Soccer kicks up US media interest

Because of the popularity of youth soccer leagues and the emergence of soccer pros as celebrities, the sport is winning more coverage in the US media.

Because of the popularity of youth soccer leagues and the emergence of soccer pros as celebrities, the sport is winning more coverage in the US media.

While most Americans probably still don't know what an offside trap is and might think of Vanity Fair cover-boy David Beckham more as the husband of a former Spice Girl than an international sports star, soccer is finally earning some well-deserved respect in the American media. Not only is Major League Soccer (MLS) currently celebrating its 10th year in existence with regular TV, print, and even radio coverage, but dedicated soccer stadiums are springing up in cities across the country. "You still hear the 'soccer knockers' out there every year saying, 'I've been hearing soccer is going to make it for 40 years and it never has,'" says Jim Moorhouse, director of communications for the US Soccer Federation. "Well guess what: It has made it, and it is here." Scoring more coverage Part of the progress that soccer has made in sports pages and programming across the country is directly attributable to the success of the national teams in international play, especially in the World Cup and the gold medal champion women's squad. But the real key to getting the media on board has been the spread of youth leagues over the past two decades. "It isn't just the kids who've grown up playing soccer and are now fans," says Moorhouse. "It's the kids who grew up with soccer and are now sports editors or executives at Fortune 500 companies, and are kind of immersed in the culture." The result is that cities with MLS teams have news outlets with dedicated beat writers, and many papers in non-MLS cities are covering the sport on a regular basis, says Simon Borg, director of media relations for MLS. Borg adds that the rise of the US soccer celebrity, beginning with such national team members as Mia Hamm and Alexi Lalas in the early 1990s, and continuing today with teen phenom Freddy Adu, has helped it get into the lifestyle pages, as well. The 15-year-old Adu has been the focal point of a lot of general-interest press, including a feature on 60 Minutes. "He's really dominated what we do this year," Borg says. "But in the past we've had players like Landon Donovan and Brian McBride getting into lifestyle and fashion magazines. They lend themselves to that coverage because they're good-looking, and they're in good physical shape." Moorhouse notes that national players realize the importance of the media in continuing to grow the sport in the US. "We still do a little bit of media training, but most of these players have been professionals for a number of years and have talked to the press since they were 16, 17, or 18 years old," he adds. "It's not about educating people anymore," adds Borg. "But it is up to us to point out to sports editors the key stories they may not be aware of because we're not in there with Terrell Owens of the [NFL's] Eagles. It's noting to them that Brian Ching scored two goals in World Cup qualifying, and he's the leading scorer in the MLS." While the professionals are courting the national, and in many cases, international sports pages, youth soccer tends to look more at community-based coverage. "We have a number of volunteers across the nation, and what we do is train them to run their own local operations," explains David Frickman, PR associate for the American Youth Soccer Organization (AYSO). "That includes how to deal with the media and write press releases so they can work with community papers." Frickman adds the AYSO also tries to piggyback on national issues, such as obesity among America's children. "We set up a new agreement with McDonald's in Southern California, and one of the big pitches we are focusing on is getting kids active through youth sports in general and soccer in particular," he says. Growing international scope Both at the youth and pro levels, there has always been a ready-made fan base for soccer in the ethnic markets, especially the Spanish-speaking communities. "We have a dedicated person in our PR department to handle Spanish-language media, and we've developed great relationships with all the major Hispanic outlets in part because MLS has a growing relevance in the international game," says Borg. Moorhouse concedes that the US media still doesn't include soccer in with baseball, football, and basketball as main sports, but says, "There's a soccer niche out there, and we know we get a very good response from that niche. We have MLS, which is a Division 1 league, and every four years, when we're playing in the World Cup, that's going to get A1 and C1 coverage, and that's never going to change." Pitching... soccer
  • Even if they don't have a dedicated reporter, most sports sections now have someone who covers soccer on a regular basis, so figure out who that is and target your pitches
  • The buzz surrounding soccer will only grow heading into the 2006 World Cup, so look for local angles involving national team members
  • The arrival of Mexico's Chivas USA team in the MLS next year is going to explode Spanish-language interest in the US game, so look to develop relationships with the Hispanic media for lifestyle and other coverage

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