Q&A: Bob Ley

The Legendary Broadcaster on World Cup Qualifying Tales, Trying to Find Soccer on So Many Streaming Apps, Whether FIFA Has Changed and Much More

Welcome to Fútbol with Grant Wahl — a newsletter about soccer. You can read what this is about here. If you like what you see, consider forwarding it to some friends. You can also click the button below to subscribe for free. And if you do like it, consider going to the paid versionI’ll be on the ground for all 14 USMNT World Cup qualifiers, and that type of quality coverage requires resources for this to be a sustainable operation.


If you want to get a sense of the impact that Bob Ley has had on soccer in the United States, take some time to watch the YouTube video above. Chris Alexopoulos, one of ESPN’s lead soccer producers, put it together a couple years ago when Ley retired from ESPN after spending 40 years there. The video captures the unrivaled longevity and excellence of Ley’s history broadcasting soccer at ESPN, and it’s magnificent.

Ley covered so many other sports and stories during his ESPN tenure, of course, but this week he and I focused on his love of soccer during our interview. For me, Ley’s voice is synonymous with quality, and to hear it again made me think of all the remarkable work he has done over the years. I hope you enjoy our interview below as much as I did.

Grant Wahl:

Our guest now is a legend in American sports broadcasting, including soccer broadcasting. Bob Ley spent 40 years at ESPN, and his work with soccer goes all the way back to the New York Cosmos and the 1982 World Cup and many World Cups since. Bob, it's great to see you. Thanks for coming on the show.

Bob Ley:

Oh, this is a pleasure to reconnect with you. Thank you. And I will tell you that when I was connected with them, they played in New Jersey and it was just Cosmos. And as a Jersey kid, I'll tell you that we were very particular about "No, no, no. New York, you got to pay a toll at the tunnel. We're in Jersey."

Grant Wahl:

It was so great. I got a text message from you last week after the U.S. World Cup qualifier in Honduras, where once upon a time in 2009, you helped me get my head straight after I got mugged there.

Bob Ley:

You were robbed at gunpoint, let's let the record show,

“That USA-Honduras match I watched on Univision … It felt like going back to the ‘80s. Where's the bloody game? And it was on Paramount+ … It's the same problem that NBC had with the Olympics. [NBC] took the Olympics, loaded it into a shotgun and just shot it out into the content universe … The golden age of television has now become the platinum age of streaming, [but] you're overwhelmed.” — Bob Ley

Grant Wahl:

But you really helped me and it was awesome. I appreciated the support, but it also showed me, that text message, you're still paying attention to soccer, right?

Bob Ley:

Yeah, certainly in this qualifying window as much as you can, and it was fun to hear you talking to Landon from San Pedro Sula, the city that I've been fortunate to visit a couple of times, and it's an experience down there. And it just brought back to my memory, all the great trips we made in Concacaf qualifying. I remember the conversations when you're Jurgen Klinsmann took over as manager with the United States team and trying to impart... and I know he appreciates it at this point, how this is not European qualifying. This is not the coach trip of an hour and a half from the train station. This is a cultural shift. This is going up to 33 degrees centigrade and getting no sleep in your hotel because they're going to be banging trash cans outside.

But some of my fondest memories are certainly Concacaf qualifying, and of course the World Cups overseas, but I just enjoyed what you and Landon were talking about, because that particular night at halftime of that game in Honduras, in retrospect, it's easy to say that we were a whole bunch of Chicken Littles, but I mean, there was serious conversation with some serious soccer people, like, "Where do we go now?" Had the United States only had two points after three matches? And of course, all of that's forgotten because everything's solved. Nothing washes away more than three points.

“Where am I? I'm here and I'm there. I'm like Roy Kent, I'm bleeping everywhere. I love that character.” — Bob Ley on what he’s up to these days post-ESPN

Grant Wahl:

It is interesting, because it was just 45 minutes of soccer, but it was four goals and things can change so fast in World Cup qualifying, as Jurgen Klinsmann knows. In two games in the last cycle, he went from what seemed like a pretty decent position as the U.S. coach to being fired. And I know people were talking about that possibility with Gregg Berhalter at halftime, but, you know, things do change quickly.

