The rise of the U.S. soccer media

What was the “soccer media” in 1996, when MLS first launched?

For the most part, it was Soccer America, Michael Lewis, Grahame Jones and a handful of people who managed to make soccer at least part of their beat work. At some news organizations, journalists managed to get some soccer coverage into their job descriptions alongside their other responsibilities — writing on other sports, copy editing, online producing, etc. IIRC, one “beat writer” was also his newspaper’s librarian.

From this pool of young, energetic people pushing the constraints of the 40-hour (ha!) work week to cover the sport we love, we got a lot of good content. ESPN had Jeff Bradley, whose connections were unmatched (yes, note the last name) and who had the writing skill to turn his passion into good prose. Sports Illustrated ran Grant Wahl’s insights online whenever he had a few spare moments. The Washington Post actually had a couple of voices — Steven Goff covering D.C. United, Alex Johnson writing “World of Soccer” online.

Being “The Soccer Guy” in your news organization was a good thing if you didn’t mind a little extra work. Knight Ridder Tribune let me crank out a weekly MLS column and other content. USA TODAY didn’t mind my soccer columns and original reporting.

But still, soccer stories were so unusual that a lot of us flocked to BigSoccer, where people would share links to the rare finds. BigSoccer, in the early 2000s, was the hub of soccer discussion online in the wake of the decline of the old North American Soccer mailing list. We didn’t have Twitter or a blogosphere.

Eighteen years later, things are a little different. Wahl is one of several soccer people at Sports Illustrated — Brian Straus, the hardest-working man in soccer journalism, joined him a while ago. ESPN first bought Soccernet, the go-to source for so much European soccer news in the early years of the Internet, then rebranded it ESPN FC, all with a strong cast of contributors.

The independent soccer media always survived as a labor of love. Now it’s thriving at sites like SB Nation.

The official site (disclaimer: I wrote a few fantasy columns for the management before the management before this one) has grown into a robust portal of soccer coverage, from personality-driven podcasts to tactical analysis far beyond anything we’ve seen here.

And that’s just print/online media. In the mid-90s, I always made sure my VCR would pick up the weekly hourlong Premier League recap that popped up on Home Team Sports (now Comcast Sports Net of the D.C./Baltimore area). Today? I’d watch Match of the Day on NBCSN, but I’ve usually seen it all already on a full morning of viewing.

So you can see why I was a bit surprised when I read a promotion/relegation piece that offered many supposed benefits of going pro/rel in the USA, while not addressing any of the reasons why that hasn’t been feasible to this point. Among the more interesting ramifications of going pro/rel:

– No more reliance on big, fast and strong players. (Because every relegation-threatened EPL team and all the League One strugglers play fluid, attractive football, right?)

– An open market rather than centralized soccer development. (Because Germany’s top-down approach funded by the FA is so much more of an open marketplace than having multiple elite youth soccer clubs in every region picking and choosing the best practices of U.S. Soccer, U.S. Youth Soccer, U.S. Club Soccer, AYSO and other alphabet-soup organizations, right?)

And then the fun one: “More expertise in our soccer media.”

That’s right — add in pro/rel, and you’ll get the same sycophantic, sexist, pressbox-cheering, transfer rumor-inventing “experts” you get in other parts of the world. Yay!

OK, that’s a generalization. But such journalists absolutely exist in the rest of the world. We’ll get them here soon enough. No need to rush.

Meanwhile, without pro/rel, we the soccer media have managed to expand exponentially. A few people are bound to know what they’re doing.

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2 thoughts on “The rise of the U.S. soccer media

  1. Some of us are old enough to remember when Brian Straus was the Washington Post’s beat reporter covering the WUSA-era Washington Freedom.

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