With the increased media coverage for RSL this year, I've revisited my earlier media interviews (2008 and 2011). This time I've asked Michael Lewis (@MCLTribune), Jeremy Horton (@RSL_Jeremy), James Edward (@DesNewsReal), and Bill Riley (@espn700bill) to sit down and answer a few questions about RSL (@realsaltlake) and the media. Enjoy!
You might also want to check out My follow up with Spence and Dunny from "On Frame".
Pat: RSL's media footprint (and soccer's generally) is continuing to grow in Utah. How do you think this will affect RSL and our two PDL teams?
Michael: I don't know that media coverage has a great deal to do with the performance of the team on the field. Surely, though, more media coverage usually expands the reach of the teams being covered, and has the potential to bring in more fans and, in very broad and general terms, further empower a team with more revenue and resources. But I would say mainstream media coverage is growing slowly -- the team still cannot command much attention if something else important is going on -- and won't matter at all to the PDL teams, which few people even know exist.
Bill: I think that media coverage of any sort for RSL/MLS is a good thing at this point in time. We've certainly seen the coverage of the team grow as the success/sustained success has grown. It's grown to the point now that it's top of mind for more than just soccer fans. I don't think the media coverage has any real affect on the team's performance. To be very honest, I don't think the two PDL teams register with sports fans, perhaps just the extremely hardcore soccer fans. I don't see a time where they garner much more media coverage than teams like the Provo Angels or the Ogden Raptors.
Jeremy: I agree with Bill and Mike that media coverage doesn't directly affect RSL's performance. But I think there could be some indirect effects. If more people know about the product, that should increase the demand which in turn should lead to more ticket & merchandise sales. When the dollar figures are trending positive, team owners tend to be willing to reinvest in the product. To put it another way, I doubt the Galaxy would have bought David Beckham if they didn't think they could recoup most or all of his costs in the form of increased ticket sales and jersey revenues. So over time, I think the media can have some positive impact on the on-field product.
James: Through the years, I believe that both major newspapers in Salt Lake City have given RSL exceptional coverage. I think hardcore soccer fans appreciate it, but more than anything our commitment to covering RSL has demonstrated to non-soccer people that it's newsworthy whether they care or not. I think the biggest media development this year is the Ch. 4 deal. I don't think it can be overstated how big this is for growing the RSL brand in Utah. For the first time ever, if you own a TV and live in Utah — regardless of your cable provider — you can watch any RSL game. For casual fans who may or may not go to a game each year, the ability to watch matches on TV nonetheless will help them build a connection with the team.
Pat: How do you think the growing role of social media will impact RSL and the media's coverage of soccer?
Michael: Like other sports, social media (especially Twitter) often gives everybody, including journalists, a view inside the minds of the players who post there, and RSL has quite a number of players who do so. I think that can help broaden and deepen the quality of items produced about the team -- either in print or on TV -- by potentially exposing reporters to tidbits they otherwise might not have known about that can inform their pieces. More importantly, though, I see the *team* using the social media to effectively bypass the relative lack of mainstream media coverage to reach their fans. Soccer has always dealt with that problem in the United States, and so it has developed a much more advanced online following than, say, the Jazz. No longer does the team need to rely on newspapers or TV bytes to tell its fans what's coming up, or where to buy tickets, or how to win free stuff. All of that can be done directly, and the increasing quality of the league's branded web site MLSSoccer.com also helps with that.
Bill: Social media certainly helps out a sport like soccer that might not get wide spread media coverage in the US. It allows a team to target information to it's fans and supporters that might not reach them through the usual media channels. Here in SLC though I think that the media coverage, with our lack of numbers of professional sports franchises, of RSL is actually very good. I think that social media can assist the mainstream media with insight and information straight from players that might otherwise be overlooked. Again I don't think social media increases the coverage of soccer, just enhances.
Jeremy: One thing I think makes MLS really attractive to fans when compared to the other major U.S. sports leagues is how accessible the players are. You don't see many MLS players who have entourages and muscle following them everywhere. You won't get thrown out of the restaurant for asking Javi Morales for an autograph. Social media helps to fuel that image of MLS players as "just regular guys." As far as the media is concerned, you can already see the impact of that - most major publications and TV/radio spots are already repeating players' tweets. I think the RSL media outlets do a great job of mixing their own coverage and insight with input directly from the players via social media.
James: I'll echo what just about everyone else has said, social media allows RSL fans to have a much more personal connection with the team than ever before. Whether they're "liking" or "following" the fans can communicate directly with the players. From a media perspective, it's about the same. We interact with the players on a weekly basis at training, but social media helps us get a glimpse of their lives away from the game.
Pat: What do you enjoy about covering RSL? What are some of the harder aspects of providing professional coverage (vs, say being a soccer nerd who blogs for the fun of it)?
