Friday Newsletter: U.S. Media Outlets and the Soccer Celebrity Interview
There's a big business opportunity for any glossy, large-reach U.S. media outlet that wants to do big interviews with the world's most prominent soccer figures more often than once every year or two.
This past Tuesday—the first day of the men’s UEFA Champions League group stage—was a fascinating day in the global media strategy of Kylian Mbappé, the most likely candidate to become King of the World, sporting division, circa 2023.
Mbappé, the 23-year-old France and Paris Saint-Germain superstar who has already won the World Cup, doesn’t give many one-on-one in-depth interviews. We know this because both the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal used the word “rare” to describe their sit-downs with Mbappé for the blockbuster stories they happened to release … on the same day.
Such is the media landscape for soccer in the United States, especially during a World Cup year. The U.S. is viewed as the next big global cash register for the world’s game, and that’s not entirely a new thing. Back in 2003, early in my 25-year tenure at Sports Illustrated, I started realizing the biggest entities in world soccer—players, coaches and clubs—all wanted to get bigger in the States. That meant they were willing to provide prominent U.S. media outlets with access that was often better than the kind they were willing to give media in their own countries.
For years, I pitched my Big Idea to Sports Illustrated: The most prominent figures in world soccer want to speak to us and give us access they almost never give anybody else. So instead of just doing these types of stories once every two years around World Cups and major tournaments, why not do them regularly? Like every week or two? The soccer stars being written about would get the exposure they’re seeking in the United States, and we can help build the soccer audience in the U.S. while growing SI’s interest around the world (where the huge soccer audience would pay to read the quality stories we’re producing). No bosses at SI ever wanted to do that.
That realization first hit me in ‘03 when Nike invited me and a small group of U.S. writers to visit the Swoosh’s new partner Manchester United. (These days, I have learned that the travel and accommodations for these types of media junkets are often paid for by the people who are being covered, which is a big journalism ethical no-no at places like the NYT, the WSJ and SI but appears to matter less to some outlets in recent cash-strapped years.)
Anyway, SI paid for my trip to Manchester, where I got to do one-on-one interviews with Sir Alex Ferguson and Roy Keane literally the day before the famous Champions League elimination game against Real Madrid when OG Ronaldo had a hat trick (and got a standing ovation at Old Trafford) and David Beckham came on as a sub and scored twice against the same Galácticos he would be joining to great fanfare just a couple months later. Not bad for my first game at Old Trafford.
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My SI editors eventually decided to change the focus of my story to Beckham (featuring the quotes from Sir Alex) when it turned out that Beckham was willing to sit down with me for a big one-on-one interview in New York City. The result was “Big Bend,” a lengthy celebrity magazine feature that more or less introduced Beckham to the United States—which seems crazy, considering he was at the height of his powers globally—and tried to explain why, if Beckham was so great, Man United was about to get rid of him.
Incredibly, Beckham isn’t even on the main cover of that Sports Illustrated issue. (The NBA’s David Robinson was.) It was so hard to get soccer into SI in those days that we had the world’s most famous soccer player speaking to us at length and he still didn’t make the cover. It was a little like when Zinédine Zidane starred to win the World Cup in 1998 with France, and the SI cover that week was … Mike Ditka? In July?
In the years that came after that Beckham story, I used every bit of leverage I could—SI’s large U.S. readership, player agents, clubs, shoe companies, PR reps, etc.—to land big interviews at some of the globe’s biggest soccer clubs (Barcelona in 2012, Bayern Munich and Chelsea in 2014, Manchester City in 2017) and with the sport’s superstars: Ronaldinho (2006), Beckham again (2007), Marco Materazzi (2007), Didier Drogba (2010), José Mourinho (2011), Mario Balotelli (2013), Luis Suárez (2014), Lionel Messi (2016), Mohamed Salah (2018), Jürgen Klopp (2020) and OG Ronaldo (2021).
I’ve got some amazing memories of those experiences: Of visiting Drogba in the remote province of Cabinda, Angola, during the 2010 Africa Cup of Nations; of telling Balotelli that his hero, President Obama, might read the SI story I was interviewing him for (Balo perked up after that!); and of having our video camera microphone not function for a few minutes when I sat down with Messi, leaving us to have several minutes of small talk when he asked me what soccer was like in the city I’m from (Kansas City).