Bob Ley:

Arsene Wenger’s name got a lot of play for 15 minutes in some circles. I mean, it's all blue sky. And by the way, Jurgen, if that referee in Colorado had picked up the ball and walked off the pitch with the ball in the middle of that snow storm [in the SnowClásico], and they were in three points that night, I mean, a lot of history in American soccer would have been different perhaps in that cycle.

Grant Wahl:

I think much in the same way that Jurgen Klinsmann didn't know what Concacaf World Cup qualifying was like until he experienced it, some of these U.S. players had the same situation, where like Sergiño Dest, for example, may play at Barcelona, but he hadn't been through that before in El Salvador. And some of these other U.S. players hadn't either. And I know you've seen it over the years. What's always stood out to you about those experiences?

Bob Ley:

I mean, this particular team, it's the conflict between the CVs, the resumes and the reality. I mean, what we've seen so often and what we saw in the second half, I think, for the United States against Honduras, and have you ever seen such a dramatic turnaround? I don't know that I've ever seen a team, a national team, have two disparate halves as different, was the ability in United States, I mean, everybody talks, "How do you define the national qualities of a team?" 

And I think as the world becomes more and more polyglot, national teams reflect that in their ethnicity and their styles and whatnot. You can't say German football is this, English football is that. But American soccer has always had... and talking to guys who played for the team, when all else failed, we were fit, we were in shape, and we could run like hell and work hard. Great American traits, classically, which you need.

But the whole cultural experience of traveling from the United States down to Mexico, El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, where there are decades of political and cultural history overlaying this game that you, as a 25 year old professional football player, may not realize that.

Grant Wahl:

Right.

Bob Ley:

This really came home to me when I was in Havana, Cuba, when President Obama was visiting in 2016 and down there for the baseball game between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Cuban national team. And we had to leave before the Stones, who came in three days later. I was talking with a bunch of the Rays players at a reception one night in Havana. Young guys at the top of their profession, proven guys, who would shortly advance far into the postseason, but they really didn't have... and it's no knock on them. I mean, they weren't alive in the ‘60s. They didn't understand the Iron Curtain, the Cold War, the Cuban Missile Crisis. 

I remember having a couple gratifying conversations, just showing why Cubans mistrust the United States because of the Bay of Pigs and the CIA trying to off Castro so many times, et cetera. And we have a residence in the Keys and here in 2021, on a regular basis, Cubans, in numbers not seen in years are trying to escape that island and drifting up into the Keys, still, generations later. So I think that whole unfamiliarity with the cultural and political history is... if you're not dialed into it, the reality of walking into a wall of sound...

I remember standing at field level in Honduras, and I think it was the 2013 qualifier. It was Jurgen Klinsmann's first foray on the road. It was the February match. And I believe it was in 86th minute, Honduras took the lead with a goal down to the left side. You were there, I'm sure, right? And I was standing pitch level, because I was getting ready to do a post-game flash report for... and we weren't carrying the game, we were sending it back. And when that goal went in, I have never heard, or sensed a sound or a sensation like that. The audio, the volume had a physical quality, as if your field of vision was vibrating because of the sonic... and I'm not romanticizing or misremembering this, to quote Mark McGwire. I mean, this is what it was.

It was so loud, it was so fervent. And I think in Honduras, I don't think there's any... you could probably normally dial down the anti-Yankee animus a few notches. I don't think it's pronounced there as it might be in some other nations, but there's so much at stake in these countries for these qualifiers. It's unlike Germany packing up to go play Romania. I mean, it's just you know you're going to have a home and home. You're going to get your point on the road, come back and beat their pants off. It's not like this. It's hammer and tong every time out.

Grant Wahl:

Yeah. No, definitely. If I had asked you back in 2009 where you thought the U.S. men's national team would be in 2021, what would you have thought about that and where this U.S. team is now? And that includes the idea that you have a lot of young players playing at really big European clubs, but they haven't really achieved much yet with this U.S. team. And we're coming off the U.S. men not qualifying for the last World Cup, which I don't know if either one of us would have predicted in 2009.

