.”  Every sports narrative apparently demands this structure: the unlikely hero who overcomes the odds and wins the big game.

Fortunately, the answer to this question is – No, this is not an underdog story. This is a film about a guy who was an underdog when he took over Derby County and led them from the bottom of the second division to the top of the first in two years. (Imagine!) This is the story of a manager whose “touch” seems actually particular to underdog teams, like Derby County and Nottingham Forest – as well as underrated players (Taylor specialized in picking up players other teams had written off). But he was not, really, the underdog so much as the outsider when he took over Leeds – and failed.

Clough was a hater – and no team was as much the object of his ire than Leeds United. His antipathy towards Leeds was by no means a secret. Incredibly, when Leeds manager Don Revie was asked to take on the England national team, Leeds asked Clough to take over. Moth to the flame, Clough accepted the job, and bungled – he was sacked after 44 days of antagonism and controversy.

Michael Sheen as Brian Clough

So, departing from the sports script, here there is no glorious win. Just the story of an impudent, self-centered (gifted) bastard so driven by hate that he takes over a team in order to take them apart.

The film is gentler than the book. (A film that stuck to the maniacal tone of Peace’s writing would, in fact, be almost unwatchable.) The screenplay splits its time between Clough’s Oedipal struggle against Revie, and his friendship with his Taylor (who refused to move to Leeds with Clough). Their relationship is explicitly cast in terms of love — the film plays with their dynamic as a couple, and this is where any of the tenderness and emotion in the film is expressed.  The happy resolution demanded by mainstream cinema is organized around their reconciliation.

I loved the film. But I also love English weather and Thomas Hardy novels. It’s visually gorgeous, but everything is gray, wet, and dilapidated. If there is paint on the walls, it’s peeling. If there is wallpaper, it’s greasy. Glass is grimey. Fields are muddy. Ceilings are low and stained. Early on, there is a lovely scene of Clough, desperate to impress, trying to tidy up the facilities at Derby before an early match against Leeds – polishing tarnished brass, scrubbing blacked grout. There isn’t a lot of game footage, but what is there is dirty: all I remember about those scenes is mud, rain, and blood.

Scene from the Damned United

The film is notable for its realism and its refusal to glamorize the game. This is, I think, where the film pays homage to the era (and Peace’s writing) most faithfully:  This story unfolds before the hyper-mediatization of football.  The sport feels fleshy and personal.  Its aesthetic sensibility is the dead opposite of a film like Goal, or even Douglas Gordon’s art house hit, Zidane: Portrait of the 21st Century. There just wasn’t that much money in either the game or in the broadcasting of the game (at least not like there is today).  The sport, as we encounter it today, has been cleaned up for the camera.  The Damned United’s story seems to signal the beginning of these shifts.

There is another “money” story here – that of English class politics.  Clough’s brashness, the criticism that he was “too much”, that he was inappropriate, crass, and too ambitious is the complaint made against a man who doesn’t “know his place.” If he was an upstart and pretender, it was because he refused to let his own working class origins limit his imagination – and he also knew that he’d never get past the door if he waited for someone to open it for him. To this day, Clough is referred to as “the greatest manager England never had,” and most assume he was never invited to lead the country’s team because the FA couldn’t stand the idea of having someone like Clough in this representative role.

Given the centrality of class to Clough’s story, the phrase “dirty, dirty Leeds” (repeated hundreds of times in Peace’s novel) takes on an added importance.

Brian Clough on TV

Everything around Clough feels shabby and worthless when compared to what Revie has. Even though Clough knows he’s the better manager, that at Derby he was managing the better team, something in him makes him feel like this was not enough.  Clough is more boy than man, invested in a recognition (from Revie) that he’ll never get (Revie refuses the hand Clough offers him, not in a deliberate slight but because he didn’t notice Clough, who was cloaked in insignificance).

As we watch Clough nervously cleaning up Derby’s shabby facilities, we see him trying to scrub away the dirt of a working class world — his world.  In these details, we see a man who on some level feels he will never be good enough, a man incapable, too, of being happy with what he has. And of course, this restlessness, this discontent was behind the arrogance and ambition that made him such a legend.

The Offside Rules: MLS Radicalises Web Presence

It’s about time, the millions who have had to plug through the unwieldy navigation (let’s see how many hundreds of links we can pile into one homepage!) and mediocre writing of Major League Soccer’s website will say, but the news is still good for American soccer fans: MLS is bringing its website production in-house, planning to revamp it entirely for a slated re-launch in March 2010. And they have already hired a prominent blogger, Shawn Francis of the Offside Rules, to help with the transition and editorial content going forward.

Six years ago, MLS partnered with MLB Advanced Media to develop their website for them, a pretty wise move at the time. MLB.com was at the cutting edge of sports websites, and their subsidiary developed a decent site for the league at a much lower cost than in-house production would have been. MLS’ site remains well above the quality of international counterparts such as that of the Premier League, with video highlights a long staple including the excellent feature that allows users to piece together highlights videos oneself to embed and share on the web (unfortunately, much useful content like this was buried in the maze of the site’s tortuous navigation).

But in recent times, the cookie-cutter template used by most teams and the stale content and design has hindered innovation and the site desperately needed a refresh. WPS’ content and use of new media put it to shame and even US Soccer recently launched a much-improved site.

MLS has decided not just for a refresh, but for a radical change both for the league and team sites and in their online business model as a whole.

Hiring Francis, who will be working on their editorial content and the site’s revamp, is a fascinating move — is it the first time a top sports league has employed an independent blogger in such a fashion?  And SF, as all followers of his at-times edgy site know, isn’t exactly a corporate suit.  Top tags on the Offside Rules include “random coolness”, “gossip”, “Shep Messing’s mustache” and “The Biggest Midget in the Game”. The Offside Rules’ tagline is currently “spilling red wine on soccer’s social fabric since 2007.”

MLS website -- Under New Management

It’s fair to say SF will have to tone down this act for MLS.net to spare Don Garber an early coronary, but we can expect content that might not put us to sleep to appear on the new site. Design-wise, MLS have also taken on Memphis-based web consultancy firm RocketFuel to advise them during the transition, a firm which helped the NHL launch an improved site last year.  Presumably, we will see a much cleaner design — the fresher Seattle and DC United sites have set a pace for the league internally with this already. Such a shift would be of considerable benefit to MLS’ online identity. Having a site that was long a watered down cousin of its major summer sports competitor, MLB, hardly differentiated MLS’ identity in the sports marketplace.

But beyond MLS itself, the league sees is making a significant investment in its own online subsidiary to generate significant revenue “through the syndication of content and creation of new subscription products, but also by developing an infrastructure to support other soccer sites and soccer properties”, according to the Sports Business Journal. MLS isn’t investing all this money and taking this risk just for its own site; the idea is, just like with its profitable marketing arm Soccer United Marketing, to make money from the sport’s growth as a whole in the United States. SUM has been crucial to the survival of the league, as one of the few profitable entities attached to MLS.

As MLS President Mark Abbott told the SBJ, “The thing that led us to the creation of Soccer United Marketing in the first place was the recognition of a broad soccer opportunity in the United States beyond Major League Soccer. The same is true in the digital area. There’s lots of opportunity for us to be involved in all aspects of the sport here, and that’s something that’s part of the strategy.”

It’ll be fascinating to see if this risky but worthwhile venture works out to be similarly successful, in what could be a win-win for MLS fans.

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.

The Golden Age? Growing Old With the Game

The Golden Age

Why do our bodies age?  Perhaps surprisingly, scientists are not entirely sure.  Certainly there would be many advantages both to the individual and to the species if the human lifespan could accumulate experiences in one long, linear progression towards perfection.  Sadly, the window for the body’s chance at perfection is fleeting.  And nowhere is this more evident than on the football pitch.

