Soccer Coverage in North American Media

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Soccer Coverage in North American Media
Jul 31, 2017

As soccer grows increasingly popular among North American sports fans, major media outlets are having to adapt their sports coverage to make room. This, along with the explosion of new content on all fronts thanks to the rise of digital media platforms, has allowed soccer coverage in the United States and Canada to reach levels perhaps unthinkable even a decade ago.

But as the appetite for soccer news continues to grow in North America – and as fans and media outlets alike become more savvy and knowledgeable about the game – editors, producers and journalists are having to make difficult choices about what to cover. Despite the sport’s surge in viewership on this side of the Atlantic, soccer still doesn’t get the space afforded to sports like football, basketball and baseball at most publications and networks – so deciding what games, teams and stories to feature when it comes to soccer is of vital importance.

One of the biggest choices outlets are facing is how to split up coverage between domestic and international soccer. It’s not a straightforward task. The top European leagues, as well as major international competitions like the World Cup and the UEFA Champions League, represent the elite of the world’s game and the biggest global fan followings. At the same time, Major League Soccer continues to grow in following and sophistication, while the U.S. men’s and women’s national teams are enjoying ever-growing fan bases.

In this analysis, I’ve examined how a number of North America’s major media outlets – from newspapers and magazines to online web publications and television – split up their coverage of domestic and European soccer. Each is a little bit different: some national publications, like The New York Times, take a more cosmopolitan approach, focusing heavily on European coverage and global human interest stories. Other newspapers, like The Seattle Times, center most of their soccer coverage around their hometown professional teams. Broadcast networks, meanwhile, must make coverage choices based on the constraints of the games and leagues to which they have rights. But despite these outlets’ variations in their approaches to coverage, a common trend can be seen throughout: an ever-growing amount of content devoted to the beautiful game, with an eye towards even more in the near future. In other words, soccer is here to stay.

Newspapers

 

The New York Times

Courtesy of the New York Times

As one of the world’s foremost international newspapers, The New York Times is known for its thoughtful, globally-reaching human interest articles. Its sports coverage – including soccer – is no different. While many more regionally-focused publications put emphasis on breaking news and domestic teams, the Times sees its mission as providing more in-depth, intellectual features on the game to a global audience.

For Andrew Das, the Times’ assistant sports editor who oversees soccer, this means putting less stress on the weekly exploits of New York’s two local Major League Soccer teams, and more focus on the types of stories that will draw the interest of curious readers around the world – whether or not they’re soccer buffs.

“We have to look for stories that appeal well beyond the MLS demographic,” Das told the Povich Center in a recent interview. “We want stories that will resonate, that will appeal to a non-soccer audience as well as a soccer audience.”

Preference, for this reason, goes to features with human interest and deeper sociopolitical angles.

“The key is not to get pulled into the day-to-day incremental developments,” Das said.

Instead, he said he encourages his main soccer writer, Rory Smith, to “keep his eyes open for the stories that other people aren’t doing.” In recent months, Smith – who is based in Manchester, England – has written features about street soccer in London as an emerging source for talent, an amateur soccer team in Portugal made up of violence-prone FC Porto ultras, and how Jordi Cruyff – the son of the late legendary Dutch player and coach Johann – is coming to terms with the death of his father while working as a technical director for a soccer club in Israel.

(Other writers have contributed recent pieces about topics including reported labor abuses in Russia ahead of next year’s World Cup, new developments in the case of the 1989 Hillsborough stadium disaster in England, and the struggle for acceptance of a same-sex couple from the Mexican women’s World Cup team.)

The vast majority of Smith’s (and the Times’) elegantly-written features, however, are about Europe’s biggest leagues and competitions – particularly the English Premier League and the UEFA Champions League.

For Das, this speaks to the paper’s role as a cosmopolitan news source for readers around the globe. But it also reflects The New York Times’ status as a premier national newspaper, since many American soccer fans are now regularly following the biggest teams in Europe.

“The Champions League and the Premier League are the way that many Americans consume soccer,” Das said.

