Football journalism, MLS-style

Thrusting a dictaphone under the nose of a smiling, chatting Ashley Cole is a sufficiently surreal experience in itself.

The former England international became so notoriously reluctant to interact with the press during his time at Chelsea that it was an eye-opener to see how content the 35-year-old has become in the Californian sunshine as he offered up a few minutes of post-match sentiments.

This was an interview conducted in the LA Galaxy home dressing room, while the beats blasted from the stereo system and one of Cole’s half-naked team-mates stood a couple of yards away, drying his backside after emerging from the showers.

Welcome to football journalism MLS-style.

Forget all those previous experiences of donating a kidney to enter a Premier League mixed zone and embrace the culture shock on the other side of the pond. All the previously padlocked doors are suddenly wide-open.

Covering the Premier League as a newspaper reporter has felt like an increasingly marginalised role over the last five to 10 years. In the Football League, clubs remain eager to publicise – given the comparative lack of attention they receive – but there has been a significant shift at the highest level and the job becomes tougher with each passing season.

It’s an inevitable consequence of both domestic and international broadcasters paying such exorbitant fees for Premier League coverage that clubs have overwhelmingly turned their focus towards catering to the television companies.

While it’s frustrating for the hacks, it’s somewhat understandable. It’s the box which has turned the Premier League into a global ‘product’ where players and managers are cast as weekly soap opera characters.

As the television income has risen, so too have the interview demands – and clubs are duty-bound to fulfill all those requirements or be struck in the pocket with compulsory fines. That can be tens of thousands, if, for instance, the manager appears a minute or two beyond the set deadline. It’s no wonder the old newspaper man has been pushed to the back of the queue.

However, it’s very different in the US. And not just because ‘soccer’ clubs are having to scrap so doggedly to steal just a fraction of the limelight from the country’s more established sports.

There is a spirit of openness to the media throughout the sporting world on the other side of the Atlantic. In the run-up to the Super Bowl, the entire squads are wheeled out every day in the week leading up to the game for interview sessions which can stretch on for hours. Can you imagine the moans and groans from players if there was a similar initiative prior to the FA Cup final?

In the US, the media are merely seen as part of the job for the sporting fraternity, rather than cast as the enemy, a hassle or a hindrance. As a consequence, it’s more or less open season after the final whistle sounds. Like the Premier League, both managers conduct general post-match press conferences, but then all journalists are invited into the home and away dressing rooms to chat with whoever they fancy.

That prompted some difficulties when David Beckham was at Galaxy. The media scrum surrounding him prompted the club to create a sub-section of the dressing room just to cater for the extra attention. But nowadays, even with Cole, and recently, Steven Gerrard and Robbie Keane in Galaxy’s ranks, the press can freely wander around the changing area while the deodorant and hair gel are still being applied.

There is a feeling of trust and acceptance which existed in the days prior to Premier League press offices controlling the message. It’s not merely on match-days that interviews are freely available either. Journalists can head down to the Galaxy’s Stub Hub Centre on virtually every weekday to chat after training.

The big difference, of course, is that MLS clubs need a helping hand in spreading their message.

In a city of four million people – and millions more in the greater Los Angeles area – Galaxy only average around 20,000 supporters. Even for their home games in the end-of-season MLS play-offs, there were thousands of empty seats in the stands.

All the talk about football growing on the other side of the Atlantic is not a cliche, yet the Premier League is still arguably more captivating for US supporters and viewers than the MLS.

Despite all the big-name arrivals and the big-money contracts, domestic football remains a minority sport.

The match report in the Los Angeles Times for Galaxy’s final away game of the regular season amounted to four paragraphs, compared to the pages of coverage on American Football. ‘Soccer’ needs all the publicity help it can get.

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For all the refreshing aspects of the American attitude towards the media, it’s difficult to see similar measures being introduced in the Premier League, at least with such a degree of openness.

International broadcasters have been pushing for open access to the dressing rooms during the negotiations in the last few television deals, and it’s the next logical step if the billions continue to rise following the introduction of pre-match interviews and a guaranteed number of post-match chats.  

But would managers and players accept an open-door policy after the dressing room has been sacrosanct for so long in English football? Even if the television companies are effectively paying their wages, there would still be huge resistance.

What Premier League clubs can take from their American peers, though, is to break down that barrier and end the unnecessary opposition towards a few minutes conversation with a player or manager.

Galaxy even put several players and coach Bruce Arena up for post-season interviews after their elimination from the MLS Cup.

With Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Wayne Rooney among the names linked with moves to Galaxy to replace Gerrard and Keane, there was plenty to ask Arena about his close-season plans. Unsurprisingly, Arena wasn’t drawn on either. There are some things that never change, whichever side of the Atlantic you’re asking the questions on.

Football journalism, MLS-style
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