Bob Ley:

No, and really, that was... I was happy to see the outrage and the anger that night. Jeremy Schaap and I were taping something for E:60 in New York. And unfortunately, ESPN didn't have a piece of that coverage. It was 2017, right? And driving back from New York City I did a phone hit on SportsCenter and I was talking to Taylor Twellman and whatnot that particular night. And I think I made the comment on the air, "If you're a proper footballing nation, you’ve got to be really pissed off about this. And not in a visceral, emotive and immediate reaction, hot take kind of way. I mean, this is unacceptable. Being of 330 million people, if we can't field an 11 in this region where there are three and a half slots, we need to really study up on it."

But if you said 2009... I'd say, if you'd asked me in 2010, after the United States had gone to the Round of 16, on reflection, and of course that year, if you remember, I don't remember the particulars of the draw, but I remember the observation, we never would have had a better draw in my lifetime if we advanced beyond that Round of 16 match, but still that's an accomplishment. I mean, people forget. How did England do in the 1994 World Cup? They didn't come here. I mean, stuff like that happens. I mean, how many nations have won the World Cup? I think it's eight. It's the most exclusive club in the world.

And you talk about having all these players on European clubs and you know this well. And it's the one thing I don't think that Ted Lasso captures about the reality of the Premier League or even the Championship, which is that, especially if you’re American, and I think that 'especially' part might be diminished, but in European football, in the top leagues, your job is on the line every time you put on your boots. In training. That's where it comes. And we don't have that yet in this country, culturally. I mean, when big names come back to MLS, as they did and in the wake of prior World Cups and sign deals for money that's... they're going to be, "I'm not paying you $6 million a year to sit on a bench. You're going to be in there."

So that part, I think, needs to be appreciated and reflected upon. And you're right. The players with the big club ties have to continue to win their playing time. But to be where we are... we. We can say that, we carry U.S. passports... 10th in the world, I think is a hell of an accomplishment, on reflection. And it's good to be angry a little bit at times. It's good to have goals. It's good to call the people that are wringing their hands at halftime of USA-Honduras, a bunch of Chicken Littles and get it together, they're going to be fine. We've come a long way. I think we really have. And you have to understand, until you can look down every side street, as you and I have seen as we've traveled the world, and see games being played 11 o'clock at night for the hell of it... You don't see that a lot of places here. We're still packing kids into the back of minivans. But we're seeing an appreciation that's a deeper, wider player pool, and we're all better for it.

Grant Wahl:

Did you watch this summer's Euros at all? And I want you to help answer a question for me. Someone told me that ESPN, at one point, tried to bring you back for some soccer work. Is that accurate?

Bob Ley:

I did watch parts of the Euro. I was actually watching the day that [Christian] Eriksen went down and I just like was real time texting with some people involved in that. And that's your worst nightmare. Those pictures, I could tell you, the greatest challenge is how to deal with the unknown, and you don't control the feed, and it's a matter of taste versus news on display. It was an unimaginable thing to try and manage. 

As to your other question, yeah, there had been an inquiry when it was the tournament to be played in 2020, but I had just turned the page in my life and career. And it wasn't the six weeks of the tournament, and at the time it would have involved... they had very ambitious plans to actually be set up... this is prior to the pandemic, of course, before the world changed. As you well know, it's not just the tournament. It's the reporting and the preparation you do leading up to it so that everything is second nature. 

And I just wasn't in a position to make that commitment. I was very flattered. I have a lot of very good friends, very, very much still involved in the productions of the games there. Amy Rosenfeld, Chris Alexopoulos, Taylor Twellman, people I've traveled the world with. Taylor and I still talk about our snap trip to Cyprus a few years ago when we were supposed to go to Eastern Ukraine, except they were shelling the stadium, thank you.

Grant Wahl:

Oh yeah, I do remember that.

Bob Ley:

To cover this sport internationally is just... as you well know, and somebody else is paying your way most of the time, I mean, it's the best thing and the best gig in the word.

Grant Wahl:

I love it. Absolutely love it still. Before I get back to some soccer stuff, just kind of fill our listeners in. Where are you these days? What are you up to?

