Media and the World Cup

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Media and the World Cup
Oct 28, 2017

When the United States was eliminated from 2018 World Cup qualifying in October, no one working in sports media may have been more upset than Taylor Twellman.

The ESPN soccer analyst, a former University of Maryland and U.S. Men’s National Team forward, went on a rant during a “SportsCenter” segment the night Trinidad and Tobago upset the U.S. 2-1 in the States’ final qualifying match, knocking them out of contention.

But Twellman’s concerns – that an overhaul of the U.S. soccer program is necessary and in fact long overdue – rang true for his old head coach at Maryland, Sasho Cirovski.

“Taylor made great points,” Cirovski said. “I think what he said was that this is a systemic problem, and it’s time for a reboot and a reset of U.S. soccer. I think he was spot on.”

How exactly will the American media approach the world’s favorite sport going forward with the U.S. team not participating  in the World Cup?

World Cup coverage plans may not change

Several sports editors at large metropolitan daily newspapers were contacted to discuss how their World Cup coverage plans would change with America out of the tournament for the first time since 1986. Of those who replied, some said they will “get by” with stories on the Associated Press wire. But Joe Sullivan, sports editor of the Boston Globe, said his paper was not planning to send writers to Russia in the first place.

The Kansas City Star “won’t be sending anyone this time,” instead opting for the AP wire, said Star sports editor Jeff Rosen. But his staff won’t reduce its amount of soccer coverage next summer.

“Our World Cup coverage will be toned down some relative to years past, but KC considers itself a soccer town so we certainly couldn’t and wouldn’t ignore it,” Rosen wrote in an email.

On the other end of the spectrum, New York Times sports editor Jason Stallman said the U.S.’s absence is “irrelevant” due to the outlet’s international audience. The Times will send a “huge crew” of reporters, editors and photographers, Stallman wrote.

Washington Post soccer writer Steven Goff said his paper hasn’t made any final decisions about coverage plans, but pointed out an ancillary reason for some American investment. The 2026 World Cup hosting rights will be awarded at a meeting in Russia next year. A united North American bid has little competition to win, “so it may be important for U.S. outlets to attend FIFA meetings in early June in Moscow,” Goff wrote in an email.

Apathy versus accountability

On the online forum sportsjournalists.com, one member started a thread to ask the question, “How did your paper handle the U.S. soccer loss?” One of the replies included: “Not a word on U.S. soccer, just like we like it. By the way, who beat us and what was the score?”

American apathy to soccer is still a running gag in some corners, but the editors contacted for this story made it clear that it’s their audience, not the preferences of their staff, that determines what gets covered.

“We would have covered MLS and Atlanta United regardless of whether we have a ‘fan’ (of soccer on staff),” wrote Ray Cox, sports editor of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “We don’t cover sports based upon interest of reporters but upon interest by readers/audience.”

“Several people in the newsroom follow soccer closely. Not sure I’d call them fans. But no, I don’t think their interest fuels our coverage,” Stallman wrote. “Soccer is by all measures the most popular sport in the world, so we cover it vigorously regardless of newsroom interest.”

Lindsay Simpson, director of communications for the MLS club D.C. United, said some Americans don’t have a grasp of how big the World Cup is around the world, and plenty of citizens still have active rooting interests next year due to the country’s diversity.

“U.S. media outlets aren’t going to have as many eyeballs from casual fans, casual viewers, on the World Cup like they would when the U.S. is participating. However, this country represents a lot of different ethnicities, a lot of different nationalities, and those people still care because a lot of their countries are still there,” Simpson said.

It’s one thing to discuss coverage of one loss in a qualifying match, or of one global tournament without the U.S. participating. But much of the American soccer community is already looking long-term. Bruce Arena resigned from his position as the USMNT head coach days after the Trinidad loss, saying “No excuses. We didn’t get the job done, and I accept responsibility.”

But as Twellman opined on “SportsCenter,” “As a whole, U.S. Soccer is not prepared. They have not done a good enough job of getting this group ready to play.”

Simpson feels there is an obvious role the media can play as U.S. Soccer figures out where to go from here, something Twellman aimed to do in that segment.

“Listen, the media exists to hold people accountable. That’s politicians, that’s businesses, that’s sports teams,” Simpson said. “I think the media have a huge role to play in what happens in the next six to 12 months with U.S. Soccer. They need to hold soccer accountable. They need to hold everything from top to bottom accountable in this process because that’s the only way you can grow and things can change.”

Asked about the media’s role in American soccer’s future, Cirovski said, “You have to continue to ask intelligent questions and speak with people and get the story told (about) solutions.”

But, he added, “What is the key in player development? It’s up to the player.”

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