Backline Chat: The Sky Blue Story and Media Responsibility

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Charles Olney (@olneyce): Hi everyone, and welcome to this week’s slackchat. We can get into the stuff on the pitch in a second, but first we should address the topic of conditions for players – particularly those who play for the franchises with a little bit less to offer. Obviously, this isn’t a new issue, but it’s back at the front of our minds thanks to Sam Kerr’s comments last weekend about coming back to face Sky Blue.

What do people think about those comments, and about the larger question of amenities for players?

RJ Allen (@TheSoccerCritic): Personally I think we as media – and I’m including myself in this as much as anyone here at Backline or in American Soccer Media – have in many ways dropped the ball here.

I don’t know about others but I think for me and maybe others there was a sense we didn’t want to “pile on” to a team by bringing up some issues, maybe we couldn’t get a few people on the record or what have you. But it is an open secret that some clubs do not have an acceptable standard and we have largely only acted when something even worse than that happened. Instead of going after the standard because it is what it is when the players had to work and live with every day.

Luis Hernandez (@radioactivclown): If it wasn’t for Sam Kerr we wouldn’t even be having this conversation so points for her for being a spotlight on this. I think fans outside of the area don’t have any idea how bad things are or have been. Then it’s a matter of the state of Sky Blue. To me, it’s a bit of a frustration because the owners of the team actually have more money than most people would expect. Why are the owners not putting more resources into Sky Blue and doing things on the cheap? Is it one of those things where the money lost on the club is actually some type of tax loss write-off.

RJ Allen: I don’t think this is just a Sky Blue issue though. I think they might be the worst in some areas but it really isn’t just them.

Becky Schoenecker (@Beckster20): I think it obviously effects the league as a whole, these players already make so many sacrifices and then to ask them to choose between a Utah or Sky Blue the answer is pretty obvious from a quality of life standpoint. I feel like it’s going to turn into a playing for them as a last resort which shouldn’t be the case.

Charles Olney: To me, this big question for Sky Blue is whether there is any interest in turning this into a team that can actually seek to compete with the rest of the league. I don’t mean in terms of player acquisition. Despite their terrible record this year, Sky Blue has a decent roster that could reasonably hang with the other playoff hopefuls. I just mean in terms of producing an acceptable quality of life in a league where standards are going up.

And I think several of you are right to note that this isn’t exclusively a Sky Blue thing. It’s a matter of what standards we think are appropriate leaguewide. And Sky Blue isn’t the only offender on that front.

Luis Hernandez: I’m glad to see that the NWSL is in the process of hiring a director to oversee that clubs are meeting the higher standards.

Allison Cary (@findingallison): I agree. And as Becky said, it does affect where people choose to play. Obviously players will want to go somewhere that will give them a reasonable quality of life and help them perform well on the pitch. And there seems to be quite a gap there throughout the current teams.

RJ Allen: I think the league has been too worried about getting its footing that it hasn’t cut ties with teams when it should.

To be frank there are teams in this league that should have been gone years ago but haven’t been “kicked out of the pool” because the league has had very little direction and they “just don’t do that in woso” often.

Luis Hernandez: I mentioned this earlier on Twitter. Is this a case of a rising tide lifts all boats or a rising tide lifts some and has other run aground?

Charles Olney: Luis’s question is a good one (and one not limited to the US). In England, Manchester United is finally joining the party and was given a free step right up to the top level, while other teams have struggled for a long time. But you can understand why. Man U will instantly have resources far in excess of the franchises that have been around a long time. If the primary goal is quality of life, it’s imperative to get them up and rolling.

Allison Cary: I agree with what you said RJ. The league wants stability, especially from a marketing standpoint. If the press isn’t calling out player conditions, then the league can get away with cutting corners on player amenities and keep those teams afloat.

RJ Allen: I think women’s soccer in American has done a very bad job over the three leagues in checking owners out before they come in to the league, as well.

Charles Olney: In the NWSL, we’ve lost Boston, FCKC, and Western New York just in the last two years. But there’s no denying that those changes have resulted in a significant gain for player conditions. The issue is balance. Can you keep the league stable enough to build emotional investment from the fans, while also steadily making progress on these fronts?

RJ Allen: I don’t think losing teams is really all that bad for the league as long as they are being replaced in other locations with better ownership. I feel for the fans but some places just don’t have ownership interests if the owners currently there aren’t stepping up or can’t.

