Monday, April 18, 2011

Interviewing the Pros, What Sports Writers Think about RSL and MLS

Back in 2008 I interviewed Michael Lewis (@RSLTribune) and James Edward (@DesNewsReal) about RSL, MLS, and what it was like to cover them. With all the changes in the world of RSL, I wanted to reprise that interview. Michael was kind enough to join me again. This time around, he's joined by Jeremy Horton (@RSL_Jeremy) who writes for

RSL and MLS have come a long way since the last interview, I can't wait to see what happens next.

Local coverage of RSL has exploded. Where do you think RSL and MLS sit in terms of the local sports scene? What about the national scene?

JH: I've seen big strides in not just the amount of coverage RSL is getting locally, but the quality of coverage has improved as well. Print and TV media are taking RSL more seriously, and their reporters are more soccer-saavy and knowledgeable. You still get the occasional "soccer sucks...why do I have to be here?" article, but there's a lot less of that. RSL still gets less love than college football and the Jazz, but the gap is narrowing. I think that's due to exactly one thing: winning.

Nationally, RSL has become the darling of American soccer. It's a feel-good story; small market team, no big names. People love this stuff. Right now I'm getting 5 times the normal amount of e-mail from soccer reporters around the country, asking questions about RSL. I think it's great for the team and MLS in general.

MCL: Judging by the traffic our RSL coverage generates, I would say that RSL sits a strong third in its local market, behind the Jazz and the two universities, Utah and Brigham Young. What's been most interesting to me is that the team seems to have forged its own niche of fans relatively independent of the other sports in town. Not that there isn't any overlap, but there's not as much as some might have imagined would have been necessary for this club to thrive. In fact, it seems to have a fan base that is very independent and dedicated to it foremost. Of course, it's not to the point that RSL can generate much interest among the sports-radio crowd — and Jeremy is right; surely every article includes some dullard's online comment that "soccer's dumb, can't use your hands!" — but that probably isn't the case anywhere in the U.S.

Nationally, I'd say RSL is a monster story within the soccer community. It has often been a major focus for national magazines and web sites the past 18 months because of its successes and the way it has achieved them — with its "team is the star" approach. That's an appealing storyline, as well as a difficult one to manage in the world of modern sports, so I think that helps. It also helps that RSL has built itself to this level from its very humble origins as an absolutely train wreck of a team, in its early years.

JH: Mike brings up a great point about insulation in the RSL market. I feel like a lot of RSL fans are more dedicated than your average Jazz or college sports fan, but that average sports fan isn't as likely to ever show up at an RSL game on a whim. So the insulative effect kind of goes both ways.

Last time around we talked a bit about RSL's potential for growth. James and Michael both pointed to growth/attendance as a function of success on the field. It looks like their observations have held true. What do you think needs to happen off the field for RSL to capitalize on it's current run of success?

JH: Off the field, I believe RSL need to keep finding ways to turn occasional attendees into regular attendees. I think RSL have made significant strides in garnering support from within the Latino community - success in the Champion's League has helped a lot. They need to keep building that relationship. I also think RSL need to strengthen their ties in the youth soccer community because those "soccer families" are a key support base. Their newly-announced relationship with Sparta is a great step. Finally, the team should do more to reach out to the college demographic. They won't take in tons of money now, but making them into fans now will pay dividends in the future when they have families and disposable income.

MCL: I agree that those are laudable and potentially effective goals, but I also believe that there is nothing any team can do off the field that achieves more than winning on the field does. It lures ever more casual fans who then might enjoy the games and become more dedicated, and their kids grow up with soccer as the same kind of authentic backdrop as baseball, football and basketball have been for generations of sports fans in the United States. Conversely, losing teams almost never, in my experience, enjoy great crowds because they have some partnership with a club program or great promotional displays at the grocery store. Winning sells, more than anything else.

JH: Obviously Mike is right on the money. I mentioned some things RSL can do off the field, but continuing to win will help RSL grow more than everything else put together. They're about to sell out the Champion's League final two weeks in advance with almost no marketing specifically for this game. That's what success on the field will do for you.

If you could change one thing about the way RSL's front office interacts with the media, what would it be?

JH: Honestly, nothing. I wouldn't change a thing. The front office has always been first-class with me, even when I was an amateur blogger. They used to drag players down to the Salt Lake library for us to interview on The RSL Show - one or two players every week for five years and counting! One day Robbie Findley was sitting there on the show rapping, and I asked myself, 'would Kobe Bryant ever be doing this'? Not a chance. Only this franchise would make players that accessible to a bunch of regular guys like me. And because of that, my name got out there and I eventually landed in this career. I will be forever grateful to the front office for that.

