Editorial Note: This is a freelance article from a contributor. If you’re interested in writing for us, please email firstname.lastname@example.org with your pitch. Ben Ferree is a former journalist based in Columbus, Ohio. You may know him as the Bishop Sycamore whistleblower. Ben has a book on the Bishop Sycamore scandal, Friday Night Lies, coming out later this year. He can be reached on Twitter at @ben_ferree.
Last Friday, Vox Nation announced it would be laying off seven percent of their workers. Included in this cut were most, if not all, of the SB Nation MLS team sites. As MLS has grown in quality and popularity, it was the SB Nation sites that provided some of the most consistent and in-depth coverage in a world of disappearing beat writers. This begs the question- if MLS is growing, why is the media market around it shrinking?
Full disclosure – I used to work in sports journalism, and began covering the Columbus Crew in 2013 as a beat writer for a local website. Over the years I worked for a variety of outlets, the most recent of which was Pro Soccer USA, a website owned by Tribune Publishing. The website went out of business during the pandemic, and I left the field.
In the major three American sports leagues (NFL, NBA, MLB), each team has multiple beat writers. Writers for websites or print publications that are at every home game, and some at every road game as well. These writers have long been a staple of the sports journalism industry, and it’s the connections the writers make with coaches, players, and team staff that can lead to some of the most in-depth stories or breaking news. The same was once true of the teams in MLS. The Columbus Crew provide a good case study. Pre-pandemic, the team peaked in terms of coverage with 11 different web or print outlets providing consistent coverage of home matches. This was before the team had a new state of the art stadium downtown, before they won a title in 2020, and before they brought in new ownership. All of those things tend to drive media coverage, and attendance as well. The latter was the case, as in 2022 the Crew average attendance was 19,237, the highest in team history. The previous record was 18,950 in their first year of existence. Yet the number of web or print outlets covering the games in the sparkling new stadium fell from 11 to five. Of those five outlets, only two regularly attended training in addition to the games: the Columbus Dispatch, and SB Nation site Massive Report.
“The announcement by Vox is unfortunate for many, but especially hurts the coverage of MLS,” said Pat Murphy, managing editor of Massive Report. “We have provided routine daily coverage that fans want and that is good for the sport. If that can’t continue, knowledge of the Crew will suffer. I have been to other markets and seen, especially in big cities, that there is no other daily coverage other than the local blogs, and SB Nation has been a major part of that. If these sites aren’t able to continue as independents, some MLS teams may have no coverage at all, which is a step back when it comes to growing the sport in this country.”
The media market for MLS games will continue to shrink in 2023 as the league expands to 29 teams and a new TV deal on Apple +. With Apple taking over the broadcasting of all games with an NFL-style rotation of announcing crews, there are no longer local announcers covering the team. This could leave the newly televised post-game press conferences bare bones.
Apple TV: Hey MLS teams, we're broadcasting your postgame press conferences now.
MLS teams: All the independent journos who were our press corps got laid off. It's now just the comms staffer who writes recaps for the team site. They only ask fluff questions.
— Matt Pollard (@LWOSMattPollard) January 20, 2023
“We are working behind the scenes to attempt to find alternatives to Vox and SB Nation, be that creating an independent site as Massive Report was initially or other options. The hope is to continue coverage to Crew fans, even if it comes in a different way than we have before under the SB Nation umbrella,” Murphy said.
Not every team is in as poor shape as the Crew. Markets that have had better team relations with their media haven’t seen as drastic a drop in coverage. New England Revolution team president Brian Bilello has even reached out to find a way to keep the writers of the soon-to-be-gone SB Nation site, The Bent Musket, afloat.
@Sam_Minton22 – Everyone at our club values our independent soccer journalists and what you add to our community. Adam is going to reach out to see how we can help, including financial support. I'm sure we can find a way to support in a way that allows you to remain independent.
— Brian Bilello (@RevsPrez) January 20, 2023
Seth Macomber, who covered the Revs for SB Nation, saw an outpouring of support. “Friday’s news was shocking for us, but we’ve been so appreciative of the love that we’ve received. There are so many people who said they want to help us. Some people said they would be willing to donate money in order to keep the site alive. We’re happy that the site will live on because we believe we offer some of the best coverage of New England soccer.”
But what will happen to the teams who don’t value their relationship with the media? A dearth of available content is the last thing a growing league wants. There’s also the value that independent journalists add in keeping teams honest. Every team will have an off the field issue of some sort eventually. Who will be there to get answers and investigate? The lone newspaper writer? What happens when Gannett announces another round of layoffs and soccer coverage is next on the chopping block? Packed stands. Empty press conferences.