The Status of MLSSoccer.com: Interview with Greg Lalas-Part 1

Last month, the new MLSSoccer.com replaced the outgoing MLSsoccer.net with great fanfare, as MLS took its website in house and completely redesigned the format and content.  At the start, an array of technical issues created an uproar among MLS fans unable to access stats, video and other features of the website.  While the technical issues have significantly improved, many fans are still getting accustomed to the new types of articles and commentary available on the site.  Presiding over the content side of the new site is Editor-in-Chief Greg Lalas. A former player in MLS, Mr. Lalas has also been a broadcaster for the New England Revolution and written for sites such as Goal.com.  Mr. Lalas was kind enough to chat with footiebusiness.com about the new site, the technical issues and the content.  Because of the length of the interview, we have broken it into two parts and we will present the rest of the interview later in the week.  Thanks to Mr. Lalas.

Footiebusiness.com:  The new website offers content from outside of MLS, including Americans abroad, European club soccer and more.  What is behind the decision to expand the scope of content and how do you balance that expanded content with the fact that MLSSoccer.com is the official website of Major League Soccer?

Greg Lalas:  I look at it like this. There is no reason to think that Major League Soccer is an island.  There is a much larger world of soccer. MLS has not been connected with that world enough.  Think about all of the American soccer fans and fans in Canada.  They know that there is a larger soccer world… and we want to connect MLS with that world.  For example Claudio Lopez  is an Argentine World Cup veteran, the guy scored in the quarter finals of the World Cup.  So, he has a great perspective on European soccer and on the World Cup.  So we talk to him…will they win Claudio?

We are all fans of soccer too and so to kid anybody or ourselves that we are not sitting here on a Wednesday afternoon watching Barcelona v. Inter Milan is foolish, and I think a lot of MLS fans are watching that too.  The idea is to present a place that a soccer fan, not just MLS fans,  can come and get all kinds of content that is connecting MLS to the world and is engaging and interesting to them.

Right now, the balance is leaning very much towards MLS. There will always be MLS content. Balancing it is making sure that the big stories in MLS are getting the play they deserve, but also recognizing that there are other stories in the North American scene that don’t necessarily have anything to do with MLS that also deserve a little bit of love.

FB: There seems to be a trend on the site towards content that is more commentary, more rumors and less official material.   What is the motivation in including that type of stuff and how free are the writers to express their opinions even if it is contrary to the MLS party line?

That is another balancing act.  We are under the umbrella of MLS and we are affiliated with MLS.  It is important to recognize that there are conversations going on in the soccer scene that are critical and it would be wrong to stick the party line all of the time.  If there is a rumor out there…a Robert Pires is coming to MLS.  Let’s discuss that rumor. Would he be a good fit for Philadelphia?  Or is there someone else who belongs in there?  We all watch the games.  We all see what looks like a shady penalty called like with Seattle and was it really or was it not? Let’s discuss that.  Let’s not shy away.  Part of analysis to me includes criticism.  I think you need to be willing to accept some of the bruises…don’t shy away from them.

FB:  What level of input do individual teams have with respect to content on the main site?  If they have a promotional opportunity or a team event they want to feature, do they have any say if it appears on the front page?

GL: They can call us up and ask.  We are open to working with our clubs.  Part of it is to recognize that we want the club sites to become local versions of that destination.  What we want from MLSSoccer.com is to be a destination site for soccer fans in the United States and it goes out from there to the club sites…Chicagofire.com should be the go to place for Chicago area soccer fans.  Torontofc.ca should be the go to place for Toronto area soccer fans.  It is that phrase “glocal” or as Tip O’Neil said, “everything is local in the end.”

FB:  The website got off to a rough site technically. How far along are efforts to get the site up to 100%?

GL:  I think we are making progress.   It  is little fixes here and there.  We have the stats flowing…not the way we want them to be flowing, but they are getting better every day.  We have changed over our video player recently…if you go onto it now, it is just a whole load of video content there for anybody to check out.  It is a long process but it is also a process that every little step makes a difference.  I think we are getting there. I’ve been involved in three re-designs of websites and none of them have gone as we editorial people wished it would.  You work through it and you get it do the things you want it to do.

FB:  How did the technical problems impact what you wanted to do editorially?

GL:  I think a lot had to do with the ability to promote certain content.  At the beginning we didn’t have the ability to put a video anywhere but right in the front page.  So we weren’t able to promote other videos.  We didn’t have the space.  We were and are producing  a ton of content, it is a question of how do we promote that.  You kind of feel if you put in the newspaper analogy, we only had one “A1” page.  There wasn’t enough space for all of things we wanted to put up there and as the tech has improved, it has made it easier to promote our stuff.  The other side, is I am writer, I am an editor.  I was frustrated by the stats problems too.  I needed those stats to do my job.  It was very frustrating from our standpoint, we are writing an article and saying “who is the leading game winning assist getter” and so we were getting frustrated and those things have started to ease and we are getting there.

FB:  Was the criticism helpful or was it telling you what you already knew?

