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Beyond the Blog? The Future of American Soccer Journalism

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Yesterday, the ubiquitous (and I mean that in a genuinely nice way) American soccer blogger/podcaster/twitterati Jason Davis tweeted “Randomly came across another old @TIAS post. Are we finally taking steps with @xiquarterly and @whatahowler?”

The post in question at This Is American Soccer (TIAS), one of the oldest and most thoughtful American soccer blogs out there, was entitled “American soccer media landscape needs to get beyond the blog.” It’s an incisive, intelligent exploration by Adam Spangler of soccer writing and the possibilities of forming new, in-depth coverage of the game in America “beyond the blog”.

Though dated February 2010, the questions Adam asks about how this can happen remain valid today:

Soccer journalism’s living death is a real problem, one we can only hope changes in the wake of a World Cup year (and bid for 2018/2022), increased MLS, USMNT, and national player success, and the overall consumer growth of the sport. In lieu of what sometimes seems like every blog trying to be everything to everyone—in the wake of the reshuffling of media names in the ever changing of world of journalism, what should it all mean?

We are not lacking for words on American soccer (can you keep up with the blogosphere?), and I am supremely sure the quality writers are out there, either underemployed (or not really employed at all, writing for nothing in their free time with the consequences this has for the type of coverage created, as interesting as some of the writing is), or churning out words at an obscene rate to attract enough eyeballs to keep the likes of in business.

We lack the publications that have as their defining marker what Adam calls “long-lead feature writing.” For Adam, this absence is particularly reflected by the dearth of stories that tell us more than the surface story about American soccer; in particular, of how a fan connects to and understands players. That requires spending time with the subject, and that usually means a cost is entailed, one few existing publications are prepared to pay for soccer stories. As Spangler says:

Players by and large aren’t millionaires, and they could use some attention both for the sake of their game and off-field marketing pursuits. Compared to other sports, more soccer players are highly educated, offering intelligent opinions but also, and more importantly, they have unique paths and stories (just stop asking them about how well the team did and begin spending as much time talking about off the field as on it).

Many readers are simply too young to know what they are really missing—that imaginative and telling narrative that brings their sports heroes to life and reflect the lives of readers while taking them into the lives of players. I don’t, for example, know a single thing about Blanco and his life in Chicago and MLS. That’s a shame. Angel in NYC? For real, America’s best soccer player, Landon Donovan, has never had a proper feature article written about him?

Adam is quite right on this. For me and for the other founders of XI, this is only one element of North American soccer that simply isn’t being told; at least since the passing of Steven Wells, most articles on fan culture – to pick my area of focus – scratch only the surface. Journalists and bloggers have only the most cursory understanding of the beautiful madness that drives fans to spend hundreds of volunteer hours creating elaborate tifo displays for MLS clubs owned by billionaires, or of how social responsibility should (does?) play into fan group activities, or of how North American soccer is refracted from ultra culture elsewhere, or of how MLS’ commercial emphasis threatens a co-option of a fiercely independent but fragile culture. In fact, even the surface of those stories have barely been scratched.

The same goes for women’s soccer; for ethnic identity and soccer; for the business of the sport; for youth development; the grassroots of the game at amateur and lower-league level; the way game the is administered; the way it is played; its tactical development on this continent. And so on, all so little understood, all so little explained by the people that matter to people who can write about it in-depth entertainingly and intelligently, in ways where an editor engages with a writer and shapes a story over weeks or months, in a fashion that is then visually laid out and presented to enhance the story, rather than to generate clicks on google ads.

To get back to Jason’s original tweet, hopefully the establishment of both XI and Howler are steps “beyond the blog”, with two quarterly print magazines giving writers some time, some space, some support in crafting stories that tell compelling narratives about North American soccer. Speaking for XI, a very specific niche will be filled; this won’t be a general purpose magazine telling timely stories, it will be one theme per issue, explored in eleven unique ways. I’m not sure exactly what Howler are planning, but I am excited to find out.

I’m also very interested to see if these new quarterly publications do indeed to prove to be steps toward more in-depth soccer media: it doesn’t, by any means, always have to be print, or even via the written word. It just has to be thoughtful, it has to be resourced, and it has to sell – or it’s unlikely to succeed. For XI, that funding has to come from the soccer community, using a resource for launch capital Spangler understandably didn’t mention over two years ago: Kickstarter, a rather fantastic way for creative projects to get off the ground. Hopefully, as soccer grows on this continent, its media will find more and more ways grow up with it.

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