Bill: I enjoy the sport of soccer and when you are around a team and cover them on a regular basis, in any sport, you strike up relationships with players and coaches. That's probably the most enjoyable part of covering RSL or any team. I will agree with the earlier point that MLS athletes are for the most part much more accessible and approachable, whether that's the nature of the game itself or this level of the sport, it doesn't really matter to me. I just enjoy the ability to interact freely with most of the entire staff.
I don't know that there is anything difficult about providing professional coverage, it's part of the job. Some in our business struggle with that part of it, but for the most part media members-print, electronic, radio, tv-all do a good job of remaining professional and providing good coverage of their product.
Jeremy: I enjoy pretty much everything about it: Getting to know the team, staff, and players is great, and I enjoy my association with the other journalists who are regulars on the RSL beat. Bottom line is I don't make enough money from this to do it grudgingly, especially when I could be sitting with my family in our seats, so I really am happy to get to do what I do. Mostly though I get a lot of satisfaction from being able to "spread the word" about the sport I love.
For me the hardest part is when I have to interview a player who's not in the mood to be interviewed. This is mostly an issue with visiting teams, not RSL. Some of them seem to like to take out their frustrations on whatever unlucky journalist happens to be in front of them. I don't have the personality to roll over and take it, so I've had some pretty testy exchanges...memorable ones include Eddie Johnson and Bruce Arena. Other than that, sometimes meeting editorial requirements that come from goal.com's home office (things like deadlines, word counts, etc.) make my job challenging.
Michael: One of the best things about covering RSL is how accessible the players are. That is hardly the case in every pro (or even college) sport, and being able to relate on a "normal" level makes it much more of a pleasure. You get to know the players. They're usually open and honest and available. It makes the job easier — for everybody, I'd submit — and a lot more fun. I'd rather not cover out-of-touch multimillionaires with armed entourages, thankyouverymuch -- though the irony is that soccer is probably much more like the NFL or NBA in Europe and other parts of the world. So we sort of get to enjoy some of the side effects of MLS not quite being a major force in this country yet. And harder aspects of providing professional coverage? I don't know that I could really say, having never been on the other side of the fence. I suppose answering for what you write might be one thing, viewed from the other side. Some bloggers who don't attend games as press and interview players or coaches can write whatever they want without much accountability from their subjects, whereas we have to be there every day (pretty much) and answer to them if they disagree with something we've written. It rarely happens, though, and when it does, it's just part of the job, so I guess I don't consider it onerous. I suppose others might, though.
James: Two things jump out. First, the beat has taken me to places I never would've gone otherwise, places like the White House or Monterrey, Mexico with the occasional police escort. Secondly, talking to players and coaches for eight years now has helped my understanding of the sport grow exponentially. There are still millions of people who know the game better than I do, but I like to think I'm no dummy. Maybe I'm wrong. I'll echo what Michael Lewis said about some of the difficult aspects of the job. With our obligations on twitter and blogs and filing multiple stories on deadline, I often feel like I've only watched half a match when the final whistle blows. Thank goodness there are instant replays, are sports writers in the press box would miss half the goals scored as we feverishly type away.
Pat: Bill, calling a game is perhaps a little bit different than writing about the game (at least there are often charges of 'homerism' against some of the broadcast teams out there). What do you think about calling a game neutrally?
Bill: Everyone in my line of work has a different approach to calling a game. It depends on the sport, each sport has its own rhythm and flow to how it is played, so that will dictate how a game can be called. My approach has always been to bring a certain level of excitement, color and energy to the broadcast, whether it's football, basketball or soccer. I try my very to bring those things to both sides of the broadcast. But you have to remember that at the end of the day I work for Real Salt Lake, I am their broadcaster. I don't go out of my way to cheerlead or to be a homer, but I certainly want RSL to win and succeed. If I worked for ESPN, NBC or Fox Soccer I would have to call a game more neutrally and I've worked for networks before have done that. I'm not a huge fan of over the top "homerism", but I understand that some clubs or organizations like that. I've been very fortunate that I work for folks that like my style and support how I call a game.
Pat: Can you share any stories from the pressbox/interview room to help give us a picture of what it's like to watch a game that way?
Jeremy: The thing most people don't realize is that there's no cheering, booing, clapping, etc. in the press box. We're all striving to be professionals, so when a critical goal is scored, all you hear is a softly-muttered "well, that was a nice goal" followed by furious typing. Yet we're all emotionally invested in the team to some degree so keeping that restraint can be hard. The one time I can recall when it all went out the window was the RSL/Arabe Unido game back in 2010...that was the horrific time-wasting game. Everybody in the box was so frustrated by Arabe Unido's tactics that when RSL scored the go-ahead goal in the 98th minute or whenever it was, we all stood and applauded. That was the one time nobody seemed to care about the rules.
