Friday, February 25, 2011

An brief idea for a new kind of football podcast

Lots of interesting media stories this week, particularly related to television rights. I probably don't need to dedicate an entire post to the subtext of the FA gearing up for a possible battle with UEFA over television rights monies from England qualifiers amid news that YouTube is going to get into the live sports streaming business. There are a lot of unanswered questions about what YouTube is up to (or at least I haven't been able to find answers to them) like whether they would charge a user fee or rely solely on advertising dollars, whether they would be bidding directly against TV companies or as a separate adjunct, and just how this will effect the value of TV rights, especially if it takes off causing fewer people to bother with the cost of cable to watch football matches. Perhaps some industry insiders/more knowledgeable people could help shed some light on the subject.

No, what I want to write about is football podcasts. This post has been brewing in my head for some time, and came to a head after I read Sid Lowe's Xavi interview. It was brilliant, but I don't think I'm alone in thinking it was too short. I felt the same about Brian Straus' excellent interview with MLS commish Don "the Don" Garber.

In recent weeks I've become quite a fan of Marc Maron's WTF podcast, in part because the format is so raw, essentially an unedited hour long interview without pre-approved questions. It's more of a recorded conversation. Maron is an LA-based stand-up comedian, and most of his interviewees are comedians as well (with a few interesting exceptions, like "This American Life" host Ira Glass). He is unabashedly honest about his career arc (he calls himself a "farm team" comic), his many resentments, his previous addictions, his character foibles, everything. The result is an interview without a hint of sycophancy, PR control, or overly-intrusive formatting. I have never anywhere else heard interviews with high-profile people as candid as Maron's.

The idea of having something similar for footballers, managers, owners or coaches--not necessarily the biggest stars, but perhaps players known for their strong opinions on the game who could express themselves without ruffling too many feathers--is very compelling to me. I understand for most journalists, getting to sit down with any player over an extended period of time can be an absolute nightmare. I also understand it's very hard for football podcasts to find an interesting way to break the traditional mold of a bunch of people in a room talking about football.

But what if it were a former player or someone closely connected to the game doing the interviews? What if that player maybe consulted with a seasoned producer over the standard interview format, broadcasting style, and possible questions? Rohan Ricketts would be an interesting candidate for example, based on his previous work in trying to reveal things about life in football. The whole thing could be utterly terrible, but the prospect of hearing players speak their own minds about how the game works, how managers operate, what it's like working with agents and negotiating transfers seems like it would be worth a try. Right now, almost everything we know about this side of the game is filtered through journalists. The podcast format would offer a safer, more relaxed conversational space for players to speak their mind on the modern game, on their life growing up in academies away from home, on the money culture valued by many top professionals.

Just putting it out there.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Okay, some actual practical advice on soccer blogging*

Wow, did yesterday's post ever open a vein. Response was enthusiastic, although there was some notable dissent from my perspective on how to be a successful soccer writer on the web. The first criticism was I didn't define "success" in soccer blogging. The second was that I offered no "practical advice," and third, I seemed to be implying that making a living from writing isn't as important as caring about what you write (I should also say I didn't mean to rap any knuckles over the use of social media; I've been guilty of spamming this blog on twitter more than once). So to answer these criticisms, here is AMSL's definitive guide on how to be a successful soccer blogger.

What defines success in soccer blogging?
Before diving in and starting your own soccer blog, the first question you might sensibly ask yourself is why? If you love the game and have some unique perspectives on it, or if you love sportswriting, or you want to connect with other soccer-lovers, that's fine. If you want to make a bit of money on the side from a fun hobby, that's fine too. If you want to eventually get noticed by a newspaper or a magazine and be given a full-time salary and press credentials to go to FIFA World Cup games, finally achieving your dream of becoming a professional sportswriter, well, that's okay, but there's a quicker, if more laborious process to get that.

It's called freelance writing.

With freelancing, the sweet payoff of seeing your words in print comes a lot later as there's no "publish post" button to press, just editors to harass. You also have to work very hard at the start to "get clippings." But by sticking with it, you get paid real money, and ultimately will open more doors for you in freelancing if you're a talented writer. Defining "success" in freelancing is therefore very easy; if you're making money, you're successful.

