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Missing The Soccer Beat

By Mike Conklin

Did you know the U.S. Soccer Federation, which has its headquarters in Chicago, is bidding to host the World Cup in 2018 only two years after the Olympics could be here? And that some important matches - possibly the championship contest - could be played at Soldier Field?

Didn't think so. At best, soccer receives token coverage in Chicago.

There was a reminder of this in June, when the U.S. men played Honduras - yes, the same Central American nation currently working its way through a coup attempt - in a World Cup qualifier here. Playing in poor weather, the contest still drew 55,647 spectators to see the U.S. win 2-1. Aside from Game Day coverage that got buried, the contest received little notice.

Local newspaper and TV editors always argue soccer coverage reflects the interest of their audiences and it is not their responsibility to create interest - apparently overlooking the fact that nearly a third of Chicago is Hispanic and generally loves the sport. They do believe, though, in producing eight pages about every Bears game as well as a six-to-eight hour Game Day broadcast buildups.

I'm not going to resurrect the arguments, but maybe there is another, more painful way for today's audience-hungry media bosses to look at Chicago's forgotten soccer fans - as a lost opportunity.

Maybe there was a market there to be tapped. If local sports journalism, especially newspapers (broadcast always takes its cues from print), had paid more attention to them, it is possible they'd have 10-15,000 more readers. Today, that would look pretty good.

There was a real window to build strong editorial bonds with these soccer followers in the 1970s in Chicago's ethnic communities, where the sport's hotbeds were hottest. This was the decade when the North American Soccer League came full-force to town with the Sting franchise and club and school programs started to burgeon. Nevertheless, little of the newspapers' then-abundant space got allotted to the sport on a regular basis.

No ethnic community followed soccer more closely then and now than Hispanics. Some of the largest audiences in local soccer history - and we're talking 45,000 and upwards - always turned out to see Mexican clubs or any national team from south of the border play here. Top Spanish-speaking players on NASL teams always gave the old Chicago Sting team a spike in attendance.

Now, let us fast forward to today. That Hispanic community, now in its second and third generations, has grown to more than a million residents in northern Illinois. Is it out of the question to think many of them would be loyal to the Tribune, Sun-Times, Channel 5, or Channel 7 if any of these news organizations had provided a strong connection to their favorite sport in their new home?

Sound like a stretch? Is it any different than a Polish family always reading the Tribune because Grandpa Willy, who came here from Warsaw in the early 1900s, first learned to understand English by reading its wants ads and getting a job? Is it any different than a Jewish household embracing the late, lamented Daily News because Grandpa Izzy, a Russian emigre, liked its editorials? Or the family with rural roots that stayed glued to WGN-Radio because it provided farm news? Not really.

Sports journalism in Chicago always has been short-sighted in this regard, afraid to stretch itself and look beyond the next locker room. This is not going to improve with so much institutional memory now walking out the doors.

In the 70s, you could count on one hand the number of columnists ever attending a big soccer match - Rick Talley and Ray Sons. The others, whether they'd admit or not, were intimidated by having to show ignorance, when, in fact, all they had to do was act like reporters and ask questions.

In fact, it was a lot of fun to be a soccer writer in Chicago in the 1970s and 80s. The Sting, and its colorful cast of international players, plus outspoken owner Lee Stern, was a never-ending source of intrigue and great stories whenever editors and producers would allow it to happen. They won most of their games, too.

There were no more foreign players on soccer rosters than we find on today's baseball teams, but, unlike pro baseball, basketball, and football, the soccer stars generally were chattier, friendlier and more articulate. Can you picture Milton Bradley playing in Japan, communicating with its sportswriters?

In the press box, journalists never knew whether it would be Time-Warner's Steve Ross, Henry Kissinger, Rod Stewart, Chef Hans, or the King of Norway sitting in the next seat. But even the gossip columnists generally ignored the sport.

There never was a shortage of great material, but the lack of vision in sports journalism was stifling. Now, Chicago's news organizations could be paying a price in some Chicago area communities.

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Mike Conklin, who spent 35 years at the Tribune, teaches journalism at DePaul University. Comments are welcome.

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COMMENTS:

1. From Michael Marsh:

I enjoyed reading Mike Conklin's piece about soccer coverage, but a few concerns force me to question his thesis.

1. I clearly remember that the local media covered the Sting when it won the league championship in the early 1980s. At the time, the other professional franchises in town were mediocre. The local scribes couldn't resist celebrating even the Sting.

2. Both papers, especially the Chicago Sun-Times, have covered soccer at the high school level.

3. It's not reasonable for Conklin to assume that additional soccer coverage would have generated new readers. Both dailies made huge investments in high school sports coverage (basketball, football, baseball, etc.) in the 1980s and 1990s without gaining many new readers.

4. The Chicago Tribune's Hoy provides soccer coverage. I know the paper is grabbed in the Pilsen neighborhood.

5. It's possible that Latino soccer fans got their information from community newspapers and/or broadcast outlets.

2. From Mike Garcia:

Good article but ironically Mike never mentioned that Chicago has a team in the nation's one and only top flight league recognized by FIFA. The Chicago Fire.

The Chicago Fire have been here for over a decade and not even a hint of the club by Mike while he was making a point that Chicago's forgotten soccer fans need some coverage. The article left me scratching my head.

In regards to pandering to ethnic audiences, the Chicago Fire signed Cuauthemoc Blanco a couple years ago, the biggest Mexican soccer star in the last 30 years and a Mexican National Team regular, and World Cup veteran for the entirety of that career. Unfortunately, it hasn't produced a sustained increase in the stands from the Hispanic/immigrant population. Not to mention that the current SuperLiga tournament which highlighted 4 top flight Mexican clubs drew under 9,000 to each of the three games played here this month.

Is that the media's fault? Maybe. Maybe because English speaking media doesn't really understand the nuts and bolts of the game - top flight leagues around the world have their clubs play a regular season for a championship, with best performing teams also participating in a couple of tournaments that run concurrent to the regular season (MLS clubs play the regular season and at least two of the following three tourneys every year: US Open Cup, Concacaf Champions League, SuperLiga). The sports media here doesn't know how to cover all that much less when the Fire play "friendlies" against foreign clubs.

Professional soccer is not all that different from the youth clubs that cover our nation's soccer fields where traveling teams play their respective seasons and a few tournaments every year. Unfortunately this doesn't make a whole lot of sense to the traditional American sports mind where both amateur and professional leagues play one fixed league schedule per year.

So why aren't the Chicago Fire gaining more support from the Hispanic community or the tremendous number of soccer savvy fans already in Chicagoland who understand the beauty of soccer and its several meaningful games and tourneys? Well, it's an enemy you didn't focus because you never mentioned them in the article . . . the Chicago Fire themselves. It's not just the media, the Fire organization itself is contributing to the failure of coverage and lack of buzz for the game to Chicago's "forgotten fans."

The club's management and ownership changed a couple years ago to much hope for growing the team, the league, the tourneys and the game in general; however, they've failed miserably to reach out and sell themselves to fans . . . American and immigrants alike. Soccer doesn't need to gain the casual sports fan, it just needs to capture the attention of the huge soccer fan base that are already sold on the game, but need a reason to follow their local side.

MLS is much better and a huge improvement from the old NASL in terms of play, stadiums and growth and improvement of the American player which has fueled the US National Team's success.

3. From Christopher May:

Good article on the lack of soccer coverage in Chicago, but the same article has no mention of the Chicago Fire?

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Posted on Nov 26, 2021