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.