Tuesday, May 17, 2011

12-Pack Interview Series: Sports Illustrated's Grant Wahl (Part One)


Earlier this year Grant Wahl made waves in global soccer by declaring himself a candidate for the FIFA presidency. Wahl was not nominated by any member nation's federation, but a light was shone upon Sepp Blatter's unopposed run for his fourth term as the leader of the world's game. In the end Qatar's Mohamed Bin Hammam stepped up to complete for FIFA's top job and Blatter squirms a bit more as the world questions just how beneficial his reign has been.


Wahl is the full-time, head soccer writer for Sports Illustrated and probably the most well-known of all American soccer journalists. He's covered four World Cups for the magazine and is the best-selling author of "The Beckham Experiment".
Damn you, Ditka!


(Aside: In 1998, Wahl was covering his first World Cup as the last of SI's American writers to stick around after the USMNT's crashed out in the first round. I was a freshman in high school having just returned from travelling in Hungary and France during the Cup. A long-time subscriber to SI (thanks grandma!) I was elated to finally see some coverage of soccer and I remember pasting up the magazine's pictures of the WC on my closet door. I watched the final and eagerly awaited the next issue of Sport Illustrated to come in the mail. 


When the magazine arrived I was furious to see Mike Ditka's face on the cover instead of a photo of Zidane burying a header against Brazil. In one of my first acts of advocating for soccer in America I furiously wrote a letter to the editor of SI with a litany of complaints. Wahl, SI, and myself have all come a long way since then.)


The Free Beer Movement had the chance to meet Mr. Wahl when we both spoke at the American Outlaws Rally in Las Vegas and Grant graciously agreed to an interview to talk about the effect of the "Beckham Experiment" in MLS two years later, his FIFA run, the future of soccer in print and digital media, and much more.


Our interview started as our usual "12-pack" of questions, but it turned into a fantastic conversation on media and the game so there's several more questions through parts one and two.


Free Beer Movement: How did you get your start in soccer? Did you play when you were younger? 


Grant Wahl: I played soccer as a kid just like everyone else. And just like everyone else... I quit when I was thirteen. I didn't really pay attention to soccer again until the 1990 World Cup. The US had qualifyied for the first time in forty years. I got into not just watching the US, but the other games. I remember, we didn't get TNT (which had the English-language rights to Italy '90), but we did get Univision and we watched Andres Cantor. Got into there and then slowly progressed from there.


I went to Princeton where (current USMNT coach) Bob Bradley was coach and covered their Final Four run in 1993. In early 1994 I applied for a scholarship at Princeton for students to do a project they could never do on campus. I proposed a project that would take me to Argentina for a four weeks and then Boston to follow the Argentina team when they played there during the Cup. It's funny to think back because it was Bradley that actually helped me make contact with Boca Juniors for the trip.


It was the first time I had ever left the United States; I was twenty years old. 


FBM: Where did you get your start in sports journalism? How do you think you've managed to rise so quickly in the business?


GWI had always wanted to write for Sports Illustrated someday. I tried to do what I could to pursue that in college. I ended up getting a job offer to start as a fact check. Which is pretty low on the totem pole. It was a foot in the door and an opportunity to write. Early on, no one at the magazine wanted to write about soccer.


My first big thing with soccer was the 1998 World Cup. We have three writers over there and I was, by far, the most junior. After the U.S exit, I was the only one left to cover the Finals story. I know the magazine editor was freaked out about it. I was only 24 and I knew that was kind of a big chance for me. From that point on I've been the "soccer guy" at the magazine, but secondary until January of last year when I became full-time.


Wahl's FIFA Presidential Rally in Las Vegas.
Photo Credit: Renee Krenk Photography
FBM: You recently spoke at the American Outlaws Rally in Las Vegas. A "campaign stop" for your FIFA Presidency run. How was that event for you? How was it meeting the supporters and getting a taste of what it meant to be a supporter of American soccer?


GW: I totally enjoyed it. It's great to meet people in person who are passionate about a sport in American. I was really impressed with what American Outlaws has doen to organized fans. For me it was really fun. I had not planned for it to turn into a campaign thing. Back when I first accepted it was before the FIFA thing. I was pretty surprised to see all the campaign signs and buttons (put together by energy drink maker, Golazo).


What I wanted to say from the start was I've seen the rise of fan culture in American soccer and that includes the National Team and includes MLS teams. It's been very cool to see. I think that's what makes soccer 
fandom more interested and passionate than fandom of a lot of other American sports. I love the passion of it.


FBM: Having covered both college basketball and soccer for Sports Illustrated... what are the differences in covering each?


GW: Honestly I don't cover soccer any differently than I would a college basketball. The way you cover a sport is essentially the same. Soccer is different from college basketball in a media sense. I like being different and doing something that's not typical in sports journalism.


I love the variety of stories in soccer. In college basketball I did get the feeling that a lot of my stories or the story topics started to take on similar qualities. Every season I would do a story on the top freshman in the country that would be the number one pick in the next NBA draft. I didn't dislike that, in yet there wasn't a ton of variety in their personal stories and I feel like in soccer there's a lot more variety because of the volume of stories around the world. 