Why, at only 35, will David Beckham be lucky if he is able to contribute his years of experience to England next summer in South Africa?  Why were MLS fans forced to watch Claudio Reyna fall apart in front of our eyes, when he once represented so much that could be good about American soccer? Why do both professionals and week-end warriors have to suffer through the indignities of playing the game through a long, slow, and tormenting decline?

These are the types of questions that are subtly raised—but not addressed—by a new documentary, currently making the rounds of American public television, about “The Golden Age” over-40 league for teams of Latin American immigrants in Corona Park New York (though advertised as starting September 20th, and available online for streaming, my local public television station is first showing it over the air on Tuesday, September 29th).

The documentary actually answers few questions of any sort; in a quick-cut hour exploring the competitive lives of over-40 players and soccer in the Latin American countries they call home, the documentary takes on many different potential story lines without fully exploring any one.  But it does offer alluring pictures of the game (variations of which are also available on a pretty web-site for the film), and raises worthwhile questions about what the game means at different points in the world and different points in the life-course.

I suspect the questions raised for me, but not by the filmmakers, in “The Golden Age” are largely a product of where I am in my own relationship with the game: on the psychologically confusing downside of an undistinguished over-30 league career itself designed in some part with the vain hope of briefly reliving a few peak moments I had at age 21.  During my aging seasons I find myself too often frustrated with an inability to receive a quite decent pass, too often debating referees for their reasonable judgment call, too often exchanging words with an opponent (or teammate) in a sorry dance of displaced disappointment.  But I also often enough find myself in moments that renew my love of the game, and I suspect I am not alone in hoping that those moments mean the game still has something to offer me as I age.

The Film

“The Golden Age” is the product of efforts between a rather eclectic group; the television version credits Latino Public Broadcasting as a producer, the narrator is actor Edward James Olmos, the “director/cinematographer” is Scott Duncan (who counts Survivor, along with a number of sports documentaries, among his many works), and the “director/producer” is Phil Tuckett who has had a long career making promotional films for professional American football.  On “The Golden Age” web-site it notes that Duncan and Tuckett met while working for NFL films—which goes a long way in explaining the style of the documentary (the web-site also notes in Tuckett’s bio that there is a 90 minute “feature length production” of the Golden Age—suggesting that at around 55 minutes the public television version is significantly abbreviated).

NFL Films

For an American kid such as myself the documentary style of NFL films was a foundational part of my youthful engagement with sports media.  NFL films productions combine lush movie-style cinematography, detailed use of slow motion scenes that elongate the intensity of athletic movement, measured baritone narration, and story lines that implicitly validate sports as a crucible for determining merit.  As a 16 year-old, the films served to make me feel as though the 1988 season of the Buffalo Bills mattered.  But, of course, it didn’t.  And while I appreciate Duncan and Tuckett applying their talents to global game, it is not always clear that the soccer they focus on here matters much either.

The premise of “The Golden Age” is that the Corona Park over-40 league is a hidden gem of sporting prowess, a league comprised of “a majority of former professionals” who are heroes in places like Paraguay, Ecuador, Chile, and Columbia.  As such, in addition to documenting the league, the film takes short jaunts to Latin America in an effort to explore the global meanings of the game.  The claim at the start of the documentary is that while soccer is the world’s most popular game in all corners, “true passion for the game burns brightest in Latin America.”  Although that is a claim for which I’d like to see the evidence, it is plausible enough to pass.

While there may well be many formerly great players in the Golden Age league (a New York Times article on the league identifies at least one former New York Cosmos player from Paraguay who was an MVP of the NASL in the good old days), the case for their current sporting prowess is not visually convincing.  The players on display in the documentary are better emblems for the aging process than for athletic glory.  The receding hairlines, expanding bellies, and gnarled limbs that plague most of us as we age are on vivid display.

Though the documentary tries to steer the viewer’s attention elsewhere, the inevitable and dramatic decline of even the most gifted body is what I found particularly jarring.  It brought to mind a familiar but disturbing feeling that I most recently experienced with the discordance of Paul Gascoigne in my memory and his visage at Bobby Robson’s funeral.  It would be pleasant if our sporting heroes stayed forever young.  But it is more interesting that they do not.

In the season documented by “The Golden Age” most of what I found interesting revolved around how the game goes wrong.  We learn about and see players who are hanging on by sheer dint of cortisone, unseemly fighting resulting in team expulsions (explained away  with “add team and country loyalties [to competition] and you have a volitale mix”), the seemingly obligatory complaints that the standard of refereeing is not up to the standards of the players (according to the players), the faking of injuries, off-field politics that lead to a late-season boycott of the league, and a general sense that aging and competition create much more in the way of anger than in the way of glory.  Though the film tries to argue otherwise, I couldn’t help but feel a bit sad at how we cannot let go.

Photo via Golden Age website

Photo via Golden Age website

More inspiring, but unfortunately less detailed, are the interspersed scenes of player homelands: the film spends a few minutes each in Santiago, Paraguay, Cuenca Ecuador, and Tumaco Columbia.  The scenery at the Colo Colo game in Santiago is visually stunning— Estadio Monumental is surrounded by snowcapped mountains and (half) filled with hardcore fans portrayed in the same slow-motion glory as their team.  In Cuenca we watch bits of what seems to be a local all-night futsal tournament described as “the poor man’s world cup,” while in Tumaco we see beach soccer explained as a font for the talents of that city (in one amusing scene a Golden Age player describes Tumaco matter-of-factly as “the home of Willington Ortiz” as if any American public television viewer must know of “El Viejo Willy“).

The scenes from Paraguay are strangely generic, just pretty pictures of what could be rural life anywhere the world.  And overall these attempts to use the Golden Age league as a window to the world of Latin American football are too brief and generic to be much more than pretty pictures (though they are very pretty indeed).  So there is not much that is distinctive here about the game in Latin America, but there is something distinctive about the concept of aging as part of that game.

Theories of aging

In the film’s effort to validate the sporting prowess of the Golden Age league it presents several players making the argument that as they have aged their experience and savvy has allowed them to compensate for their declining speed and agility.  In his dramatic voice-over, Edward James Olmos tells us that for these players “skill and instinct compensate for weakness of the flesh.”  If only that were true.

The reality is that as much as we would like to believe that experience and knowledge matter, soccer is very much a game of the flesh.  With rare exception, success on the field is primarily about simple physical ability.  Lionel Messi is a rich young man because his balance, acceleration, and coordination allow him to do things with the ball that others cannot.  Conor Casey leads the MLS in scoring because—relatively speaking—he is big, strong, and fast.  The winning teams in my over-30 league almost always have one or two guys that are simply quicker than anyone else.

Even a player like Paolo Maldini, who seemed to temporarily defy aging by relying on tactical sophistication and pedigree, was an undeniable physical specimen.  At 39 his body was still made for the game in a way that no left back for the US may ever be.  But aging still got the best of him.

Paolo Maldini

The average age of players in top European leagues is 25.8 years, and does not vary much across the different leagues regardless of style of play.  As such, that is probably a reasonable estimate of when our body is at its peak capacity—though there is no question that experience and savvy can mean that peak playing ability persists for several additional years.  But why does the game become so much more difficult after one’s twenties?

Scientists do know what happens as we age; at a basic level, cells die and organs wear down.  But what triggers that process, and why does the decline only become noticeable after young adulthood?  It may be partially that our bodies just get over-used, and stop being able to repair themselves.  But then why would Maldini have been able to maintain himself after somewhere around 800 appearances for AC Milan and Italy while I suffered dramatically from a mere 60 or so for the Cincinnati Cheetahs, the Mid-Michigan Bucks, and UFC Malawi?