But while many news outlets focus on the latest news and game stories, Das likes Smith to dig a little deeper. As a result, he’s produced articles on the legacy of retiring Spanish midfield star Xabi Alonso, superstar Paul Pogba’s role at Manchester United as an indicator of a flawed English system, the groundwork behind Germany’s current success on the international stage, and how Manchester City boss Pep Guardiola’s success or failure could determine the future of the Premier League.

Though Smith – who travels frequently throughout Europe and beyond to do reporting –  does go to games to gather information and analyze teams and players, Das said he prefers him to focus on more unexpected, bigger-picture stories that involve more detailed reporting. (This has also led to stories about U.S. soccer, but more frequently to coverage abroad.)

“The best stories are when you can go some place and report it on the ground, rather than in the noise of a match day,” Das said. “The idea is to kind of get away from the games, but tie stuff to what people are paying attention to.”

The Washington Post

The Washington Post takes a more domestic and local approach to soccer coverage than The New York Times, while still managing to keep readers up to date on a variety of leagues, competitions and topics in the world game.

D.C. and USA news first

At the Post, less space is given to the weekly exploits of the Premier League and other European leagues, in favor of more regular coverage of domestic soccer – particularly local D.C. United. Steven Goff, the Post’s longtime soccer beat reporter, writes in-depth previews and recaps for every match, plus regular features and analysis on the team. He also produces an ample amount of coverage of U.S. national team news.

Goff said that he considers the bulk of his job to be a “balancing act” between covering D.C. United and the U.S. men’s and women’s national teams. The accessibility and local popularity of United means they take first priority, he said. But as a national newspaper, he also sees a responsibility to report on national team news.

“In general, the national teams generate more traffic than anything else,” said Goff, who frequently travels to cover U.S. men’s national team games – including lthe recent World Cup Qualifying draw against Mexico.

The importance of women’s soccer

This includes the women’s national team.  Of major newspapers in the U.S., The Post is among the leaders in covering women’s soccer, including the U.S. women’s national team or D.C.’s local National Women’s Soccer franchise, the Washington Spirit.

For Goff, giving the women’s game ample coverage is important not only because of their abilities and accomplishments, but also because of the enormous following women’s soccer has accumulated since the late 1990s.

“The rise of women’s soccer has altered the landscape for sure,” he said. “The national team has really been extremely popular since 1999, and the women’s leagues have created a day-to-day news cycle. There’s a lot going on out there in the NWSL, with players going overseas to play professionally.”

In recent weeks, Goff has written about the U.S. women’s Scandinavian tour, the arrival of Mallory Pugh to Washington, and other Spirit transfers, among other things. (Summer intern Aaron Torres has also written several recent features on NWSL topics.)

David Larimer, the assistant sports editor for the Post who oversees soccer, added that the Spirit’s recent success has made them more of a coverage priority.  “Last year we covered them a pretty decent amount,” he said. “They had several national team players, and they were winning and selling out.”

(The Spirit were runners-up in last year’s NWSL championship, although they’re currently ninth in the 2017 standings.)

The impact of technology

Larimer also said he thought the rise of technology and digital platforms, such as social media, has helped the Post sports staff recognize just how popular women’s soccer is today – as well as other areas of the sport that may have previously flown under their radar.

“I think it’s a reflection of being a little more digitally savvy than we used to be,” he said.

Goff said technology has also changed the way he works. The emergence of an instant, digital news cycle has meant he’s had to become more flexible at responding to breaking news at any hour, he explained.

“Technology has changed things. It’s minute-to-minute, as opposed to day-to-day. If there’s news, I need to pursue it right away, and sometimes I have to stick with it for hour after hour.”

Selecting what to cover

Larimer said that when it comes to making coverage choices, he often relies on Goff’s experience and expertise. “I have a real luxury in that Steven Goff is really one of the handful of foremost, most experienced American soccer writers in the US,” Larimer explained. “I think if I had a younger, less experienced reporter, we might dictate coverage form the office more,” he added.

For Larimer, the decision to devote the most coverage to United is an obvious one, given the team’s history and popularity in the area.

“United is one of the founding MLS clubs,” he said. “It’s always had a very steady, solid, devoted fan base. And it’s a team [that] for its whole history has drawn at least 10,000 people for every game. If you have any local team that has done that, that speaks to interest. And you want to honor that interest.”