Bob Ley:

Where am I? I'm here and I'm there. I'm like Roy Kent, I'm bleeping everywhere. I love that character. He's of course, the big hit of Ted Lasso. John Terry with a sense of humor. But I'm very involved... We were chatting before we started committing this to digital archives. I'm working with a former colleague of yours. B.J. Schechter, who is the professional in residence at my alma mater, Seton Hall University. We've done a number of things in sports media to enrich the student experience. 

Bob Costas has been very generous with his time in the past. We've done panels and programs and I'm hopeful that we can formalize a lot of what we're doing there in the not too distant future. I'm a grandparent. We've relocated out of Connecticut. We have a place near the grandkids, and we also have a place in warmer weather. And it's just good to not have to... first thing you do in the morning is roll over, grab your phone, and see how your life's been complicated by everything that happened on your phone since you got up to pee at 3 in the morning.

Grant Wahl:

So you've been part of the history of soccer in the U.S., so you have a good perspective on its growth, the growth of soccer in America. I think you can see more soccer on U.S. television now than ever before, but it's also on a lot of different streaming platforms and behind a lot of different paywalls. What are your thoughts on the current situation with soccer on TV here?

Bob Ley:

That USA-Honduras match I watched on Univision and my Spanish is not nearly as good as yours, but I got enough for what I needed to know. And I'm dual screening off ESPN.com, but it felt like going back to the ‘80s. Where's the bloody game? And it was on Paramount+ and I could have done the skeevy thing, which is sign up and then cancel. And I may eventually sign up because they've got all the great Champions League stuff, but my wife and I had that monthly reckoning, "What are we paying for streaming?" We actually discovered we were each paying separately for Disney+ like, "What the hell is going on here?" It's not even included with my pension. I’ve got to pay for this twice?

But it's the same problem that NBC had with the Olympics. They took the Olympics, loaded it into a shotgun and just shot it out into the content universe. And you might think of it, if you're delivering that content as a bonus to the consumer, there are a lot of choices, but I mean, even Netflix realized … I remember reading some comments recently from one of their executives. They're trying to simplify their landing page and simplify the choices their algorithms present to you, because as much content as is being produced, it's the golden age of television has now become the platinum age of streaming, you're overwhelmed. 

I mean, I can make a joke. The reason I retired was to sit and binge all day, because I couldn't finish watching everything that word of mouth brings me, I should watch. And that was the problem with the Olympics. It was so diffused. You had to educate yourself at a certain point, like, "Is it really that important? I have to learn the landscape and then go find it."

And the same can be true with soccer. And it's because different federations and different licensing companies control different rights. "Oh Bob, are we about the back into of the FIFA scandal of 2015?" I mean, that's where part of that was... especially in South America. That's what that crap was all about. So it is diffused. It's not centralized. You know that there's Sunday Night Football on NBC, there's Sunday Night Baseball on ESPN. And so where is this next qualifier? 

And that's a problem, but it's also, listen, it's one of the benefits of capitalism and long may it wave. But it's frustrating. And I had flashback moments that night of the Honduran match recently, saying, "Where the hell? Okay, it's on Paramount+. Is there a work-around here?" Because I'm the cheapest bastard in the world.

And there was. Watch it in Spanish and follow it in English on the internet. But I think, look, the one thing, the dollar is going to trump all. And no pun intended with the last administration. And so, the sport will grow with more money flowing through it, hopefully legitimately and accounted for. So I don't think that's ever going to change. You're going to see, especially in this hemisphere with all the different confederations and their rights. I mean, trying to negotiate the rights for a game in Mexico. I remember some of the horror stories that I would hear from some of my colleagues who were involved in the business side, and some of them, "They want what, for what?" And, oh, we’re not doing that. And just their stories about the next round of qualifying. Well, it will be qualifying. The United States, in all probability it's not... you would know better... it's not yet official-official that the U.S. have a by birth into the next World Cup, but it's all-

Grant Wahl:

It’s not official-official. It's basically assumed.

Bob Ley:

Yeah. So what our U.S. national team games worth after Qatar? However we're going to pronounce that now. Because they're qualified. And so, I've seen accounts that ESPN won't be part of the bidding for that. The number is X, number is Y. And others say, "Well, why would you pay anything for it? Because they're glorified friendlies?"