The other explanation is that aging is related to evolutionary adaptations written into our genes.  Though it is not entirely clear why this would be the case, the general idea is that from an evolutionary perspective our goal is simply to reproduce our genes.  Once we’ve had a chance to do that by having children, it doesn’t much matter what happens to us anymore.  Once Cesare Maldini had little Paulo, his body’s work was mostly done and he could move on to manage Paraguay with a clear unconscious.

Ultimately, however, explanations for the aging of the body and the wasting of footballing brilliance on the young remains just theory.  One scholar of aging even cautions: “remember to treat theories of aging like you would treat a girlfriend (or boyfriend): love them, spend time with them, respect them, but always be on the lookout for a younger, more exciting theory.”  I’m not sure I like that metaphor, so perhaps a soccer metaphor is more appropriate here: treat theories of aging like you would treat your favorite football club: love them, spend time with them, respect them, but always be on the lookout for a better team (particularly if your old club gets bought by greedy American capitalists perceived to have no soul for the game).

The inevitable decline

Overall, although it seems cruel and unnecessary for the body to decline, it does make the game more of a challenge.  Teams must constantly re-invent themselves, and players must constantly negotiate the role of the game in relation to their bodies and their lives.  This negotiation is on poignant display through the most interesting character in “The Golden Age,” a Paraguayan named Rigaberto Taberas who plays for Defensores Chaco (presumably named for the national stadium in Asunción).

After an amusing scene in which Taberas is identified as the master of the strategic fake injury, he is interviewed in Spanish at a construction site where he works.  The interviewer, identified in the film as Carlos Corntinas—a journalist working on a book about soccer and Latin America, genially asks Taberas about how much longer he will be able to keep playing.  The question, by prompting the idea of having to stop playing, creates a dramatic silence.  Taberas pauses, unable to respond.  His eyes quietly well with tears.

Though “The Golden Age” uses a disputed championship game for the over-40 league as its climactic moment, for me the important narrative embedded in the film is about such emotions.  The inevitability of aging, along with the meaning the game engenders, creates a sad paradox: when you are old enough to start understanding what it all means, you also must confront your body’s betrayal.

The players in the Golden Age league are not very good anymore, and the movie does not work when it tries to portray them as footballers.  But the players in the Golden Age league are engaged in a process that we all must confront, and for me the movie was worthwhile for its somewhat depressing perspective on that process.  It reminded me that for all my frustrations with my own aging on the field, for all my impulses to yell and criticize and protest, my challenge now is to accept my limitations gracefully.  And in the final appraisal that is similar to how I feel about “The Golden Age” as a film: somewhat limited, but with moments of grace.

Andrew Guest writes weekly for Pitch Invasion. He is an academic social scientist and soccer addict living in Portland, Oregon. Having worked (and played) in Malawi and Angola, he has a particular interest in Africa. He can be contacted at drewguest (at) hotmail.com.

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?

The Premier League and Internet Streams

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Here in the U.S., followers of the mighty MLS have a marvelous option that negates the need to go fishing for illegal internet streams to watch games — the league offers an affordable (only $20 for the season), high-quality (up to 800k) stream on their website.

Now, if we scoff and say MLS is small-time, consider that Major League Baseball has an even better internet broadcasting set-up — which has proven to be enormously profitable for the league, with over 500,000 fans forking out $110 for the season, and even offering streaming to the iPhone.

The Premier League?  All it offers are lawsuits.

Yet somehow, the Premier League has managed to convince Guardian journalist Owen Gibson that its entire business model is under threat from all those nasty internet sharks out there feeding the curious desire of fans to watch live games and highlights.

When Chelsea kick off the Premier League season against Hull City on Saturday, they will be watched not just by thousands in the stadium and millions more who have paid to watch live on TV, but by up to 1.5m viewers around the world tuning in for nothing via their PCs.

Collectively they could one day threaten the entire business model of the Premier League, one that has driven its growth over the past 17 years, and they are the reason why it is fighting furiously behind the scenes at home and abroad to seize back the initiative.

In a piece (at least the first two thirds of it) that could have been written by the Premier League’s PR department, Gibson laments the threat to the league’s business model from illegal internet streams.

Gibson reports that “They have taken a twin track response: hunting down and trying to close the sites responsible, while lobbying government for tighter copyright controls.”

From this, he concludes that “The Premier League has been determined not to repeat the mistakes of the music industry, which was slow to react.” Gibson writes. Really?  By cracking down on YouTube video highlights and not providing an alternative itself, the Premier League appears to be following exactly the same draconian approach that made the music industry look like a dinosaur. Where is the innovation from them to feed fans games and highlights?

Gibson fails to separate between the three different issues of live streams domestically, live streams overseas, and video highlights. The latter two ought to be comparatively easy to handle, something other major leagues have managed to do.

At the end of the piece, Gibson finally gets to this point, though is careful to put the criticism in the mouths of others.

While US rights owners, including MLB, NFL and NHL, have been able to build lucrative online businesses around their rights, the need for the Premier League to maintain the model that has kept Sky’s billions rolling in has made it more conservative. This, according to some critics, could leave them trying to hold back the tide – desperately trying to protect a business based on selling exclusive live rights while failing to come up with a new one for the digital age.

Bingo! “Some critics” are right!  While it’s true the balance of power between league and clubs is not the same in the Premier League and Major League Baseball (and certainly not in Major League Soccer), it’s severely backwards of the Premier League not to have developed any kind of a central video center for any of their content either for live action or post-game highlights.

Suing Youtube or Justin.tv does not solve the problem.

Looking for Eric: Stories of Fans & Footballers

Much of Robbie Fowler’s autobiography is boring. The story of this talented mischief-maker (such as the infamous “snorting” the touchline incident) doesn’t grab me. I normally love reading anything football-related – tell-alls, player biographies, histories, theories, economic manifestos, coaching manuals – whatever.

There is no story quite so dull, however, as that of the totally confident person. Fowler and his writer plainly struggled to find those rare moments in his life when he’s been unsure of himself. That uncertainty is confined to anxiety in those months he waited to be called up from Liverpool reserves. Even then, the worry stemmed not from doubt about his ability or concern about if he’d make it. It was more impatience as to when.

Amazingly, when things go “tits up” for him at Liverpool, and as he rides the bench for much of his later career, his confidence in his own ability never seems to waver.  He never questions himself, and has no room for regret. The book (a favorite for Liverpool fans) is more interesting for the inside peek into club politics than it is for Fowler himself. A lack of uncertainly is a part of Fowler’s identity and was a big part of his effectiveness as a player. But in a narrator this quality leaves me cold.

Robbie Fowler

As a genre, player biography is hard. The story of most professional footballers is hampered by the fact that they’ve done nothing else but play the game, and have little to talk about besides either their achievements on the field – with which we are already familiar – or how they blew their fortune, or dealt with addiction, scandal, etc. It’s the rare professional player who actually has a story. Or has the writerly flair it takes to make poetry from the day-to-day life of a footballer as did Eamon Dunphy in his memoir Only A Game?

His book tracks a disastrous year playing for Millwall – he drifts downward from a member of the squad to the reserves, and battles with resentment.  He describes the ordinary pleasures of training, of partnerships with players, and the challenge of professional football in which the joy one takes from playing is always checked by anxiety about not playing – in reading this book, one realizes that this experience is far more characteristic of professional life than the glory of scoring a goal at Wembley. Dunphy was a great writer then, and went on of course to enjoy a career as a journalist.

