Interview with Mark Johnson

1.  Is soccer at a disadvantage in the U.S. compared to other major sports (football, basketball, baseball)?  Why is it that the world’s game can’t seem to flourish arguably it’s most successful country?

MJ – I don’t think soccer is really so bad off. It has certainly flourished on the youth level and in high schools and colleges. MLS has carved out a small but growing niche; the league continues to expand and build soccer-specific stadiums. And soccer is all over TV in a way that would be hard to imagine 15 years ago. Obviously the pro game (MLS) is dwarfed by the four major sports, but on the whole, the U.S. has become far more soccer conscious over the years.

2.  Do you find it difficult to be a soccer fan (on a national and international level)?
 
MJ – The frustration with following soccer is mainly at the water-cooler, talk-radio level; it’s not a popular topic of conversation, and even many so-called sports experts refuse to acknowledge its existence. But in every other respect, there’s never been a better time to be a soccer fan in the U.S. for all the reasons listed in my first answer.

3.  Looking at the non-soccer or fringe fans, should it be difficult to pick up soccer (not only as a fan but to understand the game itself as well) in the U.S., whether it be at a local MLS level or U.S. men’s national team level?
 
MJ – The basics of the game are fairly easy to understand, but you have to wrap your head around the offside rule and the concept of the referee keeping the time. We’re so used to time being kept in tenths of seconds, with refs adding and subtracting tenths of seconds after video reviews. In soccer, time is far more fluid and inexact, which can drive fans crazy. Once you understand those two things, the rest is pretty straightforward. Of course, you also have to accept that goals are rare. To really appreciate the game, you have to appreciate the skill and the tactics; that, too, takes time and effort.

4.  Considering the coverage issues surrounding the U.S. men’s national team ( the match at Mexico – pre NBC bailing us all out and the recent qualifying match at Honduras – understanding that U.S. media bids were denied with essentially nothing that can be done), do you see this becoming a problem in the future?  How will that effect the U.S. fan base (including those fringe fans)?
 
MJ – I don’t see this as a huge issue, but I’m sure it will crop up now and then. Maybe it’s a good sign that those who purchase the rights for these games believe they’re worth a lot of money (at least more than ESPN wants to pay).

5.  Media coverage has picked up in recent times, many with the European game and the U.S. national team, but still has a way to go to catch up to the rest of the world.  With the MLS coverage falling significantly.  I’d attribute the U.S. rise atleast to three things: Beckham’s arrival, ESPN adding regular EPL coverage, and the U.S.’s performance in the Confederations Cup this summer.  Would agree with those three?  Disagree?  What should be done to keep the positive movement going in the right direction.  As well what does the MLS need to do to pick back up.
 
MJ – I think the biggest factor has simply been the explosion in cable TV. So many channels, so many niches — and soccer, happily, is one of them. Foreign expats (Mexican especially, as well as English) have helped feed the interest. All three factors you listed are valid, too. MLS and the U.S. national team seem to have solid footholds with the ESPN family, but MLS almost never seems to get on ABC these days, and I’m not sure its midweek-game audience has grown much if at all. I’m not sure what MLS can do, although it at least is expanding into new regions. So it’s producing new fans. Whether those fans want to watch teams other than their own, I’m not sure.

6.  Along the same lines, with increase coverage there is a thought that the large media companies are putting sub-par analysts on TV for the true fans and the fringe fans.  They can tend to promote the product and not the game.  While those looking for the best coverage analysis can find it online.  Would you agree with that?
 
MJ – Maybe I don’t know what I’m missing, but I like many of the TV voices. The big exception is the homerism surrounding U.S. national team coverage. Classic example came before the last World Cup opened, with U.S. analysts claiming that Kasey Keller was maybe the best GK in the world (and then watching as Keller booted a long ball directly to a Czech player, which began a counterattack that resulted in a killer early goal in the first game). But I liked the old ESPN Champions League crew, and I enjoy the GOL TV broadcasts with Ray Hudson. OK, that guy on Fox Soccer Channel is also annoying — I forgot his name. But I much preferred listening to Tommy Smyth and Derek Rae than the announcers on the English feed that we now get for Champions League.

7.  In the big picture of soccer fandom in the U.S. (media coverage, match attendacne, interest across the nation, etc.) what do you see happening in the future?  Has soccer hit its apex here in the U.S.?  Will it carry over to the 2010 World Cup in South Africa?  After the World Cup will it drop off again?  How highly dependent on how the U.S.’s performance in South Africa is all of this?
 
MJ – I expect soccer’s strong grass roots to generate more and more fans, as will immigration. Nothing could help more than a strong World Cup showing (though I’m not optimistic). Even a terrible World Cup for the U.S., however, would not be disastrous. I doubt I’ll live long enough to see soccer overtake football, basketball or baseball (though hockey is a possibility). But soccer has come a long, long way since the 1960s and the first attempts at a pro league. Soccer has become too established to just drop off the map. It’s here to stay.

 

– – – – –

Thanks again to Mark for chattig with me.  Since Mark is the copy editor at the Dallas Morning News, I can’t give you a link to his work.  I can on the other hand send you to the Sports section at the DMN to see all the mistake free journalism.

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