MCL: Don't think I'd change anything, either. Surely it owes in part to the team's origins as an entity trying to carve out a niche for itself in the marketplace, but it continues to provide fantastic service to those of us in the news media. Access is incredible -- miss somebody at practice? they'll have him call you -- the entire staff is approachable, friendly, honest and forthcoming. Don't think you can find that at many major sports organizations. At the root of it, I sense, is a feeling from the top down that treating the media well and respectfully begets a certain reciprocity. It also illustrates an understanding that we are there mostly to tell the team's story. Yes, that might sometimes include negative appraisals or difficult circumstances. But even then, it's not the end of the world, and this team as much as any other appreciates that greater access and availability allows a broader story to be told, and a greater inclination for media outlets to provide coverage. The hard truth is, if you make it too hard for people to cover your team -- especially when you're an upstart soccer team in the United States and not the NFL or NBA -- you make it really easy for people not to bother. This team has done the opposite, and I think very clearly have reaped serious benefits.

As for other teams, I have found most of them pretty accommodating and professional as well, though a few still sometimes make things more difficult than they need to be or act a little too self-important. Thankfully, that's pretty rare.

RSL's daily news roundup is including a lot more fan-produced, blog material. How do you think this kind of information impacts your role as a professional reporter? How do you interact with it?

JH: I love it. I love seeing fans producing material because they have a passion for the team that no indifferent beat writer can manufacture. It probably helps that I got my start in that same vein. The proliferation of social media means more people have access to players' thoughts, which increases the legitimacy of fan-produced material. I don't really feel like fan-produced material is impacting what I do because I don't really view us as competitors. I feel we're more like teammates. My opinion is there can never be too much coverage out there. And you're starting to see the major print and TV media outlets start to incorporate or quote these bloggers, which I think is the right thing to do.

MCL: Again, I think part of RSL's willingness to embrace that aspect of the media stems from the fact that it's hard for a soccer team in the U.S. to generate a ton of news coverage in significant portions of the mainstream media. But it's also true that the media landscape is shifting significantly to include more and more fan-generated content, blogs, etc., and I don't see how that's necessarily a bad thing. It might not be the prototypical "professional journalism," per se -- it's harder for fans and bloggers to invest the time and effort it takes to cover the team on a regular, in-depth basis, and I think there will always be a demand for those of us in the media who can -- but the opinions and analysis expressed in those forums are hardly any less valid. Some of those fans and bloggers are really very well educated on the team and the game, and I've found I've learned quite a lot from them. If nothing else, they inform the discussion, and as Jeremy said, I don't think there's any such thing as too much coverage.

I see a bit of grumbling from fans of other teams, and I remember grumbling about MLS' handling of the Galaxy leading up to the 2009 championship. What impact do you think being a media darling has on RSL's fans and potential fans?

JH:Sure, other teams' fans will grumble - that's the nature of being a sports fan. We always want our team to get the press and not the others. But for those who are RSL fans or potentially could be, being the "media darling" is nothing but a positive. Especially given the character and hard work that RSL's coaches and players display on the field, and their humility off the field, make them the kind of team that people like to get behind. The way the players get behind each other and their "team is the star" attitude is appealing to us average joes. That's how we want things to go at our jobs, but it seems like every company has its David Beckham, doesn't it? So the media attention is nothing but a plus for RSL fans and potential fans.

MCL: If you mean that people grumble because some teams in the league sometimes appear to be treated as the "stars" without the credentials to back it up, well, that's just always going to happen, in every league in every sport. But RSL has done so well that it has started to reverse that -- seems like you can't watch an MLS game anymore without the broadcasters raving about what a great job they're doing at RSL -- which surely satisfies a fan base that has grown accustomed (and weary) of the big-market teams getting so much of the attention even before they have done anything. There are so many potential fans who might become interested now, too, because RSL is being mentioned all over the country (and the region, with Champions League) by virtue of its increasingly impressive performances. Many of those people might never have known RSL had existed, in the past.

What are your favorite RSL memories of the last couple of years?

JH: Obviously the MLS Cup run was great, as has been the Champion's League so far, but my best memories center around the nondescript moments: warm summer nights at the stadium, working with the front office, getting to know the players. The fans obviously know we've got great soccer players here, but they may not understand that these great players are also great people. So I'd say watching this team grow and come together over the last few years has become the most indellible memory I've got.

MCL: I must say that I won't soon forget how quickly a roaring sellout stadium in practically a shantytown of a neighborhood in Costa Rica can fall almost entirely silent, courtesy of RSL's Jamison Olave the other night.

My other favorite memories include wondering just how long it was going to take his teammates to finally reach Robbie Russell to mob him after the winning penalty kick at the 2009 MLS Cup — their rush to do so seemed to take FOREVER! — and sitting stunned at how RSL came roaring back in that playoff game in Columbus that started their drive to the Cup. Most of all, I'd say I have really enjoyed getting to learn more about the sport — I was a total neophyte when I began covering RSL in 2005 — and the way the players, coaches and team executives have been so willing to help teach me, even if they didn't even really know they were doing it. Although I'm far from an expert, I do feel like I have a much greater grasp of the game, and a far greater appreciation of it.

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