Monday, March 31, 2008

11th? Really?: Bad Reporting in the UK on American Fútbol

This weekend, the Guardian published a bit of misinformation. Laurence Donegan's somewhat obvious bit of punditry about how the Galaxy's second season with Beckham faces the serious challenge of 'Now What?' turns on a greatly exaggerated portrait of public disinterest in soccer in the US. Donegan is the Guardian's golf correspondent, and, according to his by-line, he filed this article apparently from 'Los Angeles' but, I'm guessing that was probably more rightly 'from his Los Angeles hotel room and wi-fi connection'.

Can I just say how tired I am of reading articles in which UK journalists recycle their own common-sense ideas about football in the US? Almost every single one of these articles is written by a British journalist, based in the UK, who can't see past their own television set.

Like many American readers, I was really irritated by the following:

It is a baking hot morning in Carson, California, and David Beckham is still making his way back from Paris after his 100th appearance in an England shirt, leaving his Galaxy team-mates to get on with the business at hand - preparing for their opening fixture of the 2008 season, against the Colorado Rapids in Denver later today, and defending the marriage between football's most famous player and the United States' 11th most popular spectator sport, Major League Soccer.

Now, setting aside all that we might have to say about the Galaxy's grim defeat (4-0!), I want to draw your attention to an offensive bit of rhetorical manipulation at the paragraph's conclusion - meant to maintain the delusion that Americans don't watch football, and that the only people who play it are women (who don't matter in the eyes of 95% of sports editors).

11th most popular sport? First off - Major League Soccer isn't a sport. It's a league. What Donegan must mean is that MLS broadcasts are the 11th most watched sports league of, I'm guessing, English-language major network broadcasts. So, that's NFL, Major League Baseball - American and National League, NBA, NCAA basketball, NASCAR, NHL Hockey, etc. Oh, yeah - and USPGA - meaning, golf.

There are other bits of knee-jerk journalism in there - about how not all the seats at Carson are sold, for instance. A person with even the slightest investment in writing about the development of the sport might look more closely at the ambivalent relationship between the MLS, team owners, and the actual fanbase for the sport - and see the stadium's location as emblematic of these conflicts. If that stadium were three times as large and downtown, you'd never be able to get tickets [see, for example, these stories about fútbol matches staged at the LA Coliseum].

I could go on and on about this. But the article is just lame and totally predictable anglo/euro-centric bull and the Guardian should be ashamed of itself for publishing such a lazy bit of writing.

For the record, by many counters, soccer is the 4th most watched - tied with Hockey (some Mexican legaue games have drawn greater numbers for their broadcasts than have the Stanley Cup finals). But who is counting, how, and what they are counting varies.

If The Guardian wants some smart opining about Beckham's career with the Galaxy, and some solid griping about MLS and its half-baked ideas about how to grow the market in the US, well - why not pay someone who actually follows this shit - and can tell you about how the Galaxy's trouble began well before Beckham's arrival (Donegan's article also makes it sound like Galaxy's miserable season last year came a surprise).

How about some writing about the really interesting developments in the semi-pro circuit - like The Offside's great article about the NPSL?

Postscript: I edit the 'event review' section of the academic journal American Quarterly. Noted American Studies scholar and NYU Professor Andrew Ross wrote a great piece for us on Beckham's debut - 'The Ballad of Posh and Becks'. Academicians reading this can find it on Project Muse and in your university library.


  1. Okay Okay i know what you're getting at, but you have to see it from our persepective.

    beckham was brought to America at great expense to do something. I'm not sure what he was menat to do exactly, but whatever it is he's clearly failed. He doesn't even play for goodness sake! his team are rubbish, and Americans don't like him.

    The sport, in general, is not popular amongst Americans. Beckham was somehow menat to change that. It's quite clear he won't.

    THAT is the essence of the article!

  2. What on earth are you talking about, "football bets"? You don't know what Beckham was brought to do, but you're sure he's failed?

    Basically, Beckham was brought in to make money. And he's succeeded. The Galaxy have already broken even on their investment.

    Secondarily, he was brought in to help improve the profile of the sport. He has succeeded there too. A 60 minute special on national network TV about Beckham and soccer on the eve of the MLS season? Having a player and a topic that you can talk to anyone about in a bar related to soccer?

    Beckham signed a five year contract. He's been in the U.S. less than a year. He played in the first game this season; yes, he missed some games last year, but that usually happens when players are, well, injured. Isn't it a bit early to be jumping to conclusions?

    Jennifer's point, of course, is that there's an awful lot more to soccer in the U.S. aside from Beckham and MLS, but the English media completely ignores that, preferring to deride the sport and give English readers a distorted impression of the game here. Apparently they've succeeded, judging from your comment.

    There's a lot about the Beckham hysteria that annoys me, but the only thing your comment got right was that his team is indeed rubbish.

  3. football bets - the reproduction in your comment of all the unexamined assumptions that structure donegan's article proves my point about the damage done by this sort of misinformation. beckham's 'job' hasn't been to rescue the galaxy (that wuold be gullit's responsibility, no?) - it's been to draw fans to the stands not only in la but across the country. he's more than done that.

    carson stadium is a solid 30 minute highway drive from much of LA. it's closer to palos verdes (home to the very wealthy) than downtown (the densest parts of the western us in terms of population, and home to futbol loving angelinos). donegan should have looked at attendance records for the LA coliseum for soccer matches between european & latin american clubs - the coliseum holds 90,000 and has hosted sold out futbol matches - simon kuper in fact writes about one of these games in his book football against the enemy.

  4. I had an idea a couple of years ago about how to extend the popularity of soccer in the states...


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