You wouldn’t think a national sports league would need the help of a community journalism website to thrive. But a niche network of fans of U.S. soccer have taken it upon themselves to cover and help promote the sport, which has long been neglected by the mainstream media.
MatchNight caters to U.S. professional soccer fans — and features their writing, reporting, photos and audio recordings. In an e-mail interview, Lee Smith, MatchNight’s founder and publisher, said the site was started in 2001 to give fans more coverage than they could get in their sports pages.
“At that time, and still much so today, sports sections and highlight shows are filled with baseball, basketball and American football,” writes Smith. “Soccer coverage was often limited to who scored and who won. And many times, when soccer was mentioned, it was a match from overseas.”
Publishing online gives Smith the opportunity to reach to a small but national audience of fans — at low cost. The main site is complemented by 11 regional sites around the country in places like Chicago and Los Angeles. The site’s mission statement say it’s “for the fans, by the fans, and for the benefit and growth of professional soccer in the United States.”
MatchNight covers soccer stories that the traditional media ignores — like the draft, preseason training and specific players, according to Smith. At the same time, Smith says, the site’s writers try to give a sense of what it’s like to actually be at a match.
Volunteer reporters – quality and money issues
According to Smith, most of the reporting is done by volunteer writers, with a few paid feature columnists. The site occasionally pays freelancers if a volunteer writer or photographer can’t get to the scene, Smith writes.
Many of the site’s citizen reporters have some journalism education or sports writing experience, he says. And both Smith and managing editor Shane Murphy make clear they’re committed to quality journalism.
“Most of what I have been doing for MatchNight over the last year has been in ensuring that our stories meet the standards that our Editorial Board expects from our writers,” writes Murphy via e-mail. “Though we pride ourself on being coverage ‘by the fans, for the fans,’ it’s critical that we’re seen as reliable and ethical with every story that we publish. … We see the quality of our reporting as the cornerstone of our coverage.”
Smith says good journalism is key to the site’s success. But he says being an online-only publication makes it easier to dismiss MatchNight reporters — which means they have to work harder.
“We may not always be seen as equals by others in the press box or in the locker room, but our performance over the past five years has put most of our sources at ease in knowing we are going to make every effort to be fair, accurate and responsible with the access we’ve been granted,” writes Smith.
The site provides writers with AP stylebooks — and the volunteer reporters that do locker room interviews get digital audio recorders, says Smith. Those tools of the trade are one way of paying volunteers, but, Smith says, “Our writers are paid in the form of bandwidth, site coding, technical support and whatever advertising they sell on their own regional sites.”
Nonetheless, Smith acknowledges that cash payment to writers may ultimately benefit the site.
“[T]o maintain and improve our quality, we need to offer some form of cash payment — no matter how small — in the future,” he writes. “The problem with volunteers is a lack of consistency. When people get paid, they tend to take the responsibility seriously and are more apt to meet deadlines.”
The site isn’t profitable yet, but Smith notes they’re close to breaking even. Users can currently access all the content on the site for free, but Smith says there’s occasionally talk in the industry about whether advertising alone could support such a narrow niche nationally online.
Smith says most advertisers — other than poker and gambling sites — aren’t looking for the kind of audience MatchNight presents. The site has about 100,000 readers per month, but they’re spread across the nation, Smith says.
“Many advertisers seem to either want a broad audience nationally or want a local audience. Some of our regional sites have been more successful in selling local advertising that MatchNight has nationally,” writes Smith.
According to the site’s advertising page, the content attracts an average of 80,000 unique visitors and 350,000 pageviews per month. They don’t mention who tracks the information for them, but they do say that it’s third party and done offsite. Advertisers are able to purchase ads via CPM (cost per thousand impressions) or CPC (cost per click).
Beyond just the stories and columns, MatchNight has some great soccer data compiled for their users, content that is difficult (if not impossible) to find elsewhere online. One such section is the MLS SuperDraft 2004 Results. As well as basic data on each player picked up in the different rounds of the draft, the section has links to profiles of the individual players. The site makes it easy to follow individual teams as well.
Clicking through to one of the regional sites, users are greeted with a message that the site is run by “official MatchNight News Correspondents.” The sites’ different header images give them a little distinct bit of personality, but having the same navigation helps with a sense of continuity.
Design-wise, the main site utilizes a lot of Flash, keeping with MatchNight’s emphasis on multimedia. The sites in the network have an impressive display of soccer photos. They also have their hands in audio, having forayed into podcasting in January.
The photo gallery holds the work of 11 photographers. Users can select their favorite pictures and bookmark them. (You don’t have to register when using this feature, so it must be cookie-based, much like the MyPI service that recently launched.) Naturally, some shots on MatchNight are better than others. But you have to keep in mind that some of these images are the only look you’ll get of the action. Tony Biscaia is photo editor for the network and also contributes a lot.
MatchNight does have forums and a blog, which the site describes as containing “unverified/developing stories, rumor, and news reported elsewhere.” Only the main site has a blog — the regional ones do not. Smith mentioned the site has experienced problems on their forums (who hasn’t?), and they do have some measures in place on the blog to stop comment spam. Smith says the blog and the forums aren’t a major focus of the site because of the need for constant moderation.
“There always seems to be two or three in every topic that spoil the discussion for everyone. Problem is: it’s not always the same two or three,” Smith writes.
When someone says that forums and blogs aren’t a big part of their community-based site, you have to wonder, especially if their mission statement includes the phrase “by the fans, for the fans.” But MatchNight’s commitment to good journalism is apparently its motivating force here.
“We shut down the message boards because we felt that the lack of rules and ethics shown there negatively impacted our readers,” writes Shane Murphy. “That’s why Lee started MatchNight in the first place — to be a haven for serious soccer fans to get real news and information from informed sources.”
For U.S. Soccer fans — and online publishers — the future is bright. Sites like MatchNight are what we need to see more of in online community journalism. Yes, the site does try some cutting edge technology here and there, but it’s not chasing the bleeding edge. Instead, MatchNight’s publisher and editors are trying to heed the basic tenets of journalism, and for that I applaud them.