A few players have stories that diverge from the script to tell us something important. Paul Canoville’s Black and Blue was named “Best Autobiography” at the British Sports Books Awards in the spring. Canoville was Chelsea’s first black player — and this is no story about triumph over adversity. He recounts the story of the racist abuse he took from fans, and, more compellingly, he describes the team’s inability to respond to it or to know how to support him. The story of his development as a player and his amazing social life (his relationships, his many children, his love for the London music scene) is woven into a nuanced exploration of what it was like to find yourself a living lightening rod. The book also confronts his battle with addiction and then cancer without turning those stories into cliché.  It is a compelling read that speaks to anyone who has been subjected to discrimination — and it’s a sobering lesson about the passivity of those who bear witness to it and do nothing. It is also a straightforward account of a difficult life — one marked as much by uncertainty as by determination. It offers no real happy ending, no closure, just the rough contours of an actual life.

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This brings me to Ken Loach’s much anticipated Looking for Eric – because in many ways, this film is about what we look for, as fans, from the players we adore.  Looking for Eric opens with a crash. The hero of the film is a depressed postman, Eric Bishop, living a very depressing life in depressing Manchester. Eric takes his car the wrong way around a roundabout. He does this just after seeing his ex-wife across the street (he’s too shy and hurt to cross over and talk to her, too wracked by guilt and anxiety, and so even though she’s waiting for him, he skulks away). Lilly is the love of his life, and he walked out on her without explanation years ago. He is still haunted, however, by his love for her and by hers for him and he stunted by this fact. His friends are worried about him — the crash makes an urgent crisis out of his slow descent, and draws them together around the project of helping him.

One of these stand-up guys is a fan of pop psychology, and initiates a series of gentle interventions. He asks the group of friends to indulge him in an exercise — to first imagine looking at yourself through the eyes of someone who loves you unconditionally, and then imagine looking out at the world through the eyes of someone you admire.  Eric Bishop chooses, as his fantasy point-of-view, Eric Cantona.

Turns out, the last time Eric remembers being happy was years earlier at a match with his friends watching Cantona play. Fandom and football play an important part in this film as the one place where the men are given permission to be themselves, to shout, scream, to “sing together” and laugh. It seems to be the one place where Eric gave himself permission to feel anything, in fact.  (And on this topic, the film is brilliant.)

lookingforeric

This lays the foundation for the film’s turn — at a particularly low moment, Eric hallucinates Cantona in his living room, and the imaginary Cantona (played of course by le vrai) proceeds to keep company with our melancholy postman and, in essence, coach him back to life. This coaching centers almost exclusively on getting himself back in communication with Lilly, his ex-wife. (“I like this woman,” Cantona says, “she’s got balls.”)

Though organized around the reparation of his relationship with his wife, this film is about really about men. Eric’s problem, Loach seems to suggest, is as much with the men in his life as it is with women. The film offers a flashback to explain: At a family gathering celebrating the christening of Lily & Eric’s baby, his father gets unnerved watching Lilly blow kisses to his son. “That won’t last long,” he says, as he launches into a nasty tirade about the dead-end trap of marriage and family. In this bullying (expressed as a deep hostility towards women) we get a glimpse of the hard-edged working class masculinity that is closer to Loach’s topic. Even as Eric is repulsed by this, and even as it’s clear this isn’t the kind of man he wants to be, the whole scenario pushes him away. His answer is to run away from it all and not talk about it. (At the film’s start, he can’t even say Lilly’s name.)

d

Thus the friendship with Cantona — Eric needs a father/brother/friend to lead him out of the woods. And so Cantona encourages Eric turn to his friends to help him through a crisis involving one of his step sons. Talking about his life, his feelings, and his problems has been, up to this point, unimaginable for him. Cantona helps Eric to realize his potential by teaching him to “believe in your teammates, because without that we are lost.” The film is packed with Cantona’s gnomic wisdom, “good lessons” like this and has a wildly optimistic ending. It’s a feel-good bromance with great footage highlighting Cantona’s career. (The French magazine So Foot quite rightly complained, though, that some of this footage feels like it’s there for those audience members who don’t know who Cantona is, or are not aware of the special fondness that Man U fans feel for him.)

I wanted to love it, but this “feel good” ending left me feeling let down. The film ultimately offers a romantic and facile solution to a very difficult situation. Eric conjures Cantona because he needs some of Cantona’s confidence. You can see that confidence in Canonta’s posture -– he strides through the film with chest thrust out like the French rooster. Eric, on the other hand, is skinny, pale, sits with his chest curled around itself, is rumpled and withdrawn. As an audience member I felt I was supposed to root for Eric to “sort himself out” but the fact of the matter is, as a person, I didn’t buy it.  That’s the point at which the film got boring.  I don’t buy that life is like football, and if you can just be “confident” the answers to big questions –- about what one wants, how to repair what’s broken in your life, etc. –- will magically appear. Considering these three texts together, Fowler’s and Cantonville’s autobiographies, and Loach’s “Looking for Eric,” I find myself thinking that sometimes “confidence” is just the uncomplicated psychology of someone who has never really kept company with failure.

At the Movies: Rudo y Cursi

Rudo y Cursi

Rudo y Cursi

Rudo y Cursi, Carlos Cuarón’s comedy starring Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna is as much about soccer as Footballer’s Wives is. It is less a sports film than a parody of fútbol culture – of everything that the game produces around itself.

But where the British television series marries the drama of the spoiled and fabulously rich characters who grab headlines across the world to the cheesy glamor of a nightime soap like Dallas, the film by the writer of Y tu mamá también marries the texture of ordinary fútbol culture (the weekend warriors, the alternately bored and enthralled cantina audience, the throbbing stands, the pipe dreams of day laborers) to the low-tech histrionics of a telenovela like María la del Barrio.

To everyone’s credit, neither Luna nor Garcia Bernal try to pass themselves off as “real” footballers. The film opens with Tato “Cursi” (Garcia Bernal) taking a penalty against his brother, keeper Beto “Rudo” (Luna). There is no attempt to make this confrontation look like a face off between athletic giants.

The only time we see them acting like wizards on the ball is in obviously manipulated video footage which appears on screen when a character watches them on television. I swear one clip of Cursi dribbling past a tight cluster of defenders looks like a well worn bit from a Maradona highlight reel, and Rudo is shown playing with the sure hands of Petr Cech.

Throughout the film, the game is studiously kept off-camera – often with great comic effect. When Cursi takes the field for his try-out with a pro team the camera stays on the scout and the coach, who negotiate the coach’s cut from the touchline. The back end of the goal’s net can be seen on the margins of the screen, bulging again and again with the ball as Cursi, completely off-screen, scores at will. When we do glimpse Luna and Bernal playing on television, it’s so obviously fake that it’s hilarious. Cuarón’s handling of the sport spectacle points to our readiness to believe that this aging wannabe pop star and his brother, raised on and harvested from a banana plantation, can play for a professional team.

Although some viewers might be annoyed by film’s refusal to pretend that Luna or Bernal can actually play like professionals, this very thing – the amateurishness, the ordinariness of the football playing we do see – is what actually made the film more than a simple comedy.

It is no accident that the film ends with the scout (who narrates it) returning to the dusty fields of no-place, where beat-up amateurs are playing. This – the scrappy patch of dirt on which people play after working themselves to the bone – is really where the film’s heart is located. This space of free play is exactly what everyone is really after, in one sense of another.
rudo-y-cursi

After the screening, I asked Cuarón to speak a little about the games he plays with Luna & Bernal and what positons they play – I read somewhere that they’ve had a long standing friendly kickabout. He claimed that they all seem to have pretenses to being strikers. Cuarón asserted he was the only one of the three to have any such talent.