Soccer blogging might get you real money some day, but it takes far, far more luck, perseverance, and a hell of a lot of writing for free, not to mention the vain hope the publishing industry will suddenly leap to the internet for salvation. This is the same reality lived by even the most talented soccer bloggers out there. So if getting swallowed up by a print pub or getting showered with living-wage-sized cash isn't a realistic goal, what is the soccer blogger's yardstick of success?

That's up to you, but my advice is to view any and all "success" as a pleasant side effect of doing the work. Those side effects might include getting reader comments, feeling really good about something you wrote, getting solicited for paid work, getting to write for magazines and newspapers and all the rest, and money. But while those things are important, they shouldn't ever interfere with your writing. That comes first, the rest is all secondary. I find if you stick to that outlook, some measure of what we conventionally define as "success" will naturally follow. So how do you be the best soccer writer you can be? To paraphrase Stephen King,

Write everyday, read everyday, watch a lot of soccer
That's it. All success in soccer blogging derives from these three rules. Any "practical advice" I could give you, like whether to choose Wordpress over blogger, whether to host your own site or buy your own domain, whether to use a blogging template or learn CSS and HTML to make your own, whether to write about MLS or Serie A, whatever, will be determined by practicing these rules, even if its with a paper and pen to start (if you really want to get going, just use Blogger for now. You can switch later). You will figure it out as you go along.

The fact is, soccer writing isn't a talent, if we take "talent" to mean some sort of in-grown facility for stringing words together or playing the piano or landing a 747.

You may have heard of the "10 000 hour rule," which basically is one of those non-rule rules that Malcolm Gladwell likes because it explains away our preconceived notions about how the world works with a mundane snap of the finger. Anyway, you can google it if you want, but the idea is behind it is that exceptional talent is merely the result of many, many hours of focused, hard work. Ten thousand hours of work, to be exact. And not just half-arsed work either. Focused, deliberate, work.

The good news with soccer blogging is that the work is fun. I love writing. I love reading. And like all of you, I adore watching football. If that describes you, jump in.

The bad news is that it will take a long time to see any measure of progress. Success and longevity go hand in hand, but remember, success is still a side effect of doing the work.  If you're worried about figuring out your style, what you want to write about, if you want to do a team blog or a generalist blog or a niche blog, whether you want to do more op-ed type stuff or do interviews, whether you want to include a podcast, etc., time will take care of all that. The most important thing is that you're writing and writing right this very minute. You don't need to do it for three hours every day either, but you do need to do it every, single, day.

As for reading, notice I didn't write "read things about soccer everyday," although you should definitely pack your RSS feeds with soccer blogs you like, soccer columnists you like, etc. Any and all reading, the more diverse the better, is good for you. It makes you a better writer even before you've sat down at a keyboard. Read everything; WSC, the Sun, the New Yorker, the fiction of Henry James, it doesn't matter. Just try and read something everyday not directly soccer-related. The only book I think you absolutely HAVE to read as a soccer blogger is Strunk and White's Elements of Style, but I'm conservative that way.

And as for watching soccer, well, that's the easy bit.

There you have it. Don't blog if you want money and success tomorrow. Blog if you want them in five years, maybe. But remember the trick: do the work first. That's your job. To sit there.

*sort of, not really.

Photo: bionicteaching.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

How to be a successful soccer writer on the Internet*

I've spent the morning reading a few bookmarked articles on the AOL/Huffington Post takeover in the New York Times, specifically on whether the Huffington Post makes its money "on the backs" of unpaid bloggers. If you believe the answer is "yes," I'd recommend reading through Nate Silver's HuffPo page-view breakdown from last week. After some expert speculative number-crunching, the conclusion Silver reaches seems beyond obvious to me: if you choose to write for a massive web-hub like the Huffington Post, rather than taking the time to start-up your own blog with one of countless blog publishing software platforms available on the web, don't be surprised if you end up posting a lot of stuff that never gets read, paid for, or leads anywhere except more ignored articles on HuffPo.

Most of the "web is killing writers' livelihoods" rants come predictably from the old guard—established journos at money-losing newspapers who are still under the illusion that written content has intrinsic monetary value. Like a lot of people, journalists confuse "use-value," i.e. the original, well-written and newsworthy article, with "market value," once measured in print advertisement dollars and now determined by the more economically unforgiving page-views. I've written about this before so I don't want to have to break it down again, but because publishing no longer requires a capital-heavy investment (the print press) which paid for itself by giving individual publishers an inherently large market share, the value of written content per se in the internet age has taken a nose dive. Magazines and newspapers now compete with a vast, free and self-published behemoth with millions of unpaid content producers, who sometimes aren't even aware they're producing content at all.

