Saturday, July 5, 2008

Interview with James Edward and Michael Lewis

I’ve really enjoyed seeing more coverage of soccer in Utah (although it’s pretty RSL-centric). I wanted to get a better feel for the coverage, so I asked Michael Lewis from the Salt Lake Tribune James Edward of the Deseret News if they’d be willing to answer some questions in a joint interview. They were both happy to respond, and the following is the result:

Covering soccer seems like a dream job to a lot of fans, how did you end up in your positions?

Michael I’ve covered a lot in my 15 years at the Tribune, including college football and basketball, the Jazz and the Olympics. So when RSL came along, it was sort of something new that I hadn’t done. Plus, let’s be honest, they make some great road trips (though we don’t travel much anymore, with the slumping industry and economy) and nobody else really wanted the beat.

James I guess you would say I’ve been in the right spot at the right time each step of the way. I was a student at the University of Utah when women’s soccer was added for Title IX compliance 1996, and I ended up covering the Utes for two years for the Daily Utah Chronicle. That was my springboard to cover high school soccer for the Deseret News after college. Within a few years I’d established myself as the soccer beat writer for the Deseret News, so when the Utah Blitzz came to town that was my beat as well. From there it was a natural transition to Real Salt Lake.

What are the up- and down-sides to covering the game professionally instead of just being a fan?

James One of the reasons I love soccer is the unpredictability of when a goal will be scored, and thus the excitement when it finally happens. In journalism neutrality is one of our main responsibilities. You can’t be a fan, it’s a simple as that. There are times when I would like be excited about Major League Soccer in my home town from a fans point of view, but it’s just not realistic with my job.

Michael The upside is getting to know a little bit firsthand about why coaches and players do what they do, in terms of strategy, in particular. Not many fans have access to those guys, to ask them questions about the way they work. The downside? That’s easy. You can’t go right home when the game’s over; you have to stay and write your articles. Plus, no beer during. Ouch.

It looks like interest in soccer is on the rise in Utah and the rest of the country. What do you see as the next steps for the sport locally?

Michael I don’t know. I’ve grown a bit skeptical of the whole “soccer on the rise” story we’ve been hearing for a number of years now. Not that it hasn’t grown or won’t continue to grow, but I don’t know that it’s going to suddenly “explode” in the fashion that sometimes seems to be expected. Rather, I think the sport’s growth will be more gradual, as it slowly becomes more a part of the culture, particularly with children as they grow up. But the dominance of other sports in the United States is going to make that a very long road, in my opinion. However, if the U.S. men’s national team could ever become an elite team—that is, capable of regularly beating some of the best teams in the world, and not just Grenada and Turks & Caicos—I can see a bit more of a surge happening because of what I presume would be significantly more exposure.

James In actuality, attendance is on the decline for Real Salt Lake this year. If you take away the Chicago and L.A. Galaxy games, and their obvious draws, RSL is averaging several thousand fewer fans than in previous years—despite a better product than those previous years. I think the team is paying past disappointments. Fans are deciding to spend their money elsewhere (maybe on gasoline). There are probably countless reasons why, but Utah is a fickle sports town and fans won’t come if you aren’t winning. And when you aren’t winning local TV stations don’t pay attention, which only compounds the issue. In this market, it’s all about winning.

Since both of you are playing the skeptic card, do you think RSL and Soccer in the US are going to make it?

James As for being skeptical, I’m more skeptical about RSL’s current attendance predicament than soccer in this country. I am a soccer guy, and I believe it’s here to stay. But I just don’t see it becoming mainstream for another 15 or 20 years, until my kid’s generation become adults who are more likely to purchase tickets to matches because they’ve been exposed to it their whole lives. The majority of 40, 50 and 60 year olds in this country have never had any exposure to soccer so it’s completely foreign to them. My generation (early 30s) is much more accepting because it’s been around professionally and therefore we’ve been exposed to it for over a dozen years. I give it one more generation until our U.S. National Team is truly competitive, and MLS is playing in front of sellout crowds almost every weekend.

Michael Certainly, James is right about the waning attendance at RSL games; I do believe they ruined their chance to enjoy a greater degree of public goodwill with a stadium effort that was widely viewed as a boondoggle and a product that was atrocious for three years. I know a number of people who wanted to be fans early on, and bought tickets, but ultimately couldn’t bring themselves to do it anymore, because the team was so bad. That’s an element that might be hard to recapture. I would venture to say that most—not all, but most—people who would identify themselves as sports fans in the SLC market would not call themselves RSL fans.

How do you think the fans will respond to starting the ‘09 season in the new stadium?

Michael Very much like they did with the team itself. I expect a great deal of interest in what really will be a beautiful stadium—for awhile. But after an initial surge of interest, I think fans once again will attend or not depending entirely on whether RSL is any good. Nobody goes to games for the stadium, after all, with a couple of rare exceptions. Once fans get familiar with the new place, the novelty will wear off and the team is going to have to perform to fill it.