I wanted to ask a more serious question, but a promotional screening hardly seemed the right place to explore the following: One of the film’s subplots has Rudo’s wife working as a distributor for Wonderlife (an Herbalife-like company). This is obviously a dig at Jorge Vergara, the owner of Chivas and president of Omnilife, the Mexican Herbalife. (Vergara, it should be said, was one of the producers of Y tu mamá tabién.) This plotline is plainly intended to comment on this kind of exploitation of the desires of the working poor for economic independence. (This site – in Spanish – surveys those moments in the film which take on the ‘multinivel’ scheme.) At the screening in Los Angeles, I wondered if Cuarón was at all aware of the presence of these multi-level marketing companies in professional soccer in the US, and Herbalife’s involvement with AYSO (see my post on Amway’s sponsorship of the LA Sol). In those pacts made between the companies that own US soccer and their most visible sponsors in this region, we see a cynical avowal of the kind of money to be made off of the soccer fans persistently ignored by mainstream media.

As funny as Rudo y Cursi is, it cuts awfully close to the bone in its parody of the pipe dreams of the disempowered. (Oh, the strained laughter in the Los Angeles audience at Cursi’s first articulation of his desire to go to Texas – where he knows a guy working at a radio station – so he can be a pop star. It’s hard to pretend sophistication in relation to such dreams when you are literally two blocks from the Capitol Records building. And just down the street from Scientology’s sprawling campus.)

Rudo y Cursi (which translates roughly as “tough and corny”) doesn’t pretend that the brothers’ fantasies of easy money are anything but avenues of exploitation. These dreams allow them to be hooked into the schemes of people just slightly higher up on the foodchain, like the “scout” who brings the brothers to Mexico City and plugs them into professional teams where more people can take a cut of their pay. (The film implicitly draws a parallel between this kind of corruption in soccer business and the multinivel Wonderlife.)

Characters dream of making millions playing soccer, of becoming pop stars, or, more modestly, of “owning your own business” (the dream of Rudo’s wife when she signs on as a Wonderlife rep). Nibbling at the edges of the comedy of Rudo y Cursi is the grim reality of precarious living, from which these day dreams provide at least an illusory scrap of relief. On this point Rudo y Cursi approaches satire – no one gets off easy in this story except for the Narco criminal, who swoops in to save the day by marrying Rudo y Cursi’s sister, and providing their mother with the beachfront mansion her feckless sons could never manage to build for her.

Stay tuned for post number two on this film – in which I tackle the film’s homosocial/homoerotics.

Jennifer Doyle writes the blog From A Left Wing: Ruminations on the Game From an Unlikely Player and Fan.

North American Television Coverage of International Soccer

June 5th 2002 should be remembered as a milestone for American soccer. During the opening round of the World Cup in Korea/Japan, an unfavored USA took on the Portuguese ‘Golden Generation’ featuring Luis Figo, Manuel Rui Costa, and Pedro Pauleta, and stunned them with three goals in the first half to which Portugal could only answer twice. As the full-time whistle blew for 3-2, it seemed that America could confidently take on the best European football had to offer.

Yet if you ask most Americans about this victory, even some seasoned footy fans, they will likely shrug at you in indifference. The reason might have something to do with ESPN’s coverage of the 2002 World Cup.

ESPN Drops the Ball

As many football purists are loathe to admit, the popular perception of a soccer match is often shaped by its representation on television. While 60,000 fans look on in the stadium, many millions more are at the mercy of two voices naming names from an isolated box hovering over the pitch, while camera crews provide intimately detailed angles of the on-field action revealing what live onlookers can only imagine. We might naively believe that the football beamed in to our homes is unsullied by its mode of presentation on TV, but to paraphrase fellow Canadian Marshall McCluhan “the medium is the football.”

USA 3, Portugal 2 should be proudly remembered in America, but instead, ESPN’s inept, uninformed and jingoistic coverage of the event alienated seasoned soccer fans even as it confused newcomers to the game. Ice hockey references were unnaturally grafted onto the action by Jack Edwards, current play-by-play announcer for the Boston Bruins, who shouted, “he shoots, SCORES!” when O’Brien knocked in the opening goal. By the time Brian McBride bagged USA’s third, Edwards, with no hint of irony, remarked in full voice, “Mine eyes have seen the glory!”

This unnatural, flag-waving attempt to Americanize a game that already had a distinct national history (including a healthy, St. Louis-based league interest prior to 1930 and the Miracle on Grass in 1950) did nothing to preserve its autonomy or capture its unique American flavor. Viewers new to soccer were left with the image of a very slow hockey game played on a big grass rink, while Edward’s unrelenting patriotic exhortations underlined that the match was worth watching only to witness the USA beat the rest of the world at their own game.

Certainly the political climate, one year after 9/11 and in the midst of the early build-up to the second Iraq war, may have played a role in EPSN’s patriotic approach. America was on the path to increasing isolation from her international neighbours; a bit of jingoism at the world’s most followed sporting tournament was in keeping in the spirit of the moment, even as it countered ESPN’s stated goal to popularize the game itself.

ESPN camera

Getting it Right

Flash-forward six years to ESPN’s coverage of Euro 2008. Instead of Jack Edwards, we had two seasoned British commentators, Adrian Healey and Derek Rae, in addition to colour commentator Andy Gray, a voice familiar to viewers of Sky Sports. ESPN also offered live, uninterrupted coverage of every game from start to finish. No ads for Ford suddenly covering half the screen during the attacking build-up play, no giant banners appearing from nowhere to advertise some horrific sitcom to air later that night, no tape delay, and no presenter trying to serve as interpreter for an audience presumed not to know or care about the sport.

Many have remarked on the significance of this change from previous years, singling out ESPN’s radical decision to dedicate daily, live coverage to an all-European tournament. The Globe and Mail’s John Doyle called it nothing less than ‘revolutionary,’ and Robert Weintraub’s excellent summary forcefully concluded that ESPN’s coverage will be the first step in “…clearing out the morons who feel it necessary to rip what they don’t understand by exposing them to what is great about the sport.” But could network television coverage alone be enough to move the sport from the perceived left-wing elitist fringe and into the American mainstream? The answer might lie just north of the border.

Back in April 2007, much ballyhoo was made by liberal media outlets of Toronto FC’s perceived popularity among the city’s many first and second-generation immigrants. While this had a nice ring to it in Toronto’s multicultural capital, it had no basis in fact. In truth, the twenty and thirty-somethings that filled the stands at BMO Field had been brought up on a local diet of live English, Italian, German and Spanish league football available on Canadian basic cable via European feeds. Stations like Sportsnet, TSN and Telelatino broadcast live matches every Saturday and Sunday in the days before the Sports Channel Packages would force the viewer to make a conscious decision to add soccer to his or her dial. Additionally, no attempt was made to ‘package’ the games for a North American audience; it was understood the matchers were being watched by old-Europe ex-pats longing for a taste of ‘back home.’ Little did they know, younger viewers were busy discovering the unadorned European game for themselves.

If ESPN 1 were to pick up more regular European and South American league matches to show live on weekends, available without commercial interruption and presented by knowledgeable veterans of the game in the same vein as their coverage of Euro 2008, it might do more for the game in America than the NASL, the MLS, and the USA’s success in the next World Cup ever could. Attendances at Major League Soccer games might grow once idle channel flippers new to the game get a taste of the spectacle of club football on mainstream American television (ignoring for now its many flaws, commercial or otherwise).

Or not. We’ve heard this talk before, and it’s possible the spectre of the ‘American exception’ may always hang over the global game, but Americans already in love with soccer should at least thank John Skipper’s ESPN for finally giving it the television coverage it deserves.