GL: It think it came in both ways.  Some of it was actually helpful because there is always some little thing where you say “I didn’t know that, or I didn’t know an user was going to use it that way”  I think all of the criticism was helpful, even the guy who just sends in the “you guys are morons!!!”   That part we knew, but at the same time, I think it is good to appreciate how much people care about the site, how much people care about the league, so even that can be helpful….I think that all of the invective that was tossed our way over the last month or so has shown us that we have fans that really, really care.  It shows that we let them down and we are doing everything we can to pick them back up. Hopefully they will stick with us.

Thanks to Greg Lalas.  Part II will be in later in the week.

Covering the Coverage: The Internet

computerAs part of our ongoing series looking at media coverage of soccer in the United States, we have explored the various mediums covering the game.  In Part I, we took a look at the mainstream media.  To read that article, click  here.  Thereafter, we took a look at sports radio. Subsequently, we took a look at local newspapers.  While these media are important, there is no question that the internet is the primary source of soccer coverage and the primary  medium used by soccer fans to get their fix.  To explore the coverage of soccer on the internet, we spoke with three recognized names in American soccer coverage.  Steve Goff of the Washington Post Soccer Insider, Ives Galarcep of Soccer By Ives and Jason Davis of MatchFit USA.  Look below for their thoughts on the coverage of soccer on the internet, and check back for more stories in this series.

Footiebusiness.com:  Your blog covers soccer on a local, national and international level.  What types of stories drive the most traffic (e.g. National Team vs. MLS vs. Red Bulls vs. DC United vs. UEFA)?

Ives Galarcep:  National team stories drive the most traffic, followed by MLS stories and Americans Abroad stories. My Q&As and running commentaries are pretty popular as well.

Steve Goff: USA national team drives the most traffic, followed by DC United.

Jason Davis: National Team, by far.  It’s clear that my potential audience increases dramatically during periods of USMNT activity, and that inevitably leads to more traffic.  It makes sense strictly from a numbers perspective; while a narrow focus might give me a higher profile within a smaller community, the broader national appeal of the National Team give me the ability to attract more readers if my content is good.

FB: Do you pay attention to the sources of traffic on your blog?  Do you find that links from other soccer sites drive traffic or do most of your readers go directly to your site?  Similarly, do you track which links people use on your site to go elsewhere?  Do these factors dictate which stories you cover?

IG: Most of my readers are regulars, with about a quarter coming from other sites. I don’t really track outbound links much though.

SG: Most of my readers come directly to my blog. However, I do receive traffic through secondary sites such as bigsoccer.com and dcunited’s in-house blog. I do not trace the popularity of links that I provide, but based on the number of comments, I have a good idea what’s popular.

JD: Referral links were my lifeblood for a time, and my traffic was almost entirely dependent on whether or not I was linked to by a much more popular site than mine.  As time has gone on, I get more direct traffic than I used to, though the links still drive a good amount of my daily hits.  The links people follow out aren’t generally something I worry myself with; many of them are referenced news stories, so they aren’t necessarily indicative of anything other than the reader looking for background information.  I’m very much an “if it interests me, it will probably interest others” type of writer, so I go with my instincts and try not to over-analyze my traffic, or let things like exit links dictate my content.

FB:  How has the blog changed the way you cover soccer?  Do your sources act differently when they know a story might be headed for the blog as opposed to a different medium?

IG: As a newspaper writer I was more of a team beat writer who focused on team news and features, with my column allowing me to write about a broader range of subjects. Now, with the site (I’m not a fan of calling it a blog, but that’s the label it will have until I re-design it into a more news site format) I can write about a broader range of topics. With my readership more evenly spread out around the country I have moved away from a New York/New Jersey focused site to a national site. Actually, I moved my coverage to a more national approach and the readership eventually took on that shape. As for sources, I think most folks in the American soccer community realize that my site is read by a pretty big audience so if anything it has made securing interviews easier. There are a few instances where some media relations people don’t quite grasp the power of new media, and are still stuck in the old way of thinking that traditional media (such as newspapers) are king, but more and more people are beginning to understand the power of the internet and the influence of websites like mine.

SG: For better or worse, the blog has become the priority because of its immediacy. Indeed, I always inform someone whether the interview is for the blog or paper/web.

FB: You made a bold decision to blog full time.  Has the blog increased in readership since you made that decision?  How do you decide what events to cover live?

IG: To give you an idea of the change when I went independent, the best month I ever had traffic-wise on my old newspaper blog was 375K pageviews in a month. My first month with the new site had 750K pageviews. This past summer, we averaged 1.5 million pageviews per month.

FB:  Do you have any interest/input into the advertising that appears on the blog?  How is the advertising content for your blog decided?

IG: For the first year and a half of the new site I sold all the non-Google ads myself. In the past four months I have begun working with an agency that has been selling ads for me. Most of the advertisers have been soccer specific, or companies looking to target the American soccer fan demographic, which is what my site delivers.

SG: I have no involvement with ads and don’t know the process.

JD: I’m still working on a low enough level that almost all of my advertising comes from affiliate membership, and is therefore commission-based.  They drive almost no revenue, but they give the site more of professional image in my mind.  I can choose the ads that appear, and obviously attempt to have them match the content of focus of the blog.  I do have a few direct partnerships, which obviously guarantee a little money, and I’m hoping to work towards more in the future as long as they don’t compromise the look and feel of the site.

Thanks to Steve Goff, Ives Galarcep and Jason Davis for their thoughts.