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“The Bane of My Existence”: U.K. Sportswriting’s Access Crisis

British journalists chronicling mega-events like the Champions League are often operating on a timeline out of their control and with little access to players, publishing stories well after they’ve been reported. Could this be the dark future of U.S. sports coverage?

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As a sportswriter, I’d never covered an embargo. Embargoes were for oil, not soccer. But I was told that embargoes were an essential quirk of British sportswriting, and what’s more, that one was happening right now. So on May 8, I walked into the newsroom of The Independent. Ben Burrows, the sports news editor, offered to give me a primer. “My favorite thing,” Burrows said, with a smile Londoners wear when talking to an eager-but-benighted tourist.

American reporters encounter embargoes when they’re reviewing a book or movie. In Britain, embargoes can be attached to the words that come out of a player’s mouth after a soccer match.

The night before I visited The Independent, Liverpool had beaten Barcelona 4-0 in a Champions League semifinal. Stories about “The Miracle of Anfield” filled websites around the world. But a lot of the material writers gathered at the stadium still hadn’t been published.

A day later, the embargo was lifting, Burrows said. At noon, various British newspapers published quotes from Liverpool’s captain, Jordan Henderson. At 5 p.m., with the same eerie synchronicity, the papers published quotes from forward Xherdan Shaqiri. Center back Virgil van Dijk’s quotes ran at 10:30 p.m., a full day after the game ended.

Henderson, et al. had talked to reporters after the game more or less like athletes do in the United States, Burrows said. But the sportswriters had gotten together and, by mutual agreement, decided to withhold the material. It was as if ESPN, Yahoo Sports, and the Toronto Star decided not to publish Kawhi Leonard’s postgame quotes until a day after the Eastern Conference finals.

“Trying to explain that someone has said something in front of a room full of people and I’m not going to tell anyone for another 12 hours—it’s incredible,” Burrows said.

The British put embargoes on their sportswriting for a variety of reasons. One of the biggest is they have far fewer chances to interview players than their American cousins. So every banal quote, every “we proved quite a few people wrong tonight,” must be stretched beyond its natural lifespan. “It’s all predicated on lack of access,” said Rory Smith, the chief soccer correspondent of The New York Times. “How do we make the most of the scraps we’re fed?”

Between Liverpool-Barcelona and Ajax-Tottenham, my month-long stay in London coincided with a great stretch of soccer. Writers like Jonathan Liew and Barney Ronay turned out columns as good as any deadline newspaper stories in America. But when it comes to athlete-media relations, England is like the United States on an extremely grim timeline. Talking to British sportswriters, I learned about embargoes; about how native ads had sneaked into profiles of athletes; about a stultifying lack of access that makes Russell Westbrook vs. Berry Tramel look like a Roy Firestone interview.

In its soccer coverage, Great Britain is an experiment in “post-access sportswriting,” a term I first heard used by the academic Merryn Sherwood. It’d be one thing for Americans to shake their heads. It’s another to understand that the same fissures have already begun to appear over here, and that, with a few nudges, we could import Britain’s brand of media relations as easily as we have Sophie Turner. The way British sportswriters talk to athletes—or don’t—is both a nightmare and a cautionary tale.

“God, fucking embargoes,” said Liew, the chief sportswriter of The Independent. “The embargo is the bane of my existence.”

If a British writer is driven mad by embargoes, it’s because they are an inviolable part of the trade—“like cockroaches after a nuclear war,” said Rory Smith, who wrote for several London newspapers before joining The New York Times.

It’s not just a player’s quotes that get embargoed. After a Saturday soccer match, a club’s manager gives a press conference in front of the TV cameras in the same manner Steve Kerr will this week. What the manager says can be used immediately, on TV or on Twitter. Then, the manager may hold a separate meeting with newspaper writers and answer more questions. What the manager says in that interview is embargoed, by agreement of the writers, until 10:30 p.m. that night. No tweets, no early posts allowed.

Like frequent-flyer status, there are still more tiers of British embargodom. At a soccer manager’s prematch press conference for a Sunday game, the daily newspaper writers get an embargoed press conference in the manner described above. Then the writers for Sunday papers like The Sunday Times and The Mail on Sunday get another press conference. The idea is that the “Sundays,” which in Britain have historically competed even with their sister dailies, deserve their own embargoed material.

Sometimes, the various press conferences contradict one another. As ESPN soccer writer Mark Ogden told me: “The gray area comes when [José] Mourinho says in the open press conference, ‘Paul Pogba isn’t trying hard enough.’ And then in the embargoed section he would go further, saying, ‘Paul Pogba’s not trying hard enough because we’ve had a big row. He hates me.’”