But he would like to see the Post’s soccer coverage continue grow in other areas, including more coverage of European soccer.

Larimer said he has a few trusted freelancers based in Europe, whom he calls on occasionally to write about major events in the European game. “There are things they can cover from where they are, that we think American readers might have interest in.” (The Post also occasionally uses wire reports for major European and international news, such as the English FA Cup and Champions League finals.)

A Globalizing Audience

Despite the Post’s focus on domestic soccer, Goff sees it as his responsibility to keep up with the nuances of the international game – particularly as more and more Americans are beginning to regularly follow teams in Europe and elsewhere, due to increased television and streaming coverage.

“People are watching these games, they’re gaining a greater level of sophistication and appreciation,” Goff said, adding that a growing number of American fans are traveling internationally to watch both the U.S. National Team and their favorite European clubs play.

“You have to be prepared to discuss the styles of Manchester United and the tactics of Barcelona,” he explained. “That’s hard, because it’s a big, diverse, expansive soccer world out there. It’s not like covering, say, the NBA, where there’s a finite number of teams, [that] play around the same time every night.”

Unique features

One opportunity Goff has to write about international soccer are in his frequent “roundups.” Arguably the Post’s most unique contribution to soccer coverage, Goff’s roundups – generally a weekly fixture during the European season – fall into two categories: “Americans abroad” and “Soccer to watch on TV.”

In the former, Goff breaks down what prominent American soccer players (both male and female) playing abroad have been up to. Recent features have included Borussia Dortmund’s Christian Pulisic, Stoke City’s Geoff Cameron, Chelsea Ladies’ Crystal Dunn and Manchester City Women’s Carli Lloyd.

The latter offers readers a selection of the best global games to watch on TV that week/weekend (and what channels to find them on). Goff said these roundups, which he began writing years ago, were initially just a way for him to keep track of soccer news and “stay disciplined.”

But his decision to publish them has proven popular, so he’s kept at it. “Sometimes journalism doesn’t have to be in the form of complete sentences or investigations,” Goff said. “Sometimes it’s just sharing information.”

Larimer said he thinks Goff keeps publishing his roundups because of how much his readership expects and enjoys them. “He feels loyal to this audience,” Larimer said.

Human interest angles

Whenever he can, Goff likes to blend human interest stories with relevant topics in the game.

“I’m always looking for good human interest angles, whether its with DCU, Washington Spirit or the national team,” Goff explained. “I think human interest stories appeal to a broader audience, and touch on emotions, culture, race, class… the human experience.”

One recent example was Goff’s feature from mid-June examining the gap in bonus earnings between the U.S. men’s and women’s national team coaches at each of their last World Cups. Other topics have included the political undertones of the U.S. men’s recent qualifying encounter with Mexico, and the emergence of teenager Christian Pulisic as perhaps the United States’ next big superstar.

The future

With respect to the future, Larimer said he thinks the Post’s soccer coverage will continue to grow. Although he admits it will still take some work for the sport to rival the followings of football, basketball and baseball in the United States, Larimer said he believes Americans – and D.C. area residents in particular – are growing hungrier for more soccer coverage all the time.

(According to a 2014 study by USA Today, Washington, D.C. represents the largest market for soccer followers in the U.S.)

“You’re always looking for growth, audiences you can grow,” he said. “I think soccer is one that’s consistently growing. And it has the ability to galvanize people,” he added, citing the huge gatherings in Washington, D.C. alone to watch the 2014 World Cup.

For Goff, the popularity of soccer in the D.C. area is partly a product of having had a local professional team in place for the past two decades. “You have a generation that’s grown up with the sport [over] the last 20 years,” he said.

USA Today

Using a variety of media and contributors, USA Today looks to present an up-to-the minute global outlook on soccer with a North American angle and a preference for breaking news.

At first glance, it would appear that USA Today publishes far more soccer stories than its fellow national newspapers – at least online. Looking at their home page for soccer on the web, it looks as though they’re putting out new stories every couple of hours. However, the vast majority of these stories – including most news on MLS and European leagues – come from the AP wire.