Inside Chelsea’s Propaganda Machine

‘This must be your dream job, I bet your dad must be really proud of you,’ is the first thing that almost everyone said to me after they found out that I was working as a scribe for Chelsea Football Club’s official publications. To nodding heads and blank stares I’d point out that the money was terrible, the people above me had no idea what the fans wanted from their publication, didn’t care what they had to say and had less of an idea of what made a good magazine, and that the stifling lack of creativity was not doing my writing or my career any good. The response was the same almost every time; ‘Still, Chelsea eh? Must be your dream job. And what happened with Mourinho eh? You must know something. Go on, tell us.’

Chelsea Magazine

It’s easy to see why people would think that working within the club you’ve passionately supported for the best part of 15 years would be the sort of job that would make your family proud, especially if they’re near enough all Chelsea fans, but the reality of the job is something very different indeed.

The first thing to bear in mind is that the magazine staff didn’t actually work for Chelsea at all, in that we weren’t paid by the club. In fact we were employed by a publishing house who was contracted to produce all Chelsea publications, including the Chelsea magazine and programme, the yearbook, media guide, staff newsletter, youth cup programmes and anything else that the club decided we were doing, usually at the last minute.

At the same time, the publishing house had a contract with the Football League that we had to fulfil, which meant that in the week leading up to the Carling Cup final I was sub-editing a truly appalling Henry Winter article on Joe Cole for the programme that began with this opening gambit; ‘If the ball could talk, it would flirt with Joe Cole.’ I don’t know about that myself, but I’m sure the ball wouldn’t flutter his eyelashes in quite the same coquettish fashion as loverman here. Amusingly it was subsequently revealed in The Independent that he was so outraged by my ‘censoring’ of his article that he demanded that his name be taken off it. I can imagine the Nazi look-a-like bashing his leather-gloved hands on his desk in piss-boiling Fuhrery, but if anything he owes me a pint for making his love letter readable.

The other problem with having two bosses is that while we were based in the same offices as the rest of the media department in the Shed End, we were only part of the ‘Chelsea Family’ when it suited them. For instance, if there was a piece of extraneous marketing bollocks that was needed to be done, it was plonked on our desks in the middle of a double deadline day, but when it came to tickets for the Champions League final, which the club was paying to take staff out to, we got; ‘ooh, sorry, you’re not Chelsea employees. You can’t come.’ As it happens the club reversed their decision, only for the mag staff to be told that they had to stay in the UK so they could produce all three play-off final programmes. Thankfully I had left by this point and made my own plans to Moscow.

Consequently there was a feeling of detachment from what was going on at the club and this translated into the work that we were doing for them. It didn’t help that there was practically no creativity or freedom of expression in almost any of the stuff we wrote. The head of editorial, who checked the pages before they went to print but would frequently add in pieces of atrocious grammar and unnecessary hyphens – central-defender anyone? – would so often hamper the process by making the most pathetic changes to copy, so much so that anything at all that could be considered criticism of the club or players was scrubbed out. Even in match reports players were ‘unlucky’ to miss from two yards out and almost any mention of red or yellow cards was strictly forbidden, let alone diving or incessant barracking of referees.

The letters pages, which had been a great source of dialogue between the club and supporters in Bridge News and Onside, the scruffier but much more informative magazines that preceded the shiny and glossy newer publications, became little more than propaganda sheets, informing its audience how great Chelsea were in every way. It was a strategy that led to an awful lot of correspondence ‘arriving by stork’.

Don’t even get me started on our style sheet, that read; ‘Inter Milan not Inter or Internazionale’ and ‘Sporting Lisbon not Sporting or Sporting Club De Portugal,’ or the time we were told not to run a story about a run in aid of Cancer Research because they weren’t CLIC Sargent (Chelsea’s official charity partner no less) and therefore a ‘rival cancer charity.

Because of all this what Chelsea produces is a sanitised product that patronises its audience and discourages discourse with supporters, something that I had heard numerous times before I joined and something that I quickly found out wasn’t a concern for the club. They don’t care if the supporters like it or not, as long as they can try and sell the latest toss from Samsung (the Tech page, that only featured reviews of products from club-affiliated companies, was a particularly shameless example of this) or the Megastore. Reading it gives you an idea of how much the club has changed in the last five years; instead of talking to its existing supporters directly they’re trying to lure new fans with big pictures of star players as part of their global strategy. It’s a disconcerting but all too predictable shift in priorities.

The most extreme example of this was Jose Mourinho’s departure from the club. That day I had to dodge numerous TV and radio crews on the way to the ground, but once we made it into our office it was almost as if nothing had happened. We were completely insulated from anything that was going on outside, any questions about what had happened were blanked, with our only communication coming via the official club press release. My phone was ringing off the hook with people wanting to know what was going on, but if anything I had less idea than them – at least they could see what the news was reporting. Essentially we were told by the club: ‘shut up, you don’t need to know what happened. Oh and can you beef up Avram Grant’s CV for us? He’s the new manager. Cheers.’

So while I felt more like a corporate communications copywriter than a journalist, I did get an insight into the level of hubris that infests the club; what’s known as the ‘Chelsea Bubble’ surrounds the media department, shielding its inhabitants from the outside world and sucking the sense from them, as well as bouncing on all creativity and individual thought like a bad The Prisoner parody (by wilson at testsforge). To give you an idea of just how seriously they take themselves, they sent round an email to all employees about the new head of media that read;

‘I am delighted to announce that Steve Atkins will be joining the club as Head of Media [note the capping up of job titles] in June…
‘Steve is currently Deputy Press Secretary at the British Embassy in Washington…
‘Steve will be a fantastic addition to our team as he brings with him a wealth of experience from Washington dealing with complicated issues and the most high profile personalities at a strategic, pro-active and reactive daily media level. That makes him ideal for Chelsea where we face our own daily and longer term challenges.’ [Football club in loss of perspective non-shock.]

What on earth they need someone who has dealt with the international press and politics on the world stage to tell Martin Samuel that he needs to keep his half man, half wookie trap shut and that no Brian Woolnough, you can’t ask about Player X’s kiss-and-tell scandal is something only they can answer. Suffice to say we weren’t allowed to ask.

So there you have it; working for your club can be a pretty disillusioning experience, especially if your club is one that has become more of a corporate brand than a football club and drifting further away from its core support with each passing season as a result. Oh and before you ask, no I really don’t know what happened with Mourinho. Ask Brian Woolnough.


The Mouse that Scored

Following on from this entry anticipating the release of “Kicken für die Krone” (English title “The Mouse that Scored”) in cinemas this week, film-maker Sigvard Wohlwend reflects on his time with the Liechtenstein national team and the reaction to his and co-director Sebastian Frommelt’s film.

The charm of football documentaries is the attention to characters and stories beyond the confines of the pitch. Context is king and if there was an epitaph to Liechtenstein’s Euro2008 qualification campaign it would be ‘daring to achieve’. Sigvard Wohlwend appreciates this struggle in the creation of his film which premiered on Easter Monday in Vaduz and featured at the 11mm football film festival in Berlin.

“We actually did not have much time to think too much about in advance whether we would please the audience or not, because [time was] very tight in post production. We had the first copy available 11 hours before the very first media screening. What we wanted to create was a film about a football team, which Sebastian and I also would like to watch. Neither of us are hard core footballers or football fans. So we approached the project from a more cinematic point-of-view and less from a football view. But according to the comments we’ve had, the footballers and the fans are very happy with it.”

Franz Burgmeier und Peter Jehle (rechts) freuen sich über den sensationellen 3:0-Sieg gegen Island. Szene aus dem Film

It is not surprising that Wohlwend is anxious to gauge the reaction of the players. As a group they are collectively known as minnows and they are scarcely singled out for praise or even criticism.

“The players are very pleased that somebody has taken the time to portray their little squad, which normally doesn’t get too much attention. For them it is very valuable to show within Liechtenstein, how serious they work with this project and of course they are happy to get some visibility.”