Michael: Well, I can say that I've never stood and cheered for anything in the press box, having clearly missed the Arabe Unido game. :-) Indeed, Jeremy is right that the atmosphere is usually pretty businesslike, especially because everybody is busy trying to write (or prepare to write) their stories, post blogs and post on Twitter -- all while watching the game. And in all honesty, it's sometimes hard to catch everything that goes on during the game, because you're so busy trying to get things written and turned in on deadline. (Speaking as a newspaper writer who has old-fashioned deadlines, clearly.) That's especially problematic for late games that still hang in the balance late in the game. Aaaaiiigggghhh! Talk about working your last nerve. You spend half your time writing your latest version to send in as soon as the final whistle blows, only to hear a roar and look up to see that somebody has flipped the script on you. "Get me re-write!" And there we go again. If I've ever cheered for anything, in fact, it was early goals, and lots of them — mostly for one team or the other. Also, NO OVERTIME. In fact, now that I think about it, that's the best part of covering soccer (except or the playoffs) — no overtime. And no timeouts every 20 feet down the court, and no endless and eternal pitching changes, and no ceaseless commercial breaks for the video replay guy. Two hours, you're done. And usually pretty entertaining in between.
James: If you're a fan, you'd never want to watch a game from the press box. It's boring. You can't cheer, you can't stand, you can't sing. We do, however, get great post game access. Whether RSL wins or losses, talking to players and coaches after a match helps provide great context to what we've just watched for 90 minutes.
Pat: RSL has a reputation of being a very deep team, how do you think the team is stacked for a busy season and what do you think of their approach to building depth?
Bill: I think it's too early to tell how the team is set up for the season and number of games that will be played later this season. But the early returns appear to be good. Sebastian Velasquez appears to be ready for the big stage and doesn't appeared fazed by MLS so far and Jonny Steele has been a pro and too seems ready to step onto the MLS Stage. Outside of those two guys, we really don't know enough yet about the newer/MLS inexperienced players that RSL has brought in this season. What they appear to have is at least one good option behind the Top 11 players on the team for depth matters-Paulo Jr. up top, Velasquez and Steele wide in the MF, Gill up top of the diamond, Alvarez in the holding spot, and Schuler in back.
Jeremy: Bill already talked about the specifics of RSL's depth...I don't have anything to add to what he said. Regarding their approach to building depth, I think it's a good one and I think the results bear that out. I don't think any other team could have gone through all the injuries, suspensions, and callups that RSL did and manage to finish 3rd. Clearly the way RSL distributes its cap space lends itself to building depth. The difference in quality between the best guy on the roster and the last guy is not as great as other teams, and it's because the difference in pay between the best guy on the roster and the last guy on the roster isn't as great either.
Michael: Excellent question, and I don't think anybody really knows. Although Sebastian Velasquez and Chris Schuler certainly have started well, there are way too many new faces among the reserves who we haven't seen yet to know how well they might perform if and when they're needed later. Tanaka, for example, is supposed to be the third outside back, but he hasn't played (and the team used a trialist at that position in its last reserve game, so it's clearly still on the lookout). So who knows? Given that so many of them are new to the team and young, it's not unreasonable to think that they're probably a little further away from being really good just yet. As far as the team's approach to building, I don't think it's dissimilar from most teams — pick up a few draft picks, made a trade or two, sign some free agents that you think fit your system. I think like most times, it works or not depending mostly on how astute you can be in assessing the talent and signing the players.I should point out that Jeremy offered a much better answer about the depth than I did, and he's totally right. Keeping the top salaries on the team lower allows more money to be distributed to more players, theoretically allowing more to be spent on the reserve players in order to get better ones there. At the end, though, it's still most important to sign the right guys — having extra money to spend isn't worth anything if you can't assess the talent.
James: Last year was the first year that RSL really had to rely on its young players, and it certainly went through some struggles as a result. With a big roster turnover in the offseason, RSL will need to rely even more on the youngsters. I don't think Chris Schuler falls in this category anymore though. He'd start on most teams in MLS. As for everyone else, it's inevitable they're going to need to make contributions. But, if injuries and red cards pile up and they're asked to contribute in a manner they're not quite ready for, the team could go through some rough patches.
Pat: Jason Kreis has been outspoken about his dislike for the current version of the reserve league. He's talked about aligning the reserve games with the regular games, both when and where they're played. He's also talked about having each MLS team field a lower division team on a separate salary cap as part of a reserve system. What do you think about these approaches? What would you like to see from a reserve system?
Bill: To be very honest I don't know about the economics of the league to talk in depth about this issue. It seems to me though that having the reserve matches the day after the full squad matches makes much more sense from a travel and cost situation. Plus it doesn't disrupt the practice routine of a team during the week.