Luis Hernandez: Ultimately, you’re going to have to take a couple of step back as the league is trying to take steps forward. There is always focus on wages for players and the league addresses these issues at a snail’s pace but at least it knows some of the faults and tries to address it without tipping over the apple cart

Becky Schoenecker: I honestly think you can. It’s a shame on the end of the fans who have city teams that move on to ‘better’ markets, but for the league as a whole I think it’s a positive. My issue with it is that I think New Jersey and Washington for instance have great areas, fans, and could be great but there’s a lack of investment and ownership. If hypothetically Atlanta picked up New Jersey and conditions improved substantially I’d be thrilled for the team and league.

RJ Allen: The idea of USL taking over management of the league is something that could change a lot of this.

Or at least it’s nice to think it may.

Luis Hernandez: there’s elements of risk if USL merges with NWSL but the overall reward may be worth it. it still doesn’t address federated player differences.

RJ Allen: We don’t know what would happen with federated players though. That might be a thing of the past.

Charles Olney: I am extremely skeptical of this USL story, but it’s worth at least following along to see whether anything does come of it. I doubt that would be a good model for long-term growth. There’s no denying that the current system has serious issues, but tethering to a lower-tier men’s league doesn’t seem likely to fix the big problems, and might produce a whole lot more issues.

Allison Cary: Yeah, I’m not sure it solves a lot of problems without creating new ones.

Charles Olney: As Luis says, the real issue right now is that US Soccer has control over the purse strings, and doesn’t particularly value the league. But if the solution is simply to give up on a lot of that money, it feels like the cure might be worse than the disease.

Luis Hernandez: One thing that could happen if USL adds NWSL that could happen is that clubs from USL may decide to add a women’s side so there could be more women’s teams overall in the US.

RJ Allen: North Carolina has shown what is possible for an NWSL/USL partnership. And though not all of them would be that dominant, it gives me hope.

Luis Hernandez: I have mentioned that if that is the case, it could potentially lead to a stronger women’s pyramid. USL has what 30+ teams across the US and still adding more markets?

Charles Olney: [insert mandatory pro-rel reference to juice our pageviews]

RJ Allen: Pro teams should not play semi pro and amateur teams and pro/rel is snake oil. Sorry, that just slipped out.

Allison Cary: Do we think most USL teams have the budget to add a women’s side? Genuine question.

RJ Allen: It was a $4 million fee in 2016 for Nashville FC to come in to the USL. That is about what it costs a year (maybe) to run an NWSL side. So I think some clubs would have more than enough to enter a team.

Charles Olney: I find it difficult to believe the US could support that many women’s teams right now. I’d love to be wrong about that, but I think the model of developing the top tier first does make sense. I think the demand needs to be created first.

Luis Hernandez: I don’t know the finances of a typical USL team but I think they could find the money to have a women’s side. It would be nice if it was a requirement like it is in Mexico, look at how quick the success of the women’s league there.

Charles Olney: Okay, this conversation has been great. But I want to return us to RJ’s original point, about the failures of media here. Does anyone have a sense of how media coverage of these issues could be improved? Should we try to describe what we think are the minimum set of standards, and trying to hold teams accountable? Talking to players to give them more chance to make their needs clear? Something else?

RJ Allen: I think we as media need to – as much as it can be hard – need to put down our feelings more. We don’t write about issues sometime because we 1) want to people the people that are doing things that are maybe not great are trying and doing their best or 2) we don’t want to keep hammering a club on something (IE where Seattle plays or where Sky Blue plays) or 3) we don’t want to make people we like or respect look bad.

Women’s soccer is maybe 75% covered by fan media, ourselves included, and that presents challenges covering the deep seeded issues.

Luis Hernandez: Media responsibility is a thing here. You can put some of that on local media for not calling it out but the story has to also have to get traction. Media called out Orlando on attendance and lack of marketing and that became a thing that caused the club front office to act, but it’s still not great. But attendance is easy to have visibility while something behind the scenes are harder to call out and create the attention.

RJ Allen: But it becomes a thing for a week. Three or four people write about it and then we move on. We have to have a longer attention span as media.

Charles Olney: I personally have been surprised at how little we’ve heard from players about this stuff. I don’t know if that’s to do with a sense that the teams are trying, a sense that making waves could be extremely dangerous for players in precarious situations, or simply because media folks haven’t been asking around those stories.

Luis Hernandez: Media can describe poor practice fields or other standards but that’s not getting the push from outraged fans like say playing a match on a base field because we can point to something we all see.

RJ Allen: Players can be cut and left without anything. Sam Kerr has protection as one of the best in the word. Can the same be said for the players this hurts most?

