The 11: Gone on vacation, see you in 2014

Kids playing soccer, Rudabanya, Hungary, 2000.

Kids playing soccer, Rudabanya, Hungary, 2000.

If you’re reading this, you’re a reader of The 11. I purposely didn’t put any tags on this post so chances would be greater that it would be seen mainly by the people who visit the site on a regular basis, and not the people who may have been led here by an SEO-baited Google search.

For those who come to the site, thank you. In 2010, when the site was founded, I wanted to make good on a pledge to be an honest platform for Canadian soccer. The lifeblood of the site is to tell the stories of Canadian teams and Canadian players. You can go to plenty other places to find the latest rumours about Arsenal or Bayern Munich or Real Madrid. I didn’t want The 11 to be a reinvention of the wheel.

But, even though the site is more popular now than at any time before, I feel that it’s time to take a break. It’s not the end: But The 11 will be on hiatus until at least the opening of NASL training camps in February. I will still be doing my freelance print work for the likes of Inside Soccer, but no more daily grind for now.

Three straight years of broadcasting and writing about the game (and, considering the time spent at Sun Media before this, covering Toronto FC and Canadian national teams, and then my time with Edmonton Aviators, and various freelance work… well, it’s more like 17 years, not three) have been wonderful, but it also asks a lot of when it comes to time. Checking scores when you’re supposed to be on holiday with the family. Sneaking in a phone interview with a coach right between your kids’ bath time and story time.

There are weekends I need to be spending with my family more, and with the game less.

I’ve been also getting some serious warning signs that soccer isn’t in perspective. My son, all of five, absolutely hates the game. He moans when a game comes on. I tried to get him to play when he was four, I was one of the volunteer coaches, and the way he talks about those miserable months, it was like something he could take to Alberta Child Services.

I get it. He doesn’t see the game as a distraction, a pastime. He doesn’t see it as, well, fun. He sees it as what daddy does for work. He sees me staying up to watch highlights or ruining a perfectly decent Saturday of Disney movies because there’s a load of MLS games on the PVR.

And the loss of time isn’t just about family. I’ve devoted a lot of hours, hundreds, thousands, that could have been spent working on that next novel or book, or pitching a good dollar-per-word piece to a name magazine. I did it out of love.

But now, just a little bit, I’ve fallen out of love. I’m sure it’ll come back. There are times when I think maybe I’ve listened to Joy Division just a little too much, but after a few weeks of not hearing Peter Hook’s bass lines, I go back.

I think I realized I had a problem when I started taking my son to swimming lessons on Saturday mornings, and finally got to the point where I wasn’t even PVR-ing the Premiership matches anymore. I wasn’t missing soccer like I should. Maybe years of dealing with Canada losing, Canadian MLS teams losing, Canadian NASL teams losing, took a toll. Maybe it made me more cynical about the game than I should be.

But, really, this was more a case of overkill. Arsenal are top of the Premiership; 10 years ago this would make me unbearable to be around. Now, while it’s enjoyable, I’m kinda numb to it.

And I shouldn’t be numb. That’s why I need to recharge my engines. And that’s not to give up soccer, but to learn to love it again. To not see it as work. To not see every pass or shot as something worthy of comment. To not to try and turn every match I see into poetry. I need to be able to watch the game, enjoy it, and not need to scramble to Twitter for validation. I want to enjoy soccer again like I do a great Scotch, to savour its qualities but not need to overanalyze it.

If I’m wanted next year, I’ll be happy to do on-air analysis of FC Edmonton games again; that’s a lot of fun to do.

My first pass to cover a Canadian national-team match: 1996, Commonwealth Stadium

My first pass to cover a Canadian national-team match: 1996, Commonwealth Stadium

I strongly believe, as an editor, that if a writer stays on a beat too long, no matter how “in the loop,” he or she gets stale. You slowly become part of the machine, which is a massive problem in sportswriting today. We’re too concerned about access to be honest. We’re far too willing to let our sources go off the record (it’s sports, there should be very few reasons for a usable source to be off the record). In my imaginary How to Fix Journalism 101 course, I’d tell editors that they need to funnel their sportswriters back to city desk every couple of years, at least for a couple of weeks during their off-seasons, so they can get back to the basics of journalism — and to keep perspective on what they do.

Yes, unions would hate me. Readers would benefit.

Yes, It’s Also About the Money
During this break, I’ll also be taking a look at how to better monetize the site. As many of you know, I edit Avenue Edmonton, my home city’s major lifestyle magazine. It’s a glossy, and we’ve steadily been growing since I came to the magazine in 2010 (though it was on a growth pattern before I arrived). I also sit on various committees, magazine-award judging panels and am a director of the Alberta Magazine Publishers’ Association. So, I am plugged into what’s happening in the publishing world.

The continued growth of Avenue is great and, make no bones about it, it’s my No. 1 priority.

The truth is, we in the magazine biz are all still scratching our heads when it comes to monetizing our work on the Internet. And we are seeing some publishers be more cautious when it comes to iPad apps and websites. Where they were going all-in on iPad apps a couple of years ago, there is a realization that the bulk of ad revenue still comes from the printed product.

