KCKRS aside, the quality of English-language soccer writing is on the rise. Last year saw the launch of The Blizzard, Jonathan Wilson’s bid to break through mainstream media constraints and bring the discerning football consumer a more in-depth look at the sport. Now, America is getting in on the act the arrival of its own literary soccer quarterlies, dedicated to viewing the game through a North American perspective.
Howler, founded by George Quraishi and Mark Kirby, will be big, glossy, stylish, and contain pieces covering everything from America’s unique soccer culture to how a top-flight grounds crew maintains a pristine soccer pitch.
We talked to George and Mark about the ideas behind their ambitious project, why they felt the timing was right to launch the magazine, and just what the publication will bring to the sport in this part of the world. Howler is being funded through the crowdfunding platform Kickstarter; a small donation will get soccer fans a copy of the first issue and the satisfaction of being in on the raising of the bar for soccer coverage in North America.***
KCKRS: What was the inspiration behind Howler? What made you and your partners decide now was the right time for a North America soccer magazine?
Howler: This is going to sound cliche, but we could just feel it: Among our friends who’d rooted for the Red Sox all their lives and were suddenly talking about Spurs, in the stands at MLS matches in places like New York and Portland and Seatte, at the bars in our neighborhoods that were packed with people (and not just ex-pats) at 8am on a Saturday morning. We could also see it in the ratings for matches on ESPN and Fox, and in the huge crowds attending summer tours of the top European clubs.
Howler grew out of the idea that there was something unique about these fans. A lot of North American fans played the game as kids and loved it, but grew up during a time when there wasn’t much of a fan culture for the sport in the US. Now, in their 20s and 30s, they’re rediscovering the game and just diving right in: Wanting to learn everything, to “catch up,” as it were, in a way you don’t have to if you grew up, say, a Cubs fan. We want to write in a way that both introduces these new fans to the game and provides a lot for more experienced fans to chew on.
$50,000 is a pretty ambitious goal as far as publications on Kickstarter goes, but to some extent, it’s a bit of a gamble on that “feeling” that the audience is out there. We know those fans exist, and we’re just hoping we can reach them and that they like what they see.
KCKRS: Is the goal to help American soccer fans, as you put it, “catch up” culturally? Is there an imperative to uncover aspects of how we play and consume the game on this side of the world that have yet to be covered, or is it more that Howler will dig deeper into them, find new ways to present them?
Howler: That’s a really interesting question. American soccer encompasses such an array of experiences and traditions, which makes it really hard to define THE American soccer fan. Some of us (like Mark) played as kids but have really come to the game as fans as adults and some of us (like George) have played and watched since before we could walk—literally, there are photos of his dad holding him up as a baby and swinging his little baby legs at the ball. When George was in middle school he was playing soccer tennis with Valderrama in the Tampa Bay Mutiny locker room. These are pretty different perspectives, but they’re both uniquely American perspectives.
So, “catch up” is less about individual fans and more about the media culture around the game. We think that soccer in the United States would benefit from the type of rich media environment that surrounds sports like baseball, basketball and football. There’s a lot of fantastic writing on the web about soccer, and the TV networks are doing a better job all the time. And we’re hoping to broaden that environment by contributing a (yes, admittedly old-fashioned kind of content—a glossy magazine) that strangely seems to be missing from he mix.
As far as the “this side of the world” perspective goes, we do think that there’s something very unique about it. For the most part, the sports and teams you love are the ones you grew up with. And if you’re a fan like Mark, there’s something really exciting about rediscovering soccer as an adult. When he first found out he had Fox Soccer Channel on cable back in ’06, he was watching something like six European matches a weekend. There’s a kind of hunger for knowledge from new fans that you can hear in places like the call-ins to a show such as Men In Blazers, and we want to be the magazine that helps brings those fans into the international game.
And at the same time, we want to take seriously the developments over here in the US. We spend a lot of time with people who really like MLS (we’re both Red Bulls season ticket holders), and we also know people who disparage it. But we both believe there’s something special about watching soccer in person, at the stadium. And just as a rocking stadium atmosphere in Seattle can do wonders to validate, in a sense, the soccer that’s being played on the field, we think that the kind of writing we want to do about American soccer can have a similar effect. We want to use our platform to give the kind of attention to soccer in America that will help develop the culture surrounding it, and that can be all levels of the game: MLS, smaller leagues, youth soccer etc.
KCKRS: Mark’s story is Jason’s story, essentially. Is there something particularly unique about those of us who rediscovered the sport as adults, and does that change our perspective as to how the game fits into America’s sporting culture at large?
Howler: In a lot of other places (and sometimes here, as I can attest) people are indoctrinated before they even know what’s happening to them. For an adult to make a conscious choice to become a soccer fan—I think that’s a very American thing. And I would argue that it affects the way we consume and think about the game in really interesting ways. By way of example, the fact that soccer is largely the domain of the suburban middle class is a relatively unique phenomenon. Look at England, where after a hundred years it’s being reclaimed by English yuppies, which is causing huge upheavals in the sport there (and, some argue, harming their national team). Here, it’s always been that way—which has also probably had an affect on the success of our own national team.
KCKRS: Do you have particular areas of emphasis picked out? What type of stories can readers expect?
Howler: We’ll be covering domestic and international soccer. As for the types of stories we’ll be running, we’re aiming for lots of variety. We love narrative non-fiction—feature writing that puts you in a scene, gives you dialogue, shows how the subject of the story interacts with the world around them. We had a science writer at MLS Cup last November; he drove straight from the airport to the Home Depot Center and worked all day with the grounds crew for a story he was reporting about what goes into making a world class soccer field. That topic might sound a bit dry—I mean, it’s basically gardening—but by doing that reporting, by meeting the people who do this for a living and by digging into the science and business aspects of the industry (there’s no question that the growing and maintenance of professional sports fields is its own industry), he’s come up with a really fantastic piece. This is just one example.
We’ll have profiles of people we find interesting. We have some writers who are capable of writing very moving personal essays. We’ll have some very funny contributors who want to do smaller set-pieces, whether that’s commentary on something that’s going on in the world of soccer at the moment or an entirely imagined dialogue. We even have a detective story in the first issue.
Howler is rapidly nearing its Kickstarter goal, and you can add your contribution here. In addition to the first issue for those committing $15 or more, backers can earn a minute-by-minute treatment of an event of their choosing by Guardian correspondent Graham Parker, a signed 2011 MLS All-Star jersey, an outing to an MLS game with a Howler editor, and, if you’re really feeling generous, a $7,500 contribution will get you a trip to Azteca for the next Mexican showdown for the USMNT.