I’ve been asked before why I went into sports journalism in the first place. I’ve said a variety of different things to different people: it’s edifying work, it’s personally fulfilling, I enjoy it, I’m good at it. Whatever. All of those things are true to an extent, I guess, but the truth? I don’t know, really.
This is part of the fuzz of memory that blinds and obscures and blurs. I remember walking into the office of the Baylor Lariat as a college sophomore, and I remember asking for a job as a sports writer — minimum wage, which I lustily accepted — and I remember getting it. There is no real memory of motivation. It just sort of happened.
I went into this career field as a fanatical sports fan with a passing interest in writing as a means to inject myself into it. Somewhere along the way, that flipped. To the point where the writing is why I’m still doing any of this and sport itself is merely the vehicle.
This is where I must tell you that I’m leaving TopDrawerSoccer.com, MLSSoccer.com and sports writing in general at the end of the month. If not for good, then certainly for the foreseeable future.
I’ve long loved what I do, but it’s been increasingly difficult for me to ignore the whoosh of the swinging ax wantonly thinning the sports media herd. I will not lie; this career field can be depressing. I can’t tell you how many rounds of layoffs I’ve seen up close since I joined the business in the corrupted core of the recession in 2008. I experienced one just a few months after I started my first job, a sports reporter gig at the out-of-the-way Northwest Florida Daily News in the state’s Redneck Riviera. I walked in one day, and the charming Irish receptionist named Dorothy who lovingly called me a guttersnipe each day asked if I’d heard. The entire printing operation, half the ad department and a chunk of the news desk was simply gone. The first of many.
Recent news on a national scale has been more alarming. Mass layoffs at Fox Sports, ESPN, Sports Illustrated, dozens and dozens of high-placed newspapers. Vice Sports and Grantland simply vaporized. Please don’t believe in this pivoting business. They are excuses. Sports media execs know little more about the change needed in this business than you or I do. And so the ax swings and the words come.
One appreciably different thing between those cloudy days in my 20’s when I chased high school football and basketball teams around small country roads to now? I have a family, including a little dude who’s recently figured out how to bend a soccer ball around a table (sort of). We’d like to add another one some day. I’d never think to speak for anyone else, but I felt an increasingly large burden of guilt pulling down my center of gravity. I placed this entirely on myself, but I can’t say it wasn’t there. Since I first came into this industry almost nine years ago, my salary, which was entry level to begin with, has moved less than $5,000 north of where it was when I was 22. I am now 31. That, to me, is personally embarrassing, even as someone who values money as flippantly as I do. I can’t pretend I didn’t carry that self-imposed weight with me to the dinner table. That I was failing somehow.
At one point, I was willing to stay in this business for a long time. I was lucky enough in 2013 to latch on with TopDrawerSoccer, which I leave on Aug. 25 on wholly positive terms. It has a wonderful content team, provides a vital service for American soccer, and also was responsible for pushing Maxi Rodriguez further into the spotlight. The advancement of Big Mascot remains very important to me.
But as I watched top-of-their-trade American soccer writers at other venues like Mike Goodman, Doug McIntyre, Kyle McCarthy, Matt Pentz, and myriad others laid off (some more than once) and pushed out to uncertain futures, I could only help but feel like the business had weaponized against its own storytellers. That’s a tough thing to wait out. There is no obvious ladder for talented soccer writers in America, or at least none that I could see. There is hustle, grit, and hope for the promise of paltry wages. Sort of feels like the general experience of the young American soccer player too, doesn’t it?
Perhaps I could’ve stuck it out another four years, another nine, to see what happens. But I saw increasingly narrower paths, not broader thoroughfares. When my wife asked me if I had any wider goals in this business that I had yet to reach, I struggled to even name anything feasible.
I’m not saying this to cow young writers into avoiding the field. I’m a serial optimist, believe it or not, and I always encourage young writers to stubbornly chase dreams. Even now. This is a cool business when it’s at its humming best, and the people are second to none. There will be another Grant Wahl some day, I hope. But my personal story had to end here, at least for the foreseeable future. I just didn’t feel like sitting still in a business shedding jobs by the month in order to find out if I’d win that lottery. (there’s probably some dumb pro/rel analogy to be made right about here)
So I’m moving toward the business side of the house. I’ll be copywriting for a consulting firm doing what I consider to be genuinely impactful things with the teaching of positive office culture. And maybe the fact that I find this endeavor exciting is because I’ve changed, perhaps even more than soccer media itself has.
I’ll still be a fixture in this bizarre American soccer landscape, of course, blowing on various internet hype horns and kindly reminding you to #PlayYourKids and all the other dumb things I’ve decided to fling into your timelines all too often. I’m still going to be an idiot on Twitter. I may pop up with a random freelance article now and again down the line. I still love soccer, though perhaps in a different way than I used to. That’s OK. I understand age less than I thought I did.
This all still feels self-indulgent to me, this writing. And that’s fine, I guess, if I’m just whispering this into the abyss. I just needed to get these things down. My professional identity has always been wound tightly around sports and writing, and I’m about to remove the former from that equation. I’m excited, nervous and wistful all at once.
I don’t know if this is a call to do anything for the sports media business itself. I don’t know what this is, really. A large part of me is excited for the future of the game in this country, with its growth potential and the assurances of its validity provided me by the magnificent American soccer people I’ve collided with along the way. But a part of me realizes that growth has not been met in kind with a nationwide media apparatus that respects its talent (this is not a specific indictment of my particular places of employment, all of which have been tremendous to me). Until that happens, I’ll still mourn for my former colleagues met with such extreme career hardship.
But don’t mourn for me. I’ve had it far too good in this business, and I’ve loved (almost) all of it, even the warts. It was just time. You all, of course, are at the heart of that. The American soccer community is a beautiful tapestry, reflecting back the best parts of us as a society. I have been fortunate beyond measure to be a part of that, even if a very small one. Continue to be good to each other. We’re all we have.
That’s why we do things like this. Hopefully it’ll get easier down the road for those who come next. Until then, I’ll see you around.