For years, I pitched my Big Idea to Sports Illustrated: The most prominent figures in world soccer want to speak to us and give us access they almost never give anybody else. So instead of just doing these types of stories once every two years around World Cups and major tournaments, why not do them regularly? Like every week or two? The soccer stars being written about would get the exposure they’re seeking in the United States, and we can help build the soccer audience in the U.S. while growing SI’s interest around the world (where the huge soccer audience would pay to read the quality stories we’re producing).
No bosses at SI ever wanted to do that. The travel would cost too much money, they said, and since you couldn’t buy the SI print magazine internationally and SI had never figured out how to monetize digitally, it was a non-starter.
(In case you’re wondering, my Big Idea is still a really good one for a large glossy U.S. media outlet.)
Still, celebrity interviews (including in global soccer) aren’t without their challenges. The process of arranging a big interview can feel like arranging an audience with the Pope, for one thing. Drawing out really interesting answers from stars who’ve had extensive media training can be tricky (see: Mbappé’s quotes in the two stories this week).
Back in early 2020, I had even managed to set up an interview in Paris with Kylian Mbappé for Sports Illustrated. Unfortunately, it was for mid-March 2020, and the emerging pandemic forced it to be canceled. It was a bummer, obviously, and I was thinking about that this week as I read the Mbappé stories written by Tariq Panja (NYT) and Joshua Robinson (WSJ), who both happen to be my friends.
They’re good stories, by the way, and you should read them. My only wish is that we wouldn’t get two rare big Mbappé interviews on the same day, and that the soccer media landscape in the U.S. would change so that we wouldn’t be inundated with a glut of amazing soccer content (magazine stories, documentary films, books) all coming out right around the World Cup. Let’s try to spread it out over the four-year period moving forward.
OPENING THE MAILBAG
Thoughts on Graham Potter to Chelsea? He’s done an excellent job at Brighton, but the expectations are about to ratchet up for a guy whose resume in European competitions is pretty light.
On the face of it, I kind of love the appointment of Potter as Chelsea coach. He’s a guy who has definitely put in the time and earned his way to this point, having started in the fourth division of Sweden with Östersund before earning three promotions there. His teams play good soccer, possession-based soccer, and they are almost always better than the sum of their parts. Potter is a somewhat rare Premier League coach with a university degree, and he has used that in part to become known as a smart man manager. He’s a coach’s coach whose peers have significant respect for him and what he has achieved as he has moved up the coaching tree. And in a Premier League that often recycles the same old names at the bottom and top of the table, I like that Chelsea is taking a bit of a risk here in choosing Potter over Mauricio Pochettino.
Why is it a risk? Because Chelsea is a truly big club, and Potter hasn’t yet had the experience that has made Carlo Ancelotti, for example, so widely respected: Managing a locker room with some of the highest-paid and biggest-ego players in the world. You can’t escape that Potter has not coached in the Champions League, while Pochettino has taken a team to the Champions League final. But that’s not to say that Potter is totally unequipped to manage the Chelsea locker room. In fact, I think he might end up being quite good at it. At the very least, his communication with players will almost surely be an upgrade over what Thomas Tuchel was doing.
Am I concerned that Todd Boehly has hired Potter before hiring a sporting director? Yes. That’s not a good order of hires. But overall I’m optimistic about Potter and think he can succeed at Chelsea.
Does Graham Potter's tactical approach suit Christian Pulisic's strengths?
At this point, I think Potter’s approach suits Pulisic better than Tuchel’s (which in the end wasn’t great for any of Chelsea’s attacking players). Potter wants to possess the ball and likes players who are smart, technically gifted and capable of playing comfortably in different parts of the field. That all describes Pulisic to a tee.
Your latest USMNT goalkeeper assessment given Turner isn’t playing and Steffen has not been playing while recovering from an injury. Perhaps Horvath time?
It could be a fascinating time for the USMNT goalkeeper position. Or it might not be. It depends. The two keepers who started the 14 U.S. World Cup qualifiers are Zack Steffen and Matt Turner. They still seem like far and away the most likely options for the U.S. to start at the World Cup. But: Steffen has had a recent knee injury and hasn’t played for Middlesbrough (where he’s on loan from Man City) since August 20. Nor had Steffen played great there when he was on the field. As for Turner, he’s the clear No. 2 at Arsenal and just made his competitive debut for the club on Thursday in a Europa League win at Zürich.