Grant Wahl:

Yeah, I mean, they've got to figure out what they're even going to do during that stretch.

Bob Ley:

Exactly. And that's dangerous, as we know, I mean, if you're not in competitive matches, you know? But the business side of soccer, as we saw vividly over the last decade, is as entertaining as the on-field side. And I loved all the righteous hand-wringing and posturing in the wake of the sudden demise of the Super League. Because you know damn well, if they could have slid it through a little bit quieter, if the right people could have been greased, it would have gone through.

I mean, all this concerned for the fans? Oh, come on, kiss my wrinkled Irish posterior, please. I mean, you think the fans really matter at the end of the day? All right. Some of the legendary clubs? Yes, okay. If the best deal is on the table, they're going to take the best. And you hear people involved with Super League saying, "Oh, we'll try and bring it back." And they will, they may succeed.

Grant Wahl:

They will. Yeah, they will. I mean, what I would say, I guess is... and there obviously was a huge fan revolt, at least in England against the Super League, and it died after two days. But I still think if they had been smarter about how they structured the idea of the Super League, and it wasn't just 15 permanent spots for these 15 teams, and it was just a couple of teams that were going to get in on merit, that I think it could have gone over better. 

And I actually kind of liked the idea that part of the Super League was all of the clubs agreeing to spending controls, because right now you've got nation states funding Man City, PSG, an oligarch funding Chelsea. And those three teams are starting to have a gap, at least in the ability to buy players. When Barcelona can't even afford Messi and so he has to go to one of the few clubs that can afford him, PSG, that's not great.

Bob Ley:

Yeah, of course, the idea of a financial fair play, according to whom and audited by whom, it's like Hollywood accounting. "Now, how much is two plus two?" "What do you want it to be?"

Well, yeah, it's a shame that the the golden era, the platinum era of Barcelona just ran head first into the realities of you can't spend your way out of a problem. The bill is due and here it is.

Grant Wahl:

Yeah. They're a billion dollars in debt. It's absolutely ridiculous, and how they managed that situation. Were you surprised that ESPN chose to pay more than a billion dollars for LaLiga rights over the next eight years?

Bob Ley:

I mean, I don't know what those are worth, but I know that that shows a great confidence in the growth of streaming. I wasn't surprised, because I mean, the one differentiator now is not what I did, aside from my soccer, which is a studio and journalism and news and looking at issues. It's live events. I mean, live events will define the business success of anyone in the content business. 

And there are only so many of them. And so you have to spend and spend judiciously. I wish they were of a mind in, or at least the corporate overlords had given them that kind of leeway back in 2011. Of course, that deal was cooked in for the World Cup. I mean, frankly, that reshaped the last chapters of my professional career. I mean, if ESPN had retained the World Cup rights. I saw there was a way forward to doing a lot of different things.

But content is where it's at. That's why the significant American football deal for the NFL. I mean, that's a huge feather in [ESPN president] Jimmy Pitaro's cap, that they have that and can build on that. And I think that the next challenge in the production of all of this... I mean, acquiring the rights is one thing, but you saw with American football, the Monday night game, as you and I are taping this this week, was the ESPN2 Peyton and Eli Manning Experience, which I thought was marvelous. 

Now the great challenge is how do you sustain it and make it better? But I was just reading today that Amazon is looking for some... with all their international soccer rights now. They had an EPL deal, which led to, you talk about feeding a business. The EPL deal that Amazon had in the UK, I think drove a huge increase in their Amazon Prime memberships.

Grant Wahl:

Yeah.

Bob Ley:

My big problem this week was Amazon shipped something too soon for me. And I'm not going to jump on the Amazon hate train, because I mean, I applaud business success. Yeah. They got some things they got to work on. Nobody's perfect. But the point is I saw them talking about how they've acquired different other leagues for different international windows of distribution, but they want to take an innovative approach to televising them. And that's the next hurdle. That's the next frontier, they said. 

You’ve got 90 minutes and the field is only so big. And you can basically cover it with two cameras if you want to, but it's the information, it's the integration, it's the audio, it's talking to people during the match, if such a thing as possible. Good luck. Old school football coaches in Europe? I mean, no, I don't see that happening soon. But you have to get on the road to doing things like that, to make it more attractive to people. 

