Monday, November 22, 2010

The weird, wonderfully small world of MLS

The stadium wasn't full, it was cold (Ian Darke used the word "tundra" at least once in describing the local "Toronto weather"), the two finalists didn't exactly get the heart racing, it was either chippy, scrappy, scrapey, or crappy depending on whichever adjective you prefer to describe what to my mind was a fairly typical MLS Cup final, and, in all honesty, why is a league with MLS' modest set-up designating neutral hosts?

Still, I'm glad it was held in Toronto, for selfish reasons.

I have to be honest here—I still find MLS hard to crack, partly because it's impossible to be a serious follower of this league unless you are willing to wrap yourself up in tedious meta issues of financial survival, the meaning of soccer in America, marketing and branding, issues other sportswriters have the luxury of ignoring until the next major strike looms, or never deal with at all (could you imagine roundtables on the "meaning" of baseball in America?). And if you think the persistent existence of MLS is helping the cause of American soccer exceptionalism on the global footballing stage—especially in advance of a US World Cup bid—ESPN's choice to go with Darke in the booth and Steve McManaman on the half-time panel, coupled with Don Garber's insistence on a winter calendar and the recent rebirth of Sporting Kansas City Sporting Club, should give you pause.

But the big advantage right now in writing about MLS is that it is largely ignored by major press outlets. Therefore, starting a reasonably good MLS blog—meaning one that features full sentences, consistent updates, and a unique perspective (which could even mean writing consistently about one team in particular)—might just get you invited to a "Bloggers summit" with the league commissioner as a drop-in guest. The roundtable meeting at the Intercontinental hotel on Front Street that Don Garber attended and which I attempted (and failed) to crash on Saturday wouldn't happen in any other professional set-up in North America, and certainly would never happen in any league in Europe (except maybe the Bundesliga, and even then it would be extraordinary).

Niggling issues aside, it's hard to see what more MLS could do to court independent soccer writers. Major League Soccer's reliance on journalistic interest from any and all quarters is such that blogger access ("access" here meaning the freedom of bloggers to ask questions of those in power without the league actively getting in the way) isn't a serious issue. It's easy to see why—the Sunday NY Times featured an AP wire report on the European action but not a single drop of ink on the MLS Cup, while today's Toronto Star had a small sarcastic write up on the bottom of the Sports page, nothing in the A section. Garber needs the pajama people, at least for now.

The problem, it seems to me, is that many MLS bloggers don't quite believe it yet. While there is a tremendous amount of quality in MLS writing circles, there remains a lingering "forum" mentality. That means you get a lot of intra-blog sniping, one-off posts about player trials or likely starting elevens ahead of match day, standard imitation-style match reports, soft-ball insidery interviews, and a lot of fan-boyish prose. MLS bloggers decry the lack of mainstream coverage of their sport, but then report on the league in such a way that only the MLS hardcore will read. In other words, bloggers are fans, not journalists.

Maybe that's okay, but I don't think that helps the legitimacy of the league, or of MLS blogs. Let me give you a simple idea of what I mean. Read this article by Barney Ronay. You might think it's stupid—a post on Ancelotti's eyebrows?—but notice how he takes a few steps back from the primary source sports reporting and uses a simple (if clumsy) metaphor for Ancelotti's personality, and to describe his relationship to the English press corps. In other words, Ronay tries to tell a story.

MLS bloggers aren't telling enough stories about MLS. They aren't making it interesting for the half-arsed MLS types in search for some measure of personality in this league. They aren't writing character pieces on Conor Casey, or comparing various (and often equally terrible) league refs. They aren't poking enough fun at Don Garber's grandiose friendly gangster image, or the marketing gurus behind various MLS clubs, some of whom I overheard at the hotel bar talking more excitedly about Sunday's NFL line-up than the MLS Cup. And they're not doing it in a way that makes the league accessible to curious fans.