Such seriousness is abundant within the tiny principality. There are obvious issues of national identity and without a league system the national team provides a rare opportunity to express what it means to be Liechtensteiner. This context absorbs the story and provides an accessible scope beyond football.

“What we are really happy about is, that we do not only get appraisal from football fans but also from people usually not too much involved in it. Especially from women who went with their men tell us, that they really enjoyed the film even though they don’t care about football usually.”

Of course there remains a fair amount of fantasy in pitting one’s wits against Europe’s elite. Liechtenstein has progressed in recent years and Wolhwend attributes this to good organisation and a certain cultural heritage.

“First of all, the FA does a very good job. They take it very seriously and they are very professional. Another point might be the closeness to Germany, German TV and the German Bundesliga; where the players – when they were kids – could choose their heroes, see how far they might get, if they do it well.”

Interviewsituation. Foto: Tobias Wachter

Wohlwend is reminded of an experience with Liechtenstein’s all-time scorer, Mario Frick. “Ah, this one, is nice: you get an estimate of what [he] earns in Italy…that he now gets a monthly salary which is comparable with what he would have earned as an office clerk in two years. Start calculating!”

It is this relationship between the elite and the ordinary which makes for compelling viewing. It isn’t rags-to-riches nor is it necessarily David versus Goliath. It’s daring to achieve.

“The hardest part was not the filming itself but getting everybody involved to give us clearance on before hand. Because obviously many couldn’t really imagine what we were doing, when we told them on phone or by email.”

“Real problems were only caused by a hyper-motivated UEFA delegate. For example in Denmark, where a Romanian (probably ex-Securitate) General told us to basically “fuck off” with the camera even though everything had been cleared with the Danish and the Liechtenstein FA on before hand, as well as with the rights holders and executive broadcaster. That was one of the very few annoying moments during the filming. But generally the co-operation with all organisations and people involved was very smooth and positive.”

The qualification campaign was neither smooth nor ultimately positive, but this summer the principality will be closer to a major tournament than ever before. Wedged ‘Mittendrin’ between Austria and Switzerland, Liechtenstein is prepared to absorb some of the reflected glory from Euro2008. As bridesmaid they are expected to gracefully placate the Swiss in their warm-up friendly on 30th May, but the best-laid plans of mice and men will often go awry because of ‘The Mouse that Scored’.

Here’s a trailer for the film:

Photos courtesy of www.kicken.li

Joe Westhead will be blogging as an official volunteer at Euro2008 in Zürich. If you have any suggestion for events or stories you might like to be covered during his stay, then get in touch.


Egypt: The Unsurprising Surprise

It’s the second time in a row and the third time in a decade that Egypt have won the African Nations Cup — yet to aficionados of football in the Northern Hemisphere, it still came as a something of a shock.

Most of the Egyptians still ply their trade in their home country, which offers relative riches compared to other domestic African leagues, and are thus lesser known than those lighting up the Premier League or La Liga stocking the other tournament favourites teams. This proved to be very important in both Egypt’s victory march and our perception of it (I know many underestimated Egypt as I did: Brian has also confessed to this at the Run of Play).

Egypt Victorious

The feeling at the start of the tournament seemed to be that either the hosts Ghana, girded with home advantage and the titan known as Michael Essien, or Ivory Coast, with the (real) African Player of the Year Didier Drogba, would take the title. There was much talk about how many Europe-based players there were this time, and we settled back to watch these superstars duke it out.

The fact that Egypt have yet to repeat their African success on the world stage also contributes to our ignorance of their quality, but the truth is they deservedly won the African title just two years ago, and now have a record six continental titles.

Even come the final, after Cameroon had dispatched the hosts and Egypt had beaten the vaunted Ivorians, it was felt that Samuel Eto’o and company would hold off Egypt’s title defense.

But Egypt thoroughly deserved their 1-0 win today. Where Egypt were compact, composed and creative, Cameroon were the reverse, looking as if they’d just met each other at kick-off and with a singular strategy to funnel the ball up the middle as quickly as possible to their superstar striker, isolated and triple-man-marked.

I think, when assessing Egypt, many European-orientated observers forgot three things:

1) The Egyptians were always liable to be hungrier for success. They weren’t dealing with journeys as tiring, with as much media pressure from around the world, or with big name club managers bitching about the tournament and concerns about wearing themselves out for the Premier League title race (Didier Drogba, anyone?).

2) Many of them play for the same clubs in the Egyptian League, so they know each other intimately as both players and people. Today, Cameroon’s players seemed to pass the ball with absolutely no idea whether the receiving player was going to make the run into the space they played it into or not. And usually not. Egypt functioned as a unit, also reflecting a traditional difference between West and North African football we oft-forget when we lump all African football into one style.

3) Egyptian domestic football is better than it is usually credited for. They are used to large crowds, pressure and big tournaments. Egypt’s El-Ahly have reached three successive African Champions League finals. Whereas many other African nations rely on several star players to draw, Egypt had less stellar power but more strength in depth, whoever was on the field. Certainly, Egypt had some great individual performances — my man of the match today was their impressive and experienced captain, Ahmed Hassan — but they didn’t suffer in the way Ghana did when forced to redeploy Michael Essien to defence, or over-rely on Eto’o, as Cameroon did today.

All in all, Egypt were a deserved winner, and gave us a salutary reminder that quality footballers are in abundance outside Europe’s top leagues.

Photo credit: GIANLUIGI GUERCIA/AFP/Getty Images

Capello, the Mafia, and England

don-corleone.jpgThere are 262,000 Google search results that combine the words “Capello” and “Mafia.” “Capello” and “godfather” nets 30,000. A discussion in the comments section following a Guardian blog post by Richard Williams jokingly asks whether Capello is the long-lost son of Mussolini. The Scotsman discerns in his face “elements of a Roman emperor unlikely to grant clemency.” More than that, according to an online betting site: “Julius Caesar, Benito Mussolini, Tony Soprano, that nasty and temperamental emperor geezer off the film Gladiator…all would have been proud of Fabio Capello’s ruthless decision to leave David Beckham stranded on 99 caps.”

So here we are. I couldn’t find any published material comparing Capello to Cesare Borgia, but it’s not hard to see that England fans and the English-speaking media are turning to a particular sort of metaphor in order to conceptualize Capello’s term as manager of the England team. Capello as mob boss (“Don Fabio”), Capello as fascist dictator, Capello as Roman emperor: there’s a particular image in anglophone popular culture of a merciless, murderous, rapacious and intimidating style of Italian masculinity, and it’s in this image that Capello’s English tenure is being portrayed.

What’s odd—or perhaps not so odd, when you think about it—is that the tenor of the portrayal so far has been overwhelmingly positive. Capello is being described as a tyrant and a killer, but it would appear that he’s a tyrant and a killer in a good way. “No false Dons this time with Godfather Capello in charge,” ran one headline yesterday morning. “Capello Lays Down the Law,” was the headline on Football365. Best of all, from today’s Sun: “Fabio Capello gave England’s superstars the first taste of his iron fist last night.” If only the Ides of March weren’t coming up, they might have asked him for more.