But it all starts with having the rights and drawing people to your product, as Amazon did. If you've got La Liga and it sustains itself as one of the top five leagues in the world, bring people into the ESPN+ plus tent, and then you start poking around, you're going to find a lot of other things.

Grant Wahl:

The next MLS TV contract is going to be decided fairly soon here. Do you think MLS will ever be able to truly increase its TV ratings? And if so, how?

Bob Ley:

We're at the point where it's not TV ratings. And I can see, going back a number of years, I know that this was... you would know better than me, but sure it is a point of concern, business focus, and you might even say obsession on the part of some people in MLS, about how the league is promoted, how it's programmed, and what it rates. 

But these days, I'm holding up my two year old smartphone that needs to be replaced, but if it doesn't fit on here, it doesn't matter anymore. And it's about, especially with the demographic of MLS, this digitally fluent and social networking fluent league, it's not about TV ratings. It's about impressions on every different platform. It's involving people in that dialogue.

So I don't know what the metric is, but I think to rely simply on TV ratings, that's passe. Of course, if you have a good TV rating, you'll ignore that and put out a release that.... Monday Night Football. And well they should. They had a hell of a week this week. It's still the best way... the Super Bowl, the big event, is still the only way, or a national tragedy, is the only way to gather America around the campfire as one to watch that. But the major sporting event is the only trigger left for that.

Grant Wahl:

I do want to step back here, because you mentioned... I remember the day, I think it was 2011, when Fox Sports got the World Cup rights.

Bob Ley:

I remember, too.

Grant Wahl:

Well, you and I traded messages that day. You knew instantly how much of an impact that was going to have on your career, I think, because you had put so much into the amazing coverage of the World Cups. I'm thinking also of the leap in 2010 with South Africa and how ESPN covered that. And then again, with 2014 in Brazil. And it doesn't get talked about much these days, but as of last year, the U.S. government is alleging in writing that this was illegal, something was done. They're going after a former Fox Sports executive who ended up at Wondery [Hernán López]..

Bob Ley:

I'm shocked. I'm shocked. Yeah. I mean, the fix was in. And finally forensic accounting is... I'm not surprised, but it is what it is. It'll make a good documentary one day or a scripted drama. I mean, I remember, oh, I'm not actively in the game, so who was the Concacaf official, [former president] Jeffrey Webb. Fate put us on the same flight out of San Pedro Sula to Miami, I think to Miami one day, for two or three hours. And it was just starting to percolate.

Grant Wahl:

Yeah.

Bob Ley:

And I'm saying, "I got two hours here. How am I going to use these two hours?" So, I try to edge near it. Now, it was like he was playing keep-away. I could hear in his mind, "Ole, ole." And then a couple of years later, boom, there he is. I think he took a plea deal and whatnot. But look, we all knew for years, we've talked about this. We all knew that dealing with FIFA, you're walking into a fixed casino, and trying to get TV rights, it was... surprising? No. And I don't know where that legal case stands. I mean, are they going to expand the investigation? I mean-

Grant Wahl:

It's still open. That's all I know.

Bob Ley:

Yeah. My good friends Michael Davies and Roger Bennett gave a golden blazer and I'm proud to have been the first recipient. They gave one to [former U.S. attorney general] Loretta Lynch for her part, I mean, which is one of the most surreal stories in the history of American jurisprudence, that a sitting attorney general and I have the same glittering disco jackets hanging in our respective closets. I hope she kept hers. Mine's in an honored place.

Grant Wahl:

Oh, shoot. That's great. I mean, you've always been a hard news guy. You hosted Outside the Lines with so much great investigative reporting. I always thought it was frustrating during my seven years with Fox Sports that as the World Cup rights holder in places like Russia, for example, Fox refused to do any sort of investigative reporting on Russia or soccer corruption in Russia or anything like that. What do you think about all this as a journalist? And should a World Cup rights holder cover all the stories?

Bob Ley:

Well, I think clearly the answer is... should is yes. And I will point you to 2010 when our reporting in South Africa was... I mean, if you were to draw up a pie chart of why that was an important World Cup for us, I mean, part of it will be it acclimated American television habits to a World Cup as an event, as an immersive event, in the great words of Geoffrey Mason, one of Roone [Arledge]’s boys, a very good friend, the executive producer of so many great events. Sense of place. We gave you that. 