USA Today does produce its own soccer features fairly regularly, although the paper doesn’t have a staff writer assigned solely to soccer. Martin Rogers, who covers various sports – from boxing to basketball to NASCAR – has written a number of recent features on soccer, with topics ranging from future U.S. men’s national team prospects, to the U.S.-Mexico World Cup Qualifying, to major European transfer rumors.

Peter Barzilai and Jim Reineking, also multi-sport reporters, have also written recently about soccer, including the U.S. men’s national team, MLS and the Confederations Cup.

Besides providing breaking news and the occasional meaty feature, USA Today also incorporates soccer into its online sports blog, For The Win, which focuses on off-the field stories and social news.

In addition, USA Today puts a strong emphasis on multimedia. Features are regularly accompanied by videos, while photo slideshows related to soccer topics are also a frequent staple in their coverage.

The Seattle Times

Hometown focus

Most of the Seattle Times’ soccer articles are devoted to local MLS club (and reigning MLS Cup Champion) Seattle Sounders – not least because of the team’s overwhelming fan support, explained sports editor Paul Barrett.

“The Sounders lead MLS in attendance,” Barrett said. “It’s an important coverage area for us.”

(Since the Sounders entered MLS in 2009, they’ve drawn record crowds, and currently average more than 42,000 fans per home game – though that number has been bested narrowly this year by rookie club Atlanta United, according to Forbes.)

Because of the huge level of support the Sounders enjoy, Barrett said he sees a responsibility to devote significant space to the team. “We definitely feel the responsibility to provide regular, good coverage of the team,” he explained.

Since 2009, The Seattle Times has had a beat writer covering the team, Barrett said. Today, he added, the paper publishes previews and recaps of every game, as well as player features “once or twice a week.” (Most of these articles are written by Sounders beat writer Geoff Baker.)

Although the Sounders’ emergence has boosted The Seattle Times’ soccer coverage dramatically in the last decade, Barrett estimates that the overall space his paper devotes to the sport is still relatively small — about 10 percent. This is due to the other major teams they have to cover (including but not limited to the Seahawks, the Mariners, college athletics and prep sports.)

Local comes first

Limits to space and budget have meant that The Seattle Times has had to pick and choose what soccer stories are most important to its readership. Because of the decision to focus primarily on Sounders stories, coverage of international soccer has had to be secondary, Barrett explained. (He added that the paper does usually run national team stories involving Sounders internationals, such as Clint Dempsey and Jordan Morris.)

With regards to coverage of European and world soccer – the Times does occasionally use wire reports on major events, such as the Champions League final – Barrett said he doesn’t see a major jump in the near future. But he added, “Never say never.”

Younger readership

For Barrett, one of the greatest rewards of covering the Sounders has been the chance to engage with a younger demographic of readers. “I think most MLS fans are younger,” he said. “It’s an opportunity for us to connect with a different demographic than the typical newspaper reader.”

He added that the rise of more digital-based content has helped further capture a younger audience.

The Reign

Although the Sounders make up the majority of The Seattle Times’ professional soccer reporting, Seattle’s women’s pro team, the Reign, also get fairly regular coverage – albeit less frequent and detailed than that given to the men. Still, it’s significant investment: nearly all the Reign’s NWSL games are recapped by a Seattle Times writer, representing a positive step in the trend toward more coverage of the women’s game.

Los Angeles Times

Like several of the larger newspapers in the U.S., the Los Angeles Times has one regular soccer reporter, Kevin Baxter. Much of Baxter’s coverage is devoted to local MLS club LA Galaxy, with U.S. men’s national team and the future LAFC also featuring regularly.

But the LA Times is also unique in the amount of coverage it gives to the Mexican national team – something that reflects the area’s large Mexican and Mexican-American population, explained LA Times sports editor Angel Rodriguez.

Unique readership

“We view it almost like the national team of LA is the Mexican national team,” Rodriguez said. When LA has hosted international games between the U.S. and Mexico in the past, he explained, crowds have been made up of as much as 70 percent Mexican fans.

“We have to look at it very much like, okay, this is a big deal for the city of LA,” Rodriguez said, adding that few other American sports cities – with certain exceptions, such as Houston and Dallas – have the responsibility of providing news on Mexican soccer to the extent that Los Angeles does.

