I once read about a British sports journalist’s amazement at the access that American sportswriters had. The British writer was visiting Chicago and asked to tag along with the Sun Times reporter who covered the Bulls. First, he went to a Bulls practice, and after the practice was over, the Chicago reporter ambled up to Scottie Pipen and Phil Jackson and asked a few questions. Then they went to the game, and afterward walked straight into the Bulls’ locker room. There, the Sun Times scribe spent five minutes with Michael Jordan getting his thoughts on the game while Jordan dressed. He asked Jackson a few more questions, and then went upstairs to the office that the Bulls provide to reporters so he could finish writing his story.
Does that sound amazing to you? To Americans used to reading their daily sports section, it sounds as remarkable as finding popcorn in a movie theater. To the Brit, it was flabbergasting. The writer explained that he could go an entire season without once being able to ask a major soccer star a question. Outside of a manager’s weekly news conference and the quotes that are broadcast in the banal two-minute interview that happens after a game, he rarely has the opportunity to talk directly to the star players he covers, let alone the ability to get their insights after each game.
American sports journalists have a simple arrangement with the teams they cover. Journalists are allowed in the locker room after the games and can ask as many questions as they want. If a baseball relief pitcher blows an important game and is in no mood to talk, they are still obligated to answer questions until the reporters have the quotes and insights they need. In exchange, sports reports have to report the news. Like any other journalist, they have to source their stories, provide context to their reporting, and cannot make up falsehoods just to increase their readership.
As a consequence, American sports consumers have access to an amazing amount of behind the scenes information and insights. An American sports fan can read stories about far more than what happens on the field – stories about how the personalities interact, how the team prepares, and how the organization may be planning for the future.
British sports fans are comparatively left out in the cold. Teams control strict access to the players, who in turn will sell the rights to a few interviews a year to one of the major papers in England. Daily sports journalists are left in the stands, watching the same game as the rest of us, and forced to write up an article with no more information than what the rest of us have already seen with our own eyes.
Before last week’s North London Derby, Tottenham’s Robbie Keane was one of the few personalities from either Spurs or Arsenal to answer a question about the game to a reporter. His trite comments about how Spurs may have the deeper team were regurgitated by every major London paper for several days. Compare that to a rather ordinary article on the LA Galaxy – Chivas game that appeared in the New York Times. The article quoted four different players along with Galaxy coach Bruce Arena, and gave the reader a detailed sense of the level of admiration and conflict between the two teams.
Because the British reporters have so little access, they end up writing a lot of stories that have little relationship with the truth. This is especially true when the transfer window is open, and articles pop up full of tripe detailing how every star player is headed out the door and around the bend. Without access, sources or official quotes, journalists have no choice but to report rumors as fact in order to fill their copy space. From the reader’s perspective, they can either read these fictions or chuck the whole sports section in the trash.
This has created a vicious cycle between the British press and the teams. In the absence of access to their subject matter, the journalists write all manners of compost, so the teams do not take the press seriously. They see no reason to work with the writers to give them access, so the writers are forced to fill their fishwrapper with even more guano.
I personally experienced this last week while I was researching my article on how Arsenal scouts for future players. I came across the story of Danny Karbassiyoon, the only American who has ever scored for the Arsenal senior team (see him receive the pass from Fabregas and slot it home against Man City in this clip). After a knee injury destroyed his career, Karbassiyoon became Arsenal’s full-time scout in North America. Sounds like an interesting guy with a lot to say to American fans of the EPL! When I e-mailed the Arsenal press office asking for an interview for a podcast, despite Arsenal’s desire to reach out to American audiences, I was summarily turned down. They simply could not be bothered.
The mystery of all of this is that, with a ravenous press population eager to promote their product and a worldwide audience ready to consume every nuance and tidbit, why do teams deny access with such militancy? As Americans learn more about how wonderful a game soccer is, perhaps the Brits can learn something from Americans about how to better market their product.