Maybe it's because they're worried about pleasing their niche, or maybe they're simply not interested. After all, soccer bloggers aren't sports journalists. Journalists aren't beholden to fans, they're beholden to readers of all stripes and interests, and editors too. They're forced to find a lead, an angle, a narrative to make their report accessible, because finding an interesting story in the sport serves the purpose of drawing the hockey fan over to read a story about soccer.

Telling a story doesn't mean writing pro MLS propaganda, but neither does it mean childishly dismissing the league altogether (see Cathal Kelly's Toronto Star column this morning, not online, thank god). I'm as guilty as anyone else when it comes to this in Major League Soccer. Finding and telling stories is hard work (often all I do at AMSL is riff off the generally accepted British narrative of the Premier League). But I think now is the perfect opportunity for new or established bloggers to step in and get noticed by trying something different with MLS, because, if this weekend taught me anything, it's that MLS writers are instrumental to the future success of the league. Journalists have been crucial in helping the cause of pro soccer in North America before, and often their interest and storytelling means the difference between success and failure. But that time has past, and the job of telling MLS' stories has fallen on the independent writers who have flocked to the web in droves. It's time we put the forum writer attitude aside and realized it.


Charley said...

good take on this and I agree. but at the same time, I don't see how this is likely to happen. The resources needed for a blogger to write that way, with insightful articles not being covered everywhere else, are too great for most fan bloggers.

The reason most bloggers blog about their teams and the league itself is their geeky love for it. Buzz loves FC Dallas and that's why he has been doing what he does for 15 years over at 3rd Degree. Guys for every blog do it because they love it and their team. They write for themselves as much as for the community, and normally that means that their posts aren't geared toward pleasing the common MLS fan, but the ultra MLS nerds who live and breath this stuff.

We do need better MLS journalism. Better in the breadth of issues and in reaching out to common fans looking to learn more. We need bloggers to draw people in, but I just don't see most people wanting to do it unless they see themselves as future journalists looking for a big break.

Even then, it takes resources that i don't think a lot of bloggers have. They are stuck with secondary sources. the passionate guy from Buffalo who loves the San Jose Earthquakes and is the blogger for "Shake the Earth" a blog dedicated to SJE isn't going to be able to go to too many practices or games and get insight from the players.

mensajes claro gratis said...

The big reason most bloggers blog about their teams and the league itself is their so geeky

Steve said...

Richard, if someone would pay me even as low as $28k-$30k a year, I'd do all of these things and more. Everything you said relates to the sort of pieces I want to right, and in fact it's my desire to do more than irrelevant fanboying that prevents me from churning out consistent copy.

But frankly, I have a full-time job. I have bills to pay. I have an exorbitant rent, horrible student loan bills, and zero time to put all of this together. Months ago I did an interview with then-Revs academy director Karl Edmonds and never released a story on it because I couldn't find the time to write it and push it. The problem with the MLS blogger right now is that the real world makes it too difficult to be sustainable in any but the most ideal conditions.

Steve said...

And then, of course, I say "right" instead of "write." Real vote of confidence for my abilities.

Anonymous said...

(often all I do at AMSL is riff off the generally accepted British narrative of the Premier League).

Speaking of...
is there a reason that every north american media HAS to have the token brit to give credence? Still?
Are we just too stupid or do people really think that a broadcast sounds more intelligent when someone has an accent?
I see it work the other way, it only helps reinforce the stereotype that its a foreigners game.
TSN, CBC, Sportnet, need their english quota.

It says a lot about insecurities that we still do this decades later.

My french speaking friends tell me that RDS, the english TSN (minus the 24/7 poker) also does that with the token import from France but that french CBC use an all quebecois crew for both Impact and World Cup games and those were some of the most enjoyable broadcasters theyd heard.

Didnt watch the Final this year.

it wasnt on ABC, TSN, RDS, Sportsnet and I sure wasnt going to a bar to watch it. I could have watched a pirated video feed but didnt care enough to bother.

Anonymous said...

I think you may be on to something within the albeit small world of MLS blogging. But, don't get ahead of yourself...MLS' viability depends on the quality of play and the quality of players. Nothing else.

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