There’s lots of reasons for this. The big one is that if someone goes to the trouble of buying or picking up a magazine, that reader is invested in what you put out. There’s no way of gauging just how emotionally invested a website’s readership is, because they could have been led to you by Google search, Reddit or, heck, by accident. Do you know how this site’s reader stats have been bumped by people looking for logos of MLS teams? You have no idea.

There’s a saying in the magazine world that focusing too much on the Web will lead to “trading publishing dollars for Internet pennies,” as there is still no comparing the revenue models between quality printed products and quality websites. Put it this way: If you’re a print magazine and have an audited readership of 30,000 a month, you can charge four digits for a full-page ad. If you have a website, 30,000 unique visitors might earn ad revenue of, maybe, $20-$25.

And, there are magazines out there, like the one I edit, that are growing. We’re a bit different than the newspaper biz, even though we often get lazily lumped together in the “print is dead” stories we see, umm, daily. Magazines separate themselves by telling unique stories, not by rehashing something that you’ve seen on the Web.

Newspapers today don’t struggle because they were too slow going to the Internet model; it’s because they spend far too much of their time chasing the Internet. Instead of focusing on what they do well, writing great stories, they allocate people to following Twitter and, instead of having reporters on the ground, get their people to use Storify and call it, ahem, journalism. You go on a newspaper’s website and have no sense of the publication’s identity; it’s a soulless place where you’re bombarded with a lot of junk that hasn’t been properly fact-checked or even copy edited.

We’ve created a culture where journalists are using Internet rumour and Twitter sources to craft stories. Help me. And, this is a terrible era where we in journalism get so much wrong.

For this, I use this formula. You ruin the goodwill of 100 scoops the second you publish something that’s dead wrong. Trust me, people have a strange way of remembering what you got wrong more than what you got right. Being a journalist is a lot like being a ref; no one praises you for being right, but they (rightly) are all over you when you make a mistake.

OK, I need to get off my hobbyhorse. I’m allowing my disillusion to show. What does my mistrust of the Internet mean when The 11 is a, gulp, web-only brand?

When I launched The 11 back in October of 2010, I wanted it to read like a magazine. But, over time, there is no denying the number of quick hits we’ve used (but I’m proud to say we haven’t thought it’s been worth our time to print one word about any of the latest Designated Player rumours regarding TFC. By now, we’ve learned that with the Reds, printing rumours is pointless. This is an organization that needs to show, not tell).

Reinventing The 11
So, when The 11 relaunches in 2014, I want to bring it closer to a print magazine product, online. I want it to be more like a magazine. I believe in long-form journalism; I believe that with the launch of so many boutique mags and the freedom that tablets give readers — no more sneaking Internet news only between 9 and 10 a.m. on weekdays — that we are on the cusp of a grand renaissance of long-form. When The 11 comes back, I want to put a premium on storytelling. I am guilty of this — definitely — but far too many of us in the soccer media have put advocacy ahead of storytelling. We’re all frustrated in the state of the game in Canada; but no one outside of our soccer cabal is going to give a damn about growing the game unless we become better storytellers, to show the public why they should love the game, the characters, the storylines.

But, at the same time, we need to figure out better ways to make this site work. We believe in paying our writers, not based on some slick-but-a-little-dishonest pay-per-click scheme, either. It should be up to the publisher and/or editor to ensure that the writer’s work is seen and promoted properly. The writer can help out, too, but his or her paycheque shouldn’t depend on it. Pay an honest rate. That’s what we try to do. We don’t make promises we can’t keep about how big the site will be one day and, if you write for nothing (or peanuts) now, there will be something down the road. (Young writers: I cannot stress enough how you need to place a value on your work and stick to your guns. By taking peanuts for your work, “for the exposure,” you not only devalue yourself, but place downward pressure on the writers’ market. If you take $25 to write a story, said publisher will always see you as a $25-a-story-writer.)

After all, when I write for magazines, well, let’s say that I don’t come cheap. I’d be a terrible hypocrite if I tried to take advantage of fellow writers, editors.

I’ve tried to match what’s at least newspaper standard for game stories.

But, with growing time burdens and a stagnant revenue stream, based on an Internet model that doesn’t work, we can’t keep borrowing from Peter to pay Paul. Our readership continues to grow each month; by October of 2013, we already had more visitors and hits than we did in all of 2012. But revenues don’t match the growth.

So, during this break, I’d like to hear from readers (comment below or use The 11’s Facebook page) on what The 11 means to them. Call it emotional blackmail if you will; but I want to know; would you pay for content? Would you subscribe to The 11 if it was delivered in a different format (let’s say, as a digital mag e-mailed to you?). Would you crowdfund The 11?

So many questions. But, for now, I want to thank all of you. I want to thank all the contributors who have allowed us to cover the game on fronts across the country. I’d like to thank all the Canadian players who gut it out in lower European divisions or in North America. I’d like to thank the investors who try to make soccer work in Canada. And, of course, the supporters who doggedly support our club teams and national program in the hope of one day being able to revel in successes, rather than assessing failures.

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About Steven Sandor

I'm currently the colour commentator for FC Edmonton broadcasts on Sportsnet, NASL.com and TEAM 1260. I've covered the Toronto FC beat for four years, worked for the Edmonton Aviators of the USL for a season, covered the Edmonton Drillers of the NPSL and started covering Canadian World Cup qualifiers in 1996. I've covered the CONCACAF Champions League and the U-20 World Cup. I'm passionate about soccer in North America.