James Utah a front-runner town, everyone loves a fad. Beanie Babies, the Cheesecake Factory and the Utah Grizzlies just to name a few. Some anti-stadium people will never set foot in the stadium—until there kid plays a high school football playoff game there somebody and then they’ll forget about their lame boycott—but enough people will come each weekend to check out the novelty of the stadium many nights will be sellouts. If RSL treats them to victories and entertaining soccer, many of them will come back.

One complaint that I’ve heard is that the RSL front office doesn’t do a good job of marketing to the local latino population. How do you think they could improve?

James I honestly have absolutely no idea. It’s clear though that they would prefer to keep their affiliation with a team they can only ever watch on television instead of embracing a team where they live. At the end of the day, the overall level of soccer is comparable.

Michael That’s a good question, and one to which I don’t really have an answer. I’m not a marketing guy, after all. I would posit that even successful marketing might not show a tremendously tangible result here, considering that while the Hispanic/Latino population is growing in Utah, it’s still a small minority. That said, it might help to have some players on the team from Mexico and/or Central America, which I think is the region from which most of our local Hispanic/Latino population originates. In fact, RSL has never had a Mexican player, and its only Central American players of any consequence were Costa Rican—and there were only two of them, now gone. (Currently, I think all of RSL’s Spanish-speaking players are South American, from Argentina or Colombia.) It might also be that local Hispanic/Latino fans are accustomed to a higher level of soccer and/or more educated about the game, and perceive RSL to be a poor quality substitute. Certainly, the results on the field in the first three years could have reinforced that idea. And if that’s the case, no amount of marketing is going to “work.” Winning is the best marketing, always.

What’s your favorite RSL memory?

James For me it has to be that first game ever in New York in 2005. I was fortunate enough to be there, and excitement leading up to that game was unbelievable. It was surreal that an MLS team from Salt Lake City was actually taking the field for the first time. Then there was the weather. The wind and rain were so strong, it was really a comedy of errors. In reality, the game should’ve just been postponed. There were maybe 300 people there watching the 0-0 tie. It’s one of those stories I will always tell, one with a disclaimer that says you really had to be there to believe it.

Michael I think it’s probably the first game-winning goal they ever scored, by Brian Dunseth in RSL’s first-ever home game. Dunseth scored in the 81st minute to beat Colorado, then ran over and lifted the corner flag, theatrically “planting” it again into the turf, as if to “announce his presence with authority,” to paraphrase one of history’s greatest fictional baseball players. It seemed like great theatre at the time—the demonstrative start of a great story—but after everything that has gone on since then, it seems now so laughably impotent.

Other than RSL, what are your favorite soccer teams/leagues/events?

James I follow high school soccer for my job, but other than that there really isn’t time to get involved locally. I've watched the EPL and other European Leagues for several years now thanks to Fox Soccer Channel. I struggled to pick a favorite team until Bobby Convey helped Reading make the jump to the EPL. Now Reading is back in the League Championship, but I'm committed to the core when it comes to being a Reading fan from now on.

Michael I must say, I was pretty new to soccer when I started covering it (can’t tell, can you?), so I don’t have much of a built-in history with the sport. However, I have been to exactly one (1) English Premier League game, at West Ham, thanks to a player who helped my wife and I secure tickets. So I’m a big Hammers guy now, still angry at ManU for taking Carlos Tevez. :-)

If you had a friend that was headed out to his first MLS game, what would you want him to be doing/watching for to have the best experience at the game?

Michael For starters, I would hope that he gets to see his first MLS game at the Home Depot Center, or BMO Field, or somewhere that has a better atmosphere than Rice-Eccles Stadium. That’s half the fun, it seems to me, enjoying the excitement of the fans when they’re really geared up. Otherwise? Geez, I don’t know. The one thing I’ve always told people who ask is that watching soccer live is so much better than watching it on TV, if only because your full-field view allows a much better appreciation for what the teams are trying to do, strategically. You can see the way they try to set up attacks, or get back to defend, or what have you. Much of that is difficult to appreciate on TV. I guess I would tell him to try to appreciate the athleticism involved in doing what these guys do. That’s another thing I think is much better communicated in person.

James This is a tough question. I think everyone watches the game differently. If I had to explain one thing before the game to a friend I would let he or she know that the game might end in a tie. That’s just the way soccer is. Each game represents 1/30th of the entire season, and you have to treat each game as extension of the season. Explain why overtime isn’t played because of a fatigue. Soccer haters just can’t grasps this, but I think it’s because no one’s every explained it to them properly. I think most objective people will understand why a 0-0 draw wasn’t worthless if they have a little background.

Will RSL make the playoffs this year?

Michael Dare I say it? Yes. But just barely.

James That’s a tough one. I will say yes, because you’ve got to think RSL will find a way to win a few more road games. But that stretch in August and September when RSL plays 6 of 8 games on the road, that is going to be brutal. It will definitely make or break their season, which is why 0-0 draws against Kansas City and San Jose have the potential to be extremely costly in the long run.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Nice read. Although I would say that the answers they both gave to "is soccer/RSL here to stay" were a little narrow minded. I mean sure in Utah, maybe 40-60 year olds don't know about about soccer, but other areas of the country have had steady soccer exposure for 30 years+. You asked a 2 part question and they basically spoke like Utah was a good example of the rest of the country. It isn't. :)