Jeremy: Jason was outspoken about something? Shocking!:) He's 100% right - the reserve league setup was pretty much ideal the way it was before. I think MLS blew it on this one. You can't expect young guys to become better pros if they're missing the chance to train with the vets because they're across the country playing a reserve league match. And reserves don't get the chance to impress the coaching staff in real match play if the coaches can't be at the match. And how is a team supposed to hold a decent training session when there's not enough guys around to do anything but play small-sided games? I agree with Jason - reserve matches need to be the day after the "varsity" game like they were before.
I disagree with his idea that teams should field a lower-division team on a different cap...that would be another extraordinary benefit to the large-market teams. What would keep a team like LA from putting David Beckham (and his salary) on the reserve team and calling him up for top-flight games? And if you solve that by eliminating move-ups and move-downs from the first team to the second team, what would be the incentive to waste a draft pick and pay a guy who will never see first-team action? If you really want a young guy to get playing time at a lower level, loan him out like you currently can.
Michael: I think he's right about the way the reserve league is formatted now. It just seems beyond stupid to create all of the logistical and financial challenges just to have the reserves play off on their own in the middle of the week or something, often disrupting training and leaving coaches unable to watch them play. The old way was clearly smarter, and the league probably should return to that unless there's some big piece of the puzzle I'm missing. As for a lower-division team on a separate salary-cap system ... I suppose that could work, though I suspect in reality it would be mostly rearranging the deck chairs and calling things different names. Ultimately, I believe Jason's goal is to see the salary budget rise to accommodate better players and more of them, and I'd guess that he envisions a way for a separate lower-division team to achieve that. But whether the league and other teams would agree, I don't know. And I don't know that I *want* to see anything out of a reserve league. I do think it's wise for the league to have such a mechanism if the aim is to cultivate young and often homegrown talent.
James: I don't have much insight about this other than to say, play the games on Sunday morning for heck sake. On so many levels it just makes sense.
Pat: RSL has been in a good place the last couple of years with meaningful games (US Open Cup and CCL) to fill the schedule rather than resorting to bringing in teams for friendlies. Among fans (and not just RSL fans), there's a lot of talk about 'trophies, not friendlies'. What difference do you think it really makes to the organization, the fans, and the media?
Bill: I think it makes a huge difference to the organization and fans. Friendlies are exhibition games that mean absolutely nothing. Every organization that's worth a damn (RSL is included here) aims for trophies, whether it's Open Cup, CCL, Supporters Shield or MLS Cup. No one remembers or cares the final score of a match with Everton, Club America or Real Madrid, they are just fun events. Great teams in any sport are measured by winning championships and the hardware that comes along with them. I think in talking to players and coaches the fact that despite the good regular season results, that RSL hasn't won any kind of trophy since 2009 bothers them. Hence the emphasis on it this season.
Jeremy: The bottom line is what role do sports play in society? I think sports satisfy our human need to experience meaningful competition...the key word being meaningful. As a fan I would rather watch a random regular-season match against another MLS team than an exhibition against a Real Madrid. And honestly, as a reporter, I would rather cover a regular-season match than a friendly, even if it's easier to come up with story lines in a friendly.
Michael: It would make all the difference for RSL to win trophies rather than friendlies, especially considering that the one trophy they do have is widely considered a hot-at-the-right-time fluke. Winning another would validate the way the team has been building and striving, rather than force the team to endure losing its crucial core of players overthe next few years without having achieved anything more.
Pat: Finally, here's a chance to take of your media cap and put on your fan cap if you'd like. What do you hope/expect/fear in the 2012 season?
Jeremy: Mostly I hope to see RSL hoist a trophy this season. As I've gotten to know the players, I've felt their pain as they haven't won a trophy since 2009...for their sakes, I'd like to see that change. I also hope to see RSL make another good run in the CCL. I expect RSL will be near the top of the table this year, but it's too much of a "murderer's row" in the western conference (and possibly too easy of a road for Kansas City) to predict a Supporter's Shield win. And it's way too early to to have reasonable expectations of what will happen in the playoffs. What I fear this year is more of what we saw last year: Injures/suspensions/callups making it difficult to establish a rhythm, a loaded conference where everybody beats up on each other, and lots of possession with little scoring to show for it...as we are taught over and over in coaching certification classes, possession by itself is nothing - it needs to have a purpose.
Bill: I don't think you have to take off a media cap to hope for success for this team this season. My hope is a deep run to MLS Cup this season and success in CCL. I think if RSL can remain healthy, meaning minus MAJOR injuries, they have an outstanding chance to do it. At 100% I believe that RSL's Top 15-18 are as good as anyone in MLS.
Michael: Sorry, but I probably shouldn't predict too much. I'm never right, anyway. If I hope for anything, it's that players remain healthy. Injuries suck, and take all the fun out of it.