Monday, July 29, 2013

VICTORY IN A VIRTUAL VACUUM

On Sunday, the United States's men's national soccer team logged a major victory, but you apparently would hardly know it if you relied on the front pages of the overwhelming majority of the nation's newspapers.

Team USA, playing at Soldier's Field in Chicago, defeated Panama 1-0 in a hard fought match to win the CONCACAF (Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football) Gold Cup tournament. Even though the event essentially was the Super Bowl of Northwestern Hemisphere soccer, a sampling I did of more than 100 Monday front pages of newspapers from around the United States found that only seven contained any mention -- whether a refer or full story -- of the victory, which would have been a point of great national pride for any of the other countries that made it into the competition.

The sampling I used was from among the hundreds of U.S. newspapers who's front pages are posted daily on www.newseum.org, the website of the Newseum in Washington, D.C. I selected the front pages of at least two newspapers in each state, including each state's largest newspaper. In addition, I looked at all of the front pages submitted by papers in Texas, the home state of Brek Shea, the U.S. player who scored the winning goal less than a minute after coming in as a sub in the 68th minute of the match.

The seven newspapers that did mention the U.S. national team's victory on their front pages did so only in refers of varying size. None carried a full story about the game on page one. Of the seven papers, four were in Texas, including The Monitor in McAllen, where I was editor for nearly 12 years until my retirement at the end of April.  The three non-Texas papers were The Santa Fe New Mexican, which serves a community with a substantial Latino population; the Salt Lake City Tribune; and the Chicago Tribune, which serves the city where the championship game was played to a sell-out crowd.

The win was significant on at least two fronts. First, it established a winning-streak record for the U.S. men's national soccer team. Second, combined with the winning streak, it will likely, for the first time in history, move the U.S. into a Top 20 spot in the world soccer rankings that come out in August, surpassing arch rival Mexico.

Interestingly, the U.S. victory got greater play in Mexico, despite the fact that Mexico's national team lost to Panama in the semifinals, altering a much-anticipated matchup with the US in the deciding game. Nearly every Mexican newspaper front page I looked at -- with the notable exception of Reforma in Mexico City -- carried at least a refer to the full story about the U.S. victory on the sports pages. Every one of Panama's newspapers submitting front pages to newseum.org had either a refer or a full story of their national team's defeat on page one.

Did any of this surprise me? Frankly, no. Despite the fact that futbol is the most popular spectator sport across most of the world, I've met very few U.S. sports editors who have much of an appreciation for soccer. What I typically have been told by sports editors is that they are not inclined to devote a lot of coverage to soccer because it's just "never really caught on" in the United States. That is probably true, even though it has undeniably risen significantly in popularity over past 30 years. And while I don't ever expect it to catch up with baseball, football and basketball in popularity in the United States, I think part of the reason it has not grown more popular than it is now may be due, at least in part, to the fact that a substantial number of print and electronic media sports editors seem to go out of their way to ignore it.

But can they afford to continue to do so? My two-cents worth says no and as support for that opinion, I will again cite the fact that a greater percentage of Mexican newspapers saw fit to give the U.S. CONCACAF Gold Cup victory more prominent play than it got on the front pages of the victor nation's papers. Why? Because among Latino readers, soccer is not only popular, but important -- a fact that papers in the United States need to think about as they struggle to maintain old and attract new readers.

It's certainly no secret that across the United States the fastest growing segment of population is people of Hispanic heritage. Newspaper executives are aware of this and for years have been fretting over what they can do to attract more readers from among their communities' growing Hispanic populations. Seems to me that one answer is to provide -- and well play -- more information that interests potential Latino readers whether it's news of significant, long-term importance, like the raging debate over U.S. immigration policy, or news about something so fleeting as the sport of futbol.

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