Meanwhile, Ethan Horvath is playing regularly for the Championship’s Luton Town (on loan from Nottingham Forest), and Sean Johnson is playing regularly for New York City in MLS. What do I expect Berhalter will do? I still think Steffen is the likely World Cup starter if he’s healthy, with Turner (who figures to get a lot of Arsenal cup games) the No. 2 option. If Steffen and Turner are healthy in Qatar, I just don’t see any of the other candidates being realistic starters. The question for me is who goes as the No. 3 keeper, Johnson or Horvath? Right now I’d lean (barely) toward Johnson, who started and played well for the U.S. against Uruguay in June.
One month into the European seasons, is there anything that you see developing as a trend—either positive or negative—across the continent or at least in a single league?
I wouldn’t say it’s positive or negative, but it does seem like more teams are using three-man back lines again in recent years. I went through the first matchday of men’s UEFA Champions League games to see how many teams went with three in the back. Not only did nine of the 32 teams go with three, but six of those nine teams actually went up against each other on Matchday 1:
Dinamo Zagreb-Chelsea Yes-Yes
Benfica-Maccabi Haifa No-No
Celtic-Real Madrid No-No
Sevilla-Man City No-No
Atlético Madrid-Porto Yes-No
Barcelona-Viktoria Plzen No-No
Club Brugge-Leverkusen No-No
Inter-Bayern Munich Yes-No
The Premier League’s transfer spending this past cycle was nearly equal to the combined transfer spending of the next few top European leagues combined. The Champions League final eight teams come from a very small pool of the same teams from the same leagues year after year. Do you ever see UEFA implementing any type of salary cap or luxury tax structure to some or all countries in UEFA to promote more balance? Can they even do that? Should they?
I thought this graphic from my friend Gabriele Marcotti of ESPN on net spend by league was particularly revealing:
Basically, the Premier League’s TV money is causing a huge imbalance in net spend between the top European leagues. The PL might as well already be a Super League. But do I expect UEFA will institute a salary cap or luxury tax? Not at all. Already, UEFA’s attempt at Financial Fair Play hasn’t really had any teeth, so I don’t see anything significant changing, at least not in the near term.
Mbappé or Haaland?
I feel like we might be asking this question for the next decade or so. I love both players. But I do feel like we should always be asking the most important question: How much have you won?
Mbappé, 23, has won a World Cup, a UEFA Nations League, five French leagues and four French Cups. Haaland, 22, has won a German Cup, two Austrian leagues and an Austrian Cup.
Yes, Mbappé has a lot more talent around him on the French national team than Haaland has with Norway, but even then, Norway’s inability to qualify for the World Cup or a 24-team Euros with Haaland and Martin Odegaard is kind of shocking. Haaland figures to have a better chance to win a big domestic league with Man City than he did with Dortmund, but right now, when it comes to winning, they’re not really close.
Any sense of how strong the Iran team will be at the WC? It seems like beating Wales should get the U.S. through the group, but maybe I’m underestimating Iran.
According to the ELO rankings, Iran (at No. 25 globally) is the best team in Asia, better than South Korea, Japan, Australia, Qatar or Saudi Arabia—all of which will be at the World Cup. The U.S. is No. 23 in ELO, Wales is No. 22 and England is No. 12. That should make for a highly competitive group. It is fascinating, though, that Iran felt compelled to make a coaching change just this week and re-hire Carlos Queiroz, the Portuguese who coached Iran from 2011 to 2019, including at two World Cups. (He became available when his Egypt failed to qualify for Qatar.) Why make a coaching change just two months before the World Cup? Seems odd to me, but at least they know what they’re getting with Queiroz, whose Egypt teams were hard to play against and extremely annoying, but hardly did much attacking (even with Mo Salah onboard).
On the days between the World Cup Round of 16 and the quarterfinal, I’m flying to Italy. And the day after the second semifinal, I’m going to fly from Rome to one of the countries that’s playing in the final, to watch the final there and experience either the greatest party or the saddest wake of my life. Generally, I’m assuming I’ll go to the capital—Paris, London, Madrid, maybe Amsterdam or Brussels or Lisbon. My question is, if Germany makes the final and I go there, should I go to Munich instead of Berlin?
I’d go to Berlin. I like Munich, but Berlin is where Germans celebrate big soccer wins in the biggest way, especially with the national team. And Berlin is a truly international city that’s a heck of a lot of fun to be in. If I was going to live in Europe, Berlin would be right near the top of my list of places to do it.
Have a good weekend!
As always, great stories, Grant! No question SI completely blew a lot of potential. I was a 20-year subscriber, emphasis on “was”. The last straw was them letting you go.
What would your list of places to live in Europe look like Grant?