This doesn't however mean the end of soccer writing as a career for the aspiring sports journalist.

Here's why.

In the old days, if you wanted to be a sports writer, you hustled. Maybe that meant starting out as an intern at a newspaper or magazine, doing a fifty-word side-bar blurb once every six months in between fetching the entire editorial staff coffee every morning. Or maybe it involved hours of researching stories and sending out queries with self-addressed envelopes from your basement with a one in ten success rate, if you were lucky. The stories themselves were of course tailored to whichever publication you wanted to write for, and if you were smart, would reflect the general editorial tone of the magazine or paper. After a while, if a certain publisher liked you, you got hired on full-time as staff. If you were a shitty researcher, interviewer, fact-checker, and writer, you wouldn't get very far. It was, as far as meritocracies go, pretty equitable.

But ultimately, the bar to entry was high, and labour-intensive. There was no time for taking risks, putting yourself in the articles, or trying a few off-handed thought experiments. If you were too stuck on one particular niche, you wouldn't get a lot of work as a writer. Spots in print publications were very limited and you had to work your ass off to match your vision with the editor to get those spots.

Today with the Interwebinet, you can basically skip the whole "impress the editors by proving your a great journo" hustle and jump right in to writing whatever you bloody well want to write about in soccer in whatever style or format or focus. This is however by no means a guarantee of success with readers. For example,

  • If you're a shitty writer, no one will read you. 
  • If you're not a shitty writer but you want to write Premier League match-reports for your own self-published blog, not very many people will read you unless your match reports are truly something special. 
  • If you're a good writer but you decide to start out by writing for someone else's soccer blog and not take the time to create your own, you've made it all the more difficult for readers to notice you. 
  • If you spam other blogs with comments, not because you have something to say and want to say it because you're a normal person, but because you read on some shitty blog about blogging that told you to do that to "get links", you've got the soccer blogging equivalent of the plague. 
  • If you use twitter not as a means of communicating but as a means of spamming for your site, you have the soccer blogging equivalent of malaria. 
  • If you view any social media as a means of "building relationships" rather than having fun and meeting like-minded people who love football, well, you're transparent. 
  • If you view the blogosphere as a career ladder rather than a community, you're wearing a scarlet letter. 
  • If you expect to make money from soccer blogging, well, you're delusional.

In other words, the bar to success in soccer writing is still pretty high. But what's important now isn't proving your journalistic and editorial chops to total strangers via clippings from community newspapers—it's honestly loving soccer, thinking about soccer a lot, reading about soccer a lot, wanting to think of new and better ways to write about soccer, and wanting to connect with other people who love to write about soccer too. In other words, the bar to success in soccer writing now is honesty. You can smell a fake from a mile away on the internet. If you're in this because you want to be "discovered," well, that's fine. But if that's your sole motivation, rather than offering something for your readers about the Beautiful Game that you love and want to share, well, it's going to be obvious. And you'll get passed over as just another aspiring soccer journalist, rather than an active soccer writer.

Ultimately, success in soccer writing comes from the same place it's always come from: doing the work. But while "the work" to get paid/respected for what you do is still very very hard, it's much more fun. Watch a lot of games. Read a lot of op-eds, or books, or bad player memoirs. Think about why you love the game. Watch games twice. Learn more about tactics, watch old clips of Sindelar on youtube, consume art, read non-soccer related things, be self-deprecating about your team, be funny, swear, link to things you like and say why you like them, talk to other writers like a normal person and not a "networker." Say yes a lot to things you think will let you do more of the above. And don't ever expect a paycheque unless you think you're being used and not appreciated.

Simple, right?

*the title should in no way lead the reader to assume a presumption of success on AMSL's part.

Photo: Annie Mole.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

AMSL News Update

Hello. While I haven't been here, I've been there, there being Canadian Soccer News writing what will now be a weekly Canadian soccer media column. Please have a look at this week's entry, if you like.

Normal business hours at AMSL soccer media concern will resume shortly as my employment situation finally settles (fingers crossed to the point of extreme, vomit-inducing pain!). Speaking of non-football related matters, I'm performing Bach's epic B-minor mass this week with Toronto's Tafelmusik, one the best pieces of music ever composed and a more-than-suitable soundtrack for any or all of Holland's matches from the 1974 World Cup in Germany.