When that happens, a soccer writer has a choice: tell half the story immediately or tell the whole thing at 10:30 p.m. “Embargoes don’t really do any massive harm,” Smith said. “But there are times when you think, ‘Actually, I am almost going to write something that I now know is either incomplete or runs contrary to the full picture, because I have more of the picture.’ That’s a weird thing to do.” (The Times’ American publishing schedule means Smith doesn’t run afoul of embargoes, which he doesn’t think the Times would allow him to observe anyway.)

There are quasi-noble motives for embargoes. One is that holding news till 10:30 p.m. helps keep the print product alive. If a reader finds a fresh story on the back page of the morning paper, the thinking goes, they’ll be more tempted to buy it. “We willfully function as analog rather than as digital,” Smith said. “But we’re British and we’re a very traditional people.”

The Independent went all-digital three years ago; it no longer has a print edition to protect. “For us, I would rather there were no embargoes at all,” said Burrows. “Half-ten doesn’t help me in any way.”

Another reason to have embargoes is the idea that readers will drown in the amount of content created by an all-timer like Liverpool-Barcelona. The news and quotes are more likely to be savored if they’re doled out in installments. Yet another reason, Burrows noted, is that holding news gives reporters a chance to write a proper piece instead of a glorified tweet. After a game in April, English national team player Danny Rose told reporters the racist taunts he suffered from fans meant he couldn’t “wait to see the back of” soccer. Incredibly, reporters embargoed that story till 10:30 p.m. the following day.

You hear echoes of old-line British trade unionism in embargoes, said former Independent sports editor Ed Malyon. Sometimes, you just hear the sound of hackery. “Around October or November time in the football season,” said Liew, “somebody, generally at one of the tabloids, will get a particularly productive interview or a particularly productive set of interviews from the mixed zone and will suggest … holding it for Boxing Day.”

Boxing Day is the day after Christmas. “It’s bonkers, right?” Liew said.

But god save the writer who runs afoul of an embargo. Last April, when Italian journalist Gianluca Di Marzio broke an embargo, a Daily Mirror writer called him “an absolute disgrace to the profession” and suggested he “get done.”

Liew told me that a British writer threatened to report an embargo-breaking colleague to the police. The writer’s theory was that publishing quotes early was akin to theft.

After our chat, Burrows and I walked to the far end of The Independent’s newsroom. We glanced at pictures of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s new baby that had just been published on the paper’s website. The baby pictures had been held back for publication by—well, you can guess.

“We’re just waiting to find out what we’re going to call him,” Burrows said. “That’s the next story, which they’ll probably have under embargo at some point.”

The embargo system is British sportswriting’s answer to World War II rationing. Reporters must stretch the meager material they get from players. “As soon as you start [covering soccer],” Smith said, “you’re like, Right, these people are not talking to me.”

For grins, I told Jonathan Northcroft, a longtime soccer correspondent at The Sunday Times, what kind of access the NFL—hardly the face of friendly media relations—offers its beat writers.

“Wow,” Northcroft said, in a lilting Scottish accent. “That sounds like nirvana.”

Even whiny Americans would be struck by the lack of access in the Premier League. Players don’t make their way to a podium after a match. There’s no requirement they talk to the media after a game at all. There’s no equivalent of a midweek NFL practice where you can track down every member of the squad. “What the clubs and the associations don’t want is daily access between journalists and the athletes,” said Northcroft.

After a match, reporters must wait in a mixed zone, an area players pass by on the way to the team bus, in hopes they’ll stop for a quick word. Because reporters never know when they’ll talk to a player again, they’re tempted to pelt him with questions to float weeks’ worth of stories. As Northcroft told me: “You’re saying, ‘Well played tonight. So thinking ahead, when you play Azerbaijan in a month’s time …’ You can see it in their faces. They just go, What?!

Like in America, soccer clubs have varying levels of media friendliness, with Liverpool on the cozy end and Arsenal and Manchester United on the other. “The Independent hasn’t had an exclusive United or Arsenal or Manchester City interview, I don’t think, for maybe two of three years,” said Liew.

What’s different is that without tough leaguewide rules mandating access, the individual clubs can hold more sway. “Players have always not wanted to talk to the media, in my experience,” Smith said. “They generally don’t want to stop. I think now the clubs are a lot more controlling of who stops.”

If clubs are directing players away from the mixed zone, it may be because they’re herding them to their own in-house media organs. American sportswriters have watched team-owned websites create a parallel universe of friendly content. Over the past decade, British soccer clubs have taken the further step of making their media organs actual competitors with the newspapers. “Why allow the content to be used or taken for free by people who don’t pay for it when the clubs can have it themselves?” said Ogden, summarizing the attitude of the clubs.

The player who isn’t talking to reporters might do a video interview for the club’s website—meaning that even when Roy Keane incinerated his own Manchester United team, the deed was done in-house. If a club does OK a reporter to interview a player, the club might ask if it can have in-house reporters sit in on the exchange. A small club might ask to reprint a reporter’s profile on its own website—probably not awful, but a kind of symbiotic relationship almost unknown in the United States.