We gave you the tournament, what it meant to South Africa, but we told you the backstory of a nation that only 20 years earlier had officially, still had apartheid, and had just then released Nelson Mandela from prison. I mean, I got an opportunity during that World Cup to interview Archbishop Desmond Tutu. I mean, we went hard and deep at all these stories, to the point where there were some grumblings among some of our South African local hires, like, "Enough, enough. I mean, we've moved 20 years on." And I see their point that they would feel that way.

Reporting about corruption in a nation, especially, like, I have some experience in doing some reporting on the Russian Mafia. And you tread very lightly doing that, especially in-country, because there are dozens and dozens of journalists who have been killed doing that. And I know I point towards the courageous stuff that my friend Jeremy Schaap has done in Qatar, looking at just the conditions there for the workers. I mean, it's just horrible. And there has been progress in that. 

So the answer, yeah, that's a long answer to your question. And it can be distilled down to one word. You should do that. But at the same time, I mean, I think the whole word journalism and the definition of it has been, not to the better, redefined over the last several years, just looking at our domestic political situation. And there's advocacy journalism, and I'm not sure what the numbers would tell you. I suspect they're trending in the wrong direction and the viewing public, the consuming public, the fan public for that sort of material … doesn't mean you shouldn't be doing it.

But everything here is about clicks. Everything here is about metrics. Everything here is about economic success. And if it's going to be a turnoff, or if it's going to be, just as importantly, expensive to report, that's a consideration. I mean, especially for electronic journalism, this is not cheap. I mean, I remember the story back in 2017 that Steve Fainaru reported for E:60 on the Syrian national football team. And that took them 10 months to report, six countries. They traveled, literally, in Malaysia, Europe, all over to report that. I don't know, with the economics of 2021, that that story would get green-lighted today. Editorially it should be, but practically, it's difficult. I mean, and those were flush times, that was a golden age.

So now you're in a new reality of what networks and companies are dealing with. And I was saying publicly when the pandemic hi back in March and April of 2020, I said, "Once the green eyeshade boys and girls get a hold of what we're saving as an industry by doing all these games off-site, not traveling people, these changes are here to come, and they are largely here to come." I mean, you hear the frustration, I'm a huge Mets fan. And I love their TV booth. I think it's the best in the business. And I hear Gary Cohen and Ron Darling and Keith Hernandez, the polite word is bitch, about the fact they're calling... they're still... I think they covered two road trips this year, because of COVID. But the rich clubs will go back to traveling, but a lot of clubs... I mean, MLS, even before the pandemic, I would think a majority of clubs called road matches off monitors.

Grant Wahl:

Yeah. No, of course, yeah.

Bob Ley:

And so that's just an example of how money dictates it. And then you have to maintain the relationship with the host government for obvious reasons. It's very delicate, it's tough, it's expensive and it's delicate. And corporate folks in corner offices might say, "How is this helping us?" Well, the truth is always helpful, but the profit line rules here.

Grant Wahl:

There was a story by Pablo Maurer in the athletic interviewing Alexi Lalas, who just visited Doha as part of the FIFA Legends group that Gianni Infantino has built over the last few years. It includes Renaldo Fenómeno from Brazil, Tim Cahill, Jared Borgetti actually stood next to Alexi, the Mexican player, at the sort of team photo they had. And basically, Alexi was straight up with Pablo about how FIFA is trying to convince these former players to support a World Cup once every two years, which is the new push.

Bob Ley:

Oh, jeez. I mean, don't get angry at the Super League. Just get angry at... this is the ugly side of capitalism. Don't you have enough flipping money? I mean-

Grant Wahl:

You would think.

Bob Ley:

So you can have a Super League, you can have a biennial World Cup, and then you can have, what, a 64-team Champions League? I mean, where do we stop? And by the way, is anyone speaking up for the poor players? They're not poor.