I was interviewed for the liner notes and mentioned this blog, so if you're here because you're bored and your checking your iPhone mid-concert, welcome! Okay, now put your phone down and remember to check this site tomorrow morning instead (for godssake have some goddamn respect). There. Hi again, and apologies if I messed up during the performance last night. Anyway, if you're in the Toronto area and want to expand your musical horizons, you can buy tickets here.

More soon...

Thursday, February 3, 2011

On the one-hour death and resurrection of atdhe.net


Ian of the always relevant twohundredpercent—whose one-off media posts often make this blog cringe with embarrassment at its own output exclusively on the subject—already spoke well to this topic today so I won't add too much, except of course my own usual rambling take on things.

I don't want to argue shades-of-gray legal issues with regard to illegal feed farms. Whether sites like atdhe.net are strictly in line with the whichever country's copyright law or not is for the courts to decide and for sharper legal minds than mine to opine about. And I agree with Ian that the Department of Homeland's Security's decision to seize the domains of atdhe.net and rojadirecta.com was a mere gesture. All the Twitter hubbub died down as soon as everyone realized the sites were up and running again on different domains, literally in hours.

What I want to talk about specifically is iTunes and the sustainability of the television rights juggernaut that is European football.

We all know the story of what happened to the music industry in the past decade or so: an illegal market of mp3s sprang up via file sharing sites like Napster. Various courts of law were powerless to stop the trend as new, free-to-download software would always spring up to fill the gap. It was for a long time considered the end of recorded music as we know it.

Amid the carnage—and there was a lot of carnage as far as A & R's and record labels were concerned—came Apple's decision to quietly insist its ubiquitous iPod users download music for the price of 99 cents per song. At first it was widely assumed music thieves would simply laugh and keep on thieving, but the iTunes model stubbornly lived on. While not exactly the answer to the music industry's woes, iTunes did at least provide a light at the end of the tunnel for musicians wanting to earn some money from their trade, even though era of the million unit-selling,  champagne-swilling parties at the big recording label is over.

But iTunes worked because Apple already owned the biggest, most popular mp3 player in the world with iPod. In other words, it owned a closed-source delivery system for its product. Web-savvy people who love popular albums still have no reason to start paying money for what they can get for free on Limewire, but old people and people with unwieldy musical tastes like myself (try finding the choral works of Herbert Howells on file sharing software) use iTunes. We're not buying music as such but rather the convenience of not having to a) find a store/website that sells the CD and b) troll file-sharing software in the vain hope you'll find a decent recording of the Collegium Regale Te Deum. Which is good for smaller artists in need of exposure, and good for bigger artists who like to tour stadiums a lot, and bad for pretty much everyone else. It's the same model that many newspapers and magazines are hoping iPad will eventually provide for print content. Apple owns a closed-source content delivery system there as well—apps—and it seems consumers are willing to pay for them.

European football once owned (in a sense) a closed-source content delivery system via the selling of television rights. In fact, much of the bloated financial shitstorm that is modern football is grounded in the practice of forcing cable stations to out-bid one another and pay enormous sums for the right to show games. That model looked fairly intact as recently as a few years ago, when the internet was a last resort for football fans unable to get to the pub/afford cable (we all remember trolling Justin TV for a grainy Cantonese-language, five minute delayed feed of one Premier League match). Today however, there are feeds of pretty much all major European fixtures available in pretty good quality on more than one hub site. As soon as the individual feeds are cut off, new ones spring up via an ever-diversifying array of video streaming software. As Ian already mentioned, the individual site domains seized by the DHS have already relaunched. The tap can't be turned off.

This isn't an insignificant problem. Even if all the top European leagues went in on some sort of collective web hub for a market-friendly subscription fee for all-access, it could never match the revenue-generating power of television rights. Maybe the old habit of cable will die hard, but the high price of cable subscriptions means more and more soccer fans will turn to higher-quality illegal feeds to get their fix. Whether this is morally acceptable or not isn't the point; you're not going to make money by using international law to plug a million holes. We've already seen this with the music industry. The point is what happens if the web kills the value of TV rights? Hoping "technology" will somehow get up off the couch and help out Richard Scudamore make money one way or another might work, but that's an enormous gamble. What won't work, as we've seen this week, is relying on the law to make your money for you.

Photo by Johnny Vulcan.