When you read British newspapers, you notice something curious about some of the profiles of soccer stars. The copy contains ads. A profile of a British soccer star has only slightly fewer ads than the soccer star’s jersey.

This, too, is the result of a low-access environment. Knowing how precious an interview with a star can be, the player’s representatives can demand that the writer plug whatever the player is plugging. Sometimes, they can demand that three plugs appear in a single profile.

First, they might ask for a branded photo to run with the article. Over coffee, Liew pulled out his phone to show me a Daily Telegraph profile he’d written of Manchester United (then Cardiff City) manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer in 2014. The interview had been organized by Barclays, a Premier League sponsor. In the photo, Solskjaer was holding a soccer ball with Barclays’ #YouAreFootball hashtag helpfully pointed at the camera. “This is nice and subtle, isn’t it?” Liew said.

That’s one plug. Players or manager representatives may also ask for a mention in the text of the story. (“Solskjaer seems relaxed now, having taken some time out to field questions from grassroots coaches as part of a Barclays community event.”) Finally, they ask for the coup de grace: another mention of the product right at the end of the article.

“That’s called a credit,” Liew said.

“A credit?” I said.

“A credit, yeah,” Liew said. “Almost like a shout-out to mom and dad.”

When I was in London, everyone seemed to be getting a credit. On May 3, the Evening Standard ran an interview with Alice Levine, the cohost of the podcast My Dad Wrote a Porno. Levine ain’t exactly Lionel Messi. But since she deigned to grant an interview, a line below the piece read: “Levine is a brand ambassador for luxury chocolatier [name deleted].”

America prints its share of nakedly branded profiles. An annoying agent might ask to “approve” quotes or even the copy itself. In Great Britain, there’s so little hope of talking to a star player on good terms that journalists are even likelier to accept rotten ones.

“That’s why the whole access game is so corrupt, in a way,” said Liew. “It’s vested interests flogging bad copy to extremely pliant sportswriters.”

And I was talking to good writers, who were queasy about these trade-offs, rather than tabloid scufflers, who might accept them without thinking twice. But even the good writers said a level of branding had crept into the paper.

“We would still resist that complete takeover of the copy,” said Northcroft of The Sunday Times. “But realistically we would bend, and certainly articles would have some kind of … branded photo and maybe a mention, either in the copy or at the end.”

Liew said: “If you get an exclusive interview with Messi, and his agents say, ‘Can we look at the quotes before?’—I know we talk about principles, but we’re going to say yes to that. And most people are—and try and keep it quiet. That’s the reality of it.”

Spending time with British sportswriters makes you realize how easy it would be for American teams or leagues to change the terms of engagement. A tightening of postgame interview time, a plug-or-else demand to talk to star players—and all of a sudden, American writers would be faced with the same choices as their British counterparts.

“There is literally no benefit to Manchester United or Arsenal allowing somebody who’s not them access to one of their players or staff,” said Liew. What if a team like the Cowboys or Yankees made the same calculation?

If British soccer writing is nearly “post-access,” it allows us to see how such an environment changes the writing itself. One reporter, who asked for anonymity so they didn’t “sound like a complete dick,” said British soccer presents the opposite challenge of covering a media-feeding American star like LeBron James.

“It tends to lead to what would ideally be a slightly more investigative approach,” the writer said. “But at the same time, is also an approach that’s very easily swayed into supposition and untruth. And the standard becomes lower. … Because we have no access, we’re very used to thinking, ‘Well, this’ll do.’”

A lack of access can have positive effects on sportswriting’s literary properties. In Britain, postgame reporting is divided between match reports (their answer to gamers) and “colour pieces” (game columns). Dwindling access may have made the colour piece even more colourful. Notice the liftoff Liew achieved in his Liverpool-Barcelona story: “Luis Suarez is staring into space. To describe it as a thousand-yard stare would be to undersell it by an order of magnitude. Such is the sunkenness of his eyes, the emptiness of his glare, the blankness of his features, it wouldn’t be a surprise if he could see straight into his front room in Uruguay.”

“I find that quite exciting,” The Sunday Times Northcroft told me. “It says to me that maybe there is a different way to go. Maybe I’ll be too old to adapt my style to be like that. But maybe the younger guys will be able to develop that style more and more.”

“In America,” Northcroft continued, “you’ve had the traditional longform journalism for a long time. It’s kind of new to us in sports reporting. … That’s another way to go. You’re not reporting on things every week. You’re trying to use your one bit of access in the six-month period, but you’re trying to use it to maximum effect.”

That’s the upside. The downside is that the longform profile might also sell readers a hashtag.

“It does make you imagine,” Northcroft said, “what it’s going to be like in 10 years’ time, 15 years’ time, in terms of whether the job will even be possible to do if things keep going the way they are.” If the United States borrows media strategy from England like it does comedy, it’s not a question of whether these types of nightmares are coming here. It’s when and in what form.

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