There’s a fascinating process at work here, because what seems to be happening is that Capello’s foreignness—which was initially a subject of anxiety for a large segment of England supporters—is being run through a particular popular-culture filter that recasts it as an expression of English strength. It isn’t the real Julius Caesar, after all, to whom Capello is being compared, or the real mafia don. It’s the movie version of each, the figure through whom we’re able to indulge power fantasies and a dream of dominance without real-life moral consequences. None of these figures is foreign, really. Collectively they represent a kind of mythic caricature, rooted tightly in our own cultures, of the strong leader, the boss, the man no one dares to talk back to, the man who doesn’t care how you feel.

palace.jpgAfter England crashed out of their Euro 2008 qualifying campaign in November, there was a deep need among England supporters to see the players put in their place. This was both a strategic priority (because spoiled, pampered players whose wives travel everywhere with them aren’t strong enough to win major tournaments) and a psychological need (because spoiled, pampered players who lose tournaments are an object of contempt). When Capello arrived with his disciplinarian reputation, and then again when he acted to drop superstars from the team and set some rules to govern the other players, he tapped into a collective need to see the players punished, whether to shape them up for subsequent competition or simply to strike a punitive blow for their previous underachievement.

Capello’s role was a combination of both forms of discipline, and the speed with which the media and the fans began to see him through mafia imagery and icons from imperial Rome suggests how broadly and deeply that was felt. Capello would be the man who would hold no player in awe, who would insist on hard work and commitment; he would be the figure whom the players would have to fear. He would restore English values, in other words, to an England squad that no longer represented them.

Not only in the tone, then, but also in the concrete imagery in which Capello has been welcomed to England, there’s a kind of embalmed hostility toward the players that will be difficult to erase. Yesterday’s 2-1 win over Switzerland in Capello’s first match in charge may begin the process. But we may not have a definite sign that England have forgiven their team until they look for a different way to approve of their manager.

Brian Phillips makes the trains run on time at The Run of Play.

Photo credit: wallyg

An Exclusive Interview with Newcastle Owner Mike Ashley

Mike Ashley laughing in the stands.The owner of Newcastle United, the eccentric billionaire Mike Ashley, is famous for taking his obsession with privacy to extraordinary lengths. He’s thought to live somewhere in Herefordshire, in a large mansion protected by an elaborate security apparatus, and to emerge only in order to distribute lager to fans at Newcastle games. He never gives interviews.

But in an astonishing turn of events, he agreed last night to sit down with Pitch Invasion writer Brian Phillips for an in-depth discussion about the decision to sack recently departed Newcastle manager Sam Allardyce. What follows is a transcript of their erudite and wide-ranging conversation, conducted over a dish of pickled herrings at Ashley’s favorite dining spot, a diving bell sunk 60m into the northern Caspian Sea.

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Five Stories You Don’t Have to Care About in 2008

As we hurtle into 2008, Brian from The Run of Play looks at what not to care about in the coming year.
Joey Barton

The start of a new year is traditionally a time to take stock, reassess your priorities, and decide what to focus on during the year to come. For football fans, that means figuring out which of the dozens of storylines running through the media at any given time — some of them fascinating, some of them duller than a jar of olives on Valium — you’re going to follow, and which you can safely ignore.

That’s why, to help you plot your approach to 2008, I’ve isolated five stories which I think you can cut out of your life without missing anything important — no matter how much the television, the press, or the internet tries to persuade you otherwise. Each of these stories is going to come back during the coming weeks and months, and I highly encourage you to get in on the ground floor and start ignoring them now. Clearing them from your mind can only help you focus on aspects of football that you might actually enjoy.

1. Joey Barton’s legal troubles. Because they have nothing to do with anything and aren’t even interesting or funny in themselves. Honestly, if the news that Joey Barton got into a scuffle over a stuffed peacock outside a 24-hour dry cleaner makes you feel the faintest twinge of curiosity, I’m afraid you’re already lost. It’s not a great sign that you’re even still reading this paragraph. There are days when I care so little about whether Joey Barton is in jail that I can barely chew my own food.

What to care about instead: The more sympathetically crazy Stephen Ireland.
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The Capello Effect: Watching Them Watching Us

Fabio Capello
Since it will take some time for the footballing effects of the appointment of Fabio Capello as England manager to become apparent, it is currently most significant as a media event. In Italy, the news has been greeted with almost as many column inches as in England (or perhaps that should be column centimetres, for those of us not stuck in a ridiculous and vainglorious past).

Italian reaction to the appointment has been largely very positive: it is seen as a great feather in the cap of Italian football that England, still respected here as the home of the game, has turned to an Italian. (Whether the appointment of Sven Goran-Eriksson was a similar compliment to Swedish football is, however, another thing altogether; I somehow suspect that was also seen rather as a mark of the importance of Serie A).

And it’s not just about the appointment of an Italian manager to a foreign national side: it’s specifically England-related. While the actual style of play in England (and in the national side in particular) are often derided as wholly lacking in skill, nous, tactics or sophistication, the mystique of England and of the game’s origins remains considerable here. The history and tradition of the English game are respected and mildly envied; English attendance figures are cited with awe and astonishment; the historic stadiums are especially admired. Italians wax lyrical about the magic of Wembley as though they were auditioning for a job commentating on the FA Cup for ITV. The idea that England, home of football, has turned to an Italian, is major news indeed.

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The Tower of Ryan Babel: Football, Language, and Translation

The Tower of Babel.In the global bazaar of contemporary football, in which a top-flight team is apt to have a Paraguayan striker, twin Hungarian left-backs, and a goalkeeper who was downloaded directly from the Internet (“JENS LEHMANN: Avg user rating: 3.2 stars. Estimated time to download: ~3 min. Note: This program has not been tested for malware. Please exercise caution when running this executable.”) one of the most puzzling questions is how we manage to communicate at all.

When an average club contains players with seven or eight different native languages, has a manager who speaks a ninth, and is tracked by media from 65 countries and by fans from every corner of the globe, how do we avoid a complete breakdown of meaning? What’s keeping us from endlessly replicating all those old stories about Tokyo hotels with signs reading, “You are invited to take advantage of the chambermaid,” or Hong Kong dry cleaners that urged gentlemen to “drop your trousers here for best results”?

Players, obviously, have been transformed by necessity into highly sophisticated linguists, and have learned to communicate with one another in a complex and little-understood patois of English, Romance languages, and Playstation. In addition, many of their interactions now take place via text message, and “pwn,” unlike love, is the same in any language. Their dealings with the media are eased by the services of the same professional translators who never seem to be at hand when I order in a Thai restaurant, and also by the fact that 90% of the questions they’re asked are so stupefyingly dull and repetitive that to give them serious thought would be beneath the dignity of a parrot. (Witness: Steven Gerrard responding to Japanese reporters at the 2005 Club World Cup.) Unlike love, soul-destroying ennui is the same in any language.

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The Media, Transfer Gossip, and the Soul of Football

Nuns playing footballIt’s not usually my style to criticize the media. Bloggers do too much of that sort of thing already, and frankly, when it comes to the football press, I can’t imagine a better system for keeping up to speed with the inner world of Tony Mowbray. Reporters seem to be everywhere; I honestly don’t think anyone has ever backed anyone else without the press being there to record it.

Half the time, the media actually anticipates my desires: there I’ll be, browsing through the headlines, with no thought of wondering how much muscle Emanuel Adebayor has put on during the past five months, when along comes Sky Sports with a meticulously sourced piece to tell me. Before I read “Adebayor – I’ve Bulked Up,” I was in the dark and I didn’t even know it. After I read “Adebayor – I’ve Bulked Up,” with its thoughtful allusion to yesterday’s Daily Mirror and its carefully placed section break (“Muscles”), my world is a richer place.

I’ve been especially conscious of this over the past few days as, for one reason or another, I’ve been thinking over the question, “What is the soul of football?” Some people will tell you that the soul of football is a solitary child dribbling a ball under a street lamp while his heart fills with left-wing political principles. Others would say that the soul of football is a beautifully executed Johan Cruyff stop-spin leading to a magnificent goal. Still others would argue that the soul of football is a mysterious twinkle which Sepp Blatter keeps hidden in his eye.

But me? I think the soul of football is transfer gossip.

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