Grant Wahl:

Apparently not. They're not poor, but they're not organized. The players unions are a shadow in soccer of what they are in the NFL or the NBA or Major League Baseball. And I do wonder at what point, what would cause the soccer players to actually form a stronger union? Right now, part of it's you have players divided by countries. Some countries have stronger soccer players unions than others. Spain actually has a stronger one than most, but it also seems like the superstars in soccer, the players, kind of don't really care that much about organizing.

Bob Ley:

Well, why would you? I mean, if, "I've got mine." I mean, some of it’s human nature. Is there a soccer Curt Flood out there?

Grant Wahl:

Yeah, that's a great question.

Bob Ley:

And I don't know that there is. But I mean, you talk about we almost had a player die from a concussion, Christoph Kramer, on the field in 2014, and eventually it leads to what? Acknowledging you can have a fourth substitution, pre-COVID, for head injuries. Oh, jeez, okay, fine, but are we really addressing the damage? I mean, I know the U.S. Soccer Federation with their recommendations on youth soccer and heading and whatnot. 

But I mean, if a near fatality in front of a billion people, live on television, it takes that long to effect a minor change, what will... you want systemic change? With money at stake? Lives? Oh, we got players lined up. We can always go sign up a couple of those and more. I mean, players are the currency and they're dispensable.

Grant Wahl:

Couple more questions here with Bob Ley. Really appreciate you taking this much time.

Bob Ley:

This is fun.

Grant Wahl:

Yeah, I'm enjoying it. Do you think FIFA has reformed much in the last few years, post-giant scandal?

Bob Ley:

Oh, jeez. Well, in relative terms, yes. But what does that mean? I mean, it's hard to have gotten worse than what they had under Herr [Sepp] Blatter, but I mean, it's still not nearly as transparent as it needs to be. I mean, and I'm not covering it closely, but just following at a distance, it's still, the system... I mean, ask someone involved with women's soccer that question, and I think their apogee of arched eyebrows will be a lot higher than mine. Yeah, it's getting better, but don't hold your breath.

Grant Wahl:

And then just whether it's soccer or other sports, who are some of the people in the sports TV business whose work you enjoy the most these days?

Bob Ley:

Oh, jeez. Well, you mentioned Alexi [Lalas]. Always loved watching him on a match because it just brings to mind all the great fun we had. And I still stay in touch with Taylor Twellman. And I mean, three of us working together, we had a whole bunch of fun. I mentioned the Mets booth. That booth of Cohen, Darling and Hernandez is great. And with a team that melts down and always has its gun pointed at its own toe, they walk that fine line, they're able to talk about and allude to things without coming out and basically shotgunning their own livelihood there. And plus, when they just start talking about the team and extraneous things, it's highly entertaining and when it's something you watch 80 to 90 times a year, at least, it's fun.

There's just... I always make a point of checking in every day, seeing what The Undefeated is offering online, because they have some of the best long-form things. And I just, I watch the podcast world and I'm fascinated about the volume. And I wonder how people make their way through the forest of content.

I will say this. In my work with students, trying to just impress upon them the necessity to be a seven or eight tool player, not a five tool player, that you need a complete suite of skills and you have to be entrepreneurial about your own career from a very young age. No one's going to do what I was fortunate to do, which is, with my second or third job out of college, find a place and find a home for 40 years and grow in concert with the growth of the company.

I mean, I won the lottery in so many respects and I appreciate that every day. But that career path is not something that this current economy... you need to be creative. You need to be a number six out there, knowing which way to go, when, and stopping it, making the good Hollywood ball down the wing. You've got to be entrepreneurial about it. And the people that do that, I think, are the ones that catch my attention.

Grant Wahl:

Bob Ley spent 40 years at ESPN where he made a big impact on making the World Cup a legitimately big time event in the United States. He did a lot of other stuff outside of soccer, obviously, over the years, too. Bob, thanks so much for coming on the show.

Bob Ley:

Brother, this has been fun. Anytime. I often think of that dinner, when you, the late Tony DiCicco, and I had in Frankfurt [at the 2011 women’s World Cup]. Sitting there and we didn't know what was coming next out of the kitchen, but it was a fun night. But it's nights like those that make you realize it's the grandest game and it's the tightest family and it's neat. And I appreciate sharing it with you.


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