Local coverage

Still, Rodriguez said, the paper’s primary focus when it comes to soccer is its current hometown team, the Galaxy. Since he began as sports editor just over two years ago, Rodriguez has been pushing to devote more coverage to soccer, and he believes that regular coverage of the local pro team is the best way to generate a greater readership among soccer fans.

“If you’re a Galaxy fan and you want Galaxy news, and the LA times is not giving it,” he said, “you go off and look for it in other places.” Because many American newspapers still give soccer the “second-class citizen” treatment compared to other pro sports, he said, it’s important that the LA Times give significant attention to soccer – especially with the rise of digital platforms and the abundance of other websites providing soccer news.

“We want to be that source for you to come and get all your Galaxy news,” Rodriguez said.

Due to the plethora of professional sports in the Los Angeles area, Rodriguez suggested soccer articles may only make up about 10 percent of the LA Times total sports coverage. “The percentage is probably small because the pie is so big,” he said, adding that the LA Dodgers, for example, might only get 15-20 percent of total coverage.

Still, he said, soccer is an important area of focus, and one which has grown significantly in the last decade. Improved funding and focus has allowed the LA Times to break more stories on both Major League Soccer and the U.S. national team – something which has caught the attention of MLS and the United States Soccer Federation, Rodriguez said.

It’s also allowed the Times to send Baxter to more away games for the Galaxy – though Rodriguez said he tries to limit the trips to mainly regional opponents (such as San Jose, Seattle and Portland) during the regular season, both for budgetary reasons and to highlight the most important rivalries for fans.

Eye on the future

With the 2018 World Cup fast approaching, Rodriguez hopes to publish a significant amount of stories from Russia. But due to budgetary constraints, he plans to limit the paper’s on-the-ground reporting to stories involving the United States and Mexico. “We’ll try to send Kevin to as many games as possible that are important for our market,” he explained, adding that the LA Times will cover other World Cup stories from home.

Meanwhile, with LAFC gearing up to join MLS next season, Rodriguez hopes to eventually have another reporter focused on soccer, at least part-time – though he doubts it’ll happen right away. “If it was up to me, I’d have another [soccer] reporter,” he said.

Across the Pond

Aside from major tournaments like the World Cup, the LA Times runs occasional articles on prominent soccer stories from Europe and elsewhere in the world. Recently, these have included news on the Confederations Cup, as well as the Champions League and FA Cup finals. But most of these are AP wire stories, and not written by staff reporters like Baxter.

For now, when it comes to soccer, the LA Times seems most focused on what it does best: providing compelling content that will be most meaningful to its local and regional readership.
Web/Magazines

ESPNFC

Probably the most comprehensive web source for soccer news in the U.S., ESPNFC covers soccer from all leagues, all across the globe. (They also have a wide variety of types of articles, from breaking news to longer opinion pieces to in-depth analysis, and plenty of video content.)

ESPNFC’s multimedia approach helps make it one of the go-to resources for both American and international fans looking to get top insight on the global game. Besides breaking news stories and features from writers including Graham Hunter, Samuel Marsden and Michael Cox, ESPNFC produces a podcast and a daily television show.

But although ESPN is an American outlet, the vast majority of the site’s featured articles and videos are related to European and world soccer. Featured stories on the homepage this month include news on MLS and the U.S. national team, but the primary focus – even in its offseason – is Europe. Unless there’s a major U.S. event going on – such as a World Cup qualifier or significant MLS news – Lionel Messi’s contract renewal at Barcelona, Arsenal’s offseason signings, and Wayne Rooney’s future at Manchester United tend to get priority over domestic stories.

Sports Illustrated

Sports Illustrated puts a focus on features and longer-form, narrative articles, as well as video content. The name for SI.com’s soccer section is Planet Futbol, and it’s fitting. Their coverage is very much a global scope, with somewhat of a U.S. focus.

SI’s regular soccer writers cover different beats. Grant Wahl covers primarily U.S. national team stories, with some European coverage as well. Brian Straus does more in-depth analysis, as well as stories on business negotiations (expansions, transfers, etc.) Jonathan Wilson, meanwhile, covers mainly European soccer, Alexander Abnos focuses on MLS, and Luis Miguel Echegaray covers primarily the Mexican national team.