Allison Cary: Yeah, I think the players that would benefit the most from drawing attention to this stuff are the people who can’t without risk of losing their job or some other punishment. That’s why I think its great that Sam Kerr brought attention to it. She has the protection to do so, as RJ said.

Charles Olney: It can be dangerous for players to speak on the record. But I think we in the media have a responsibility to start reporting stories that can’t be tied back to named individuals. A few exposes could go a long way.

RJ Allen: I think it has to come from the non NT – of any country – players.

Charles Olney: I think we all hope that the Players Association is able to step into this space, and start advocating in more aggressive ways.

But I think RJ is right that the PA is very limited in its power because of the disparity between NT players and everyone else.

RJ Allen: I think the PA is a great idea in theory but I have been disappointed with how little they have spoken about anything. Good or bad.

Luis Hernandez: We don’t know what happens behind the scenes

RJ Allen: It’s our job to find out. It is our job and we are a media are failing at it.

Luis Hernandez: I’ve seen players and coaches promote those bracelets to raise money for the PA. I don’t think anyone has asked one of the player reps anything to what the PA is doing

RJ Allen: I’d also like to point out, for the record, Sky Blue is between NYC and Philly with about 100,000 paid sports reporters. And Washington is outside DC with another 50,000. Where are they on any of this? Even the ones that say they care about women’s sports or soccer?


Charles Olney: Alright, after an important, serious conversation, let’s turn to the (slightly) less pressing issue of the games themselves. At the moment, North Carolina is leading the league by 367,425 points, and Seattle has built a small buffer between them and the rest of the playoff contenders. But those 2-4 spots are still very much open. And the 2-7 teams are all playing each other this weekend! What are people excited about?

RJ Allen: North Carolina clinching so we can stop talking about them for 15 minutes.

Luis Hernandez: The first red card being issued in the seaso….oh wait.

Charles Olney: It’s a pretty big weekend. If Seattle, Utah, and Houston were to win, we’d have five teams within two points – all competing for two spots. On the other hand, if Houston and Utah lose, they could find themselves five or six points adrift. For the sake of excitement, I’d love to see the former. (edited)

Luis Hernandez: Marta being named UN goodwill ambass… DOH!

RJ Allen: The Chicago vs Seattle game could be a really big one.

Allison Cary: I think the Orlando-Utah match is a big one. Neither team has been playing great. I think this could be a massive three points for either side.

RJ Allen: Does Utah have 4 rostered defenders that are healthy and not suspended right now?

Luis Hernandez: Every game has real implications on the playoff picture and that’s great. Orlando and Utah have played to two draws in their previous meetings.

Allison Cary: Yeah, and a draw provides the least amount of excitement on the table so that’s probably what will happen. Also RJ: that’s a good question.

RJ Allen: They do not, BTW.

Allison Cary: Yikes.

Luis Hernandez: Has anyone noticed now that NWSL is on ESPN(news) that it seems like there’s a Sports Center Top 10 play featuring the NWSL?

RJ Allen: Very on brand for ESPN.


Charles Olney: Okay, final question: with the Men’s World Cup final coming up, any thoughts connecting it back to women’s soccer?

RJ Allen: If France wins, does that break the French curse and make it possible for the French WNT to win in 2019?

Allison Cary: I’m gonna say no. But that’s mainly because I don’t want to get my hopes up.

RJ Allen: Germany is the only team that has won on the MNT and WNT sides, right? Or does Norway have a WNT and MNT World Cup?

Charles Olney: Germany is the only one. And they never held both simultaneously. It would certainly be cool if France could manage that feat. Especially when the Cup is in France.

RJ Allen: I will be eating lots of French bread during the summer of 2019 in honor of the World Cup. And for no other reason.

Allison Cary: If the MNT wins the Cup tomorrow, and the WNT wins the Cup next year IN FRANCE I’ll probably move there and attempt to become a permanent resident. That seems completely rational.

Luis Hernandez: I think a better story is the French men’s team fails to win the World Cup and the next year the women on home soil win the World Cup to the glory of France. Causing women’s soccer to be the most popular sport in the country

RJ Allen: I don’t want Croatia to get it with their poor support for the WNT though. At least France supports their WNT. Sometimes.

Allison Cary: Yeah, France isn’t perfect but the situation in Croatia is pretty bleak.

Charles Olney: Alright, that’s a wrap. Thanks for participating, and thanks to everyone for reading. And if you’ve got topics you’d like to see us discuss in a future episode, you know where to find us on Twitter.

Image courtesy of Leanne Keator