Soccer touches on so many different things; culture, politics, stuff like that. For the media that's exciting to look at from that perspective.


FBM: I'm going to make you make a defining statement here. Cameron Crazies or American Outlaws?


GW: (Laughs). You know. I made my choice a year ago to go in full for American soccer so I'll go with American Outlaws.


FBM: Beckham is in final year of his contract with the Los Angeles Galaxy. He's almost done with his so-called experiment. How do you rate it in year five? From his perspective, the Galaxy's, Major League Soccer's?


GW: I think you have to look at is from different perspectives. For Major League Soccer and the Galaxy they would certainly sign him again because it brings a tremendous amount of attention. Not just from outside the U.S., but from inside the U.S. as well. From a business perspective it has been a tremendous positive. This guy's jersey was the top selling jersey in the world in 2007.


And yet at the same time, you've gotta look at the on-the-field performance. My book covered the first two years and it was a complete disaster on the field. Obviously it has gotten better since then, but even then you've got to issue some caveats since Beckham hasn't played that much for the Galaxy whether thats due to the loans or serious injuries. He's now playing in his fifth season, but this will be the second one in which he'll be playing the whole season with the team. Hasn't won any trophies.


Just as it was the case at Real Madrid it was very important that we won a league trophy before he left. He did that. I think it is very important for him that how people view his on-field legacy here to win a trophy before he leaves. 

It's very much a mixed bag. In 2011 he's helping create chances for the Galaxy, but to get five yellow cards in the first six games is kinda of ridiculous. 

When I first started my book on Beckham we didn't have any idea how it was going to turn out and for all I knew he was going to win championships like Pele did with the Cosmos and it did't happen that way.

I think its kinda of unfortuante that in some places I've gotten this reputation for being "negative" on Beckham. All I've really done is cover him straight up.

Jury is still out on the "Beckham Experiment".
FBM: It's unfortunate that you get painted those ways. When you're a "truth-teller" sometimes the truth hurts. It's not your fault it's negative. Your subject ends up... it's not the fault that you wrote down the facts; the facts tell a certain story.


GW: I totally enjoyed the whole process. I was able to get so deeply inside a team like I never had before. People were very honest the whole way through. I wanted it to be either really, really good (for the team) or really, really bad. If they were a mediocre team, it wouldn't be a very interesting story.


Turned out they were really, really bad.




FBM: It was really interesting to look at the inside of an MLS team. The only news coverage you got was from the team itself. "Sorry they're not staying at the Four Seasons... the Best Western is what you get for this road trip."


GW: (Laughs) I was lucky in the sense that MLS was still at the point, even with a guy like Beckham on the team, that the access I was able to get was awfully good what you would probably get for an NFL team or an NBA team.


FBM: This dovetails nicely into my next set of questions. The "Beckham Rule", the Designated Player.. if you've looked at the impact of it since his arrival... there's been a whole host of busts: Nery Castillo, Guzman in Toronto, Ladin in Houston. Or there are some that started successfully but then faded: Blanco in Chicago, Ljunberg in Seattle. How would you assess the overall program for MLS?


GW: It's good that teams at least now have the option and really open their wallets. Which wasn't there before Beckham. Is everyone going to make the right decision? No. That's certainly the case we've seen.

You could also argue, though, it allowed a guy like Landon Donovan to stay in the league. I'm a little surprised so many DPs have been busts. At the same time there have been some successes. The chance to bring some star power into the league is something that needed to happen.


In a league that gets microscopic television ratings (0.2 Nielson rating on ESPN) the only thing that moved the needle was Beckham, and maybe Adu the first year he was in MLS. The DP at least allowed the possibility that that would happen.


You are starting to see a divide between larger market and smaller market teams and their ability to afford players like that.


Did he know what he was getting into?
FBM: Do you think that the designated players come in with mistaken impressions of what the league is and what their impact will be?


GW: I do find it interesting. I would compare Henry to Beckham in this case. When they first arrived they, I don't think, they were prepared for the demands of being in the league, the heat, the conditioning required of players in MLS. That led, in part, to Henry not being at full fitness last season. Led to injures. He just wasn't in shape.


Neither one of those guys were fully aware of what they were getting into. I think maybe that's a lesson for teams in MLS, especially for some of these guys that might come in mid-season, from Europe, that they really need to be strong about educating these guys about what they're getting into. My guess is that some of the MLS teams feel like they want to overpower the player or their agent. MLS teams really should do more to educate those players before they actually arrive in the U.S. 


FBM: you also have to look at the scale. Are the expectations too high for the impact of these players? Soccer is a team sport. It's not like having a start quarterback or running back that will be THE silver bullet to it all. It does skew the scale of how you rate these players.


GW: They are one of eleven, but they are one very special player of eleven. I don't think it's unfair to think that Thierry Henry should score a lot of goals in New York based on how much he's getting paid. Now we're starting to see that. These guys get the benefit of being the stars, but there's expectation and that's no different in MLS than in Europe.


More of our conversation with SI's Grant Wahl in Part Two.


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1 comments:

Irma said...

Really enjoyed this read.

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