Overall, Sports Illustrated’s soccer reporting emphasizes individual characters, player development, team evolution and history. Not unlike several of their national counterparts, they aim to dig deeper than simply breaking news stories.

FourFourTwo

FourFourTwo is a popular British monthly soccer magazine and website that has also has a separate U.S. web presence. FourFourTwo USA includes some of the English version’s English and European-based stories, but the American version has a focus on US national teams, MLS, and the growth of the game in the United States (youth development, league expansion, fans, etc.)

Similar to its British counterpart, FourFourTwo USA invests heavily in features, including both on-field analysis and off-the-field human interest stories. Because it’s a publication devoted entirely to soccer, FourFourTwo clearly puts an emphasis on informed writing about the game, and as a result is a source for highly intelligent think-pieces.

In addition to features and analysis, FourFourTwo publishes regular “lists” on various topics in world soccer (anything from its yearly best player lists to best soccer cities in America, to best/weirdest goal celebrations). Its website also includes a performance section, which offers tips and tutorials for readers to improve their own game.

Soccer America

Soccer America is a quarterly magazine which, like FourFourTwo, is devoted entirely to soccer. As its name might suggest, SoccerAmerica focuses primarily on American soccer news, from national teams to MLS to college and youth soccer.

Howler

Howler is an American soccer magazine featuring stories on the human interest, sociopolitical and pop culture side of soccer. The magazine, which is published quarterly, typically includes offbeat, thought-provoking stories on little-known soccer histories, player and game analysis, off-the field exploits and much more. Having started in 2012 as a fledgling Kickstarter project, Howler has grown a significant cult following owing to its thoughtful writing, oddball blog posts, compelling photographs and artwork, and several podcasts.

Television

American broadcasting rights for soccer are divided among networks, with different channels getting the rights to different leagues and competitions. It’s a bit complicated, though. While NBC holds the rights to all English Premier League games through 2022, other deals are more convoluted. In 2014, MLS and U.S. Soccer both made deals with ESPN, FOX Sports and Univision Deportes (also through 2022), meaning coverage of these games will be split across the three networks.

Not all games are broadcast on these networks’ main channels. While NBC broadcasts occasional Premier League games on their network channel, most matches are shown on the company’s cable sports network, NBCSN (or else streamed online.) ESPN, FOX and Univision, meanwhile, generally air one MLS game per week, in addition to splitting coverage of U.S. men’s and women’s national team games. (Univision games are broadcast in Spanish.)

FOX also scored big with the acquisition of English-language rights to the next three World Cups. (NBCUniversal’s Telemundo won the Spanish-language rights.) But FOX will have to give up the English-language broadcasts of the UEFA Champions League – which it currently holds – to Turner Broadcasting come 2018. (Univision will continue to broadcast Champions League matches in Spanish.)

BeIn Sports, meanwhile, has rights to Spanish La Liga, Italian Serie A, French Ligue 1 and several cup competitions, while Lifetime this year acquired the rights to broadcast National Women’s Soccer League matches.

(All of these networks also have various forms of talk shows devoted to soccer as well.)

While the growing selection of soccer on TV is no doubt exciting for American fans, some have doubts as to whether networks are taking the right approach regarding coverage choices.

In a column last week in the LA Times, Kevin Baxter criticized the overlapping air times of the upcoming CONCACAF Gold Cup and the International Champions Cup (to be shown on FOX and ESPN network channels, respectively).

“It seems an avoidable fracturing of a nascent U.S. soccer audience that is still trying to find a focus,” Baxter wrote, adding that this is a problem that has occurred numerous times in recent years.

Baxter’s main concern is that the superfluity of games to choose from will draw too many fans away from tuning in to one event or the other — particularly as the United States prepares to send a second-string team to the Gold Cup.

Still, many have praised the explosion of television coverage for its role in making soccer a more mainstream sport in America. “Television deserves a lot of credit for that,” wrote Scott French for FourFourTwo in February. “That Fox and NBC and ESPN and Univision and Telemundo and beIN and so on are spending more and more to show more and more games happens only because there’s an audience, and a lot of that audience has been built by providing the means to see the world’s biggest games in its most potent atmospheres.”

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