Sunday, June 27, 2010

The black star swallows the stars and stripes

It was a tough day for U.S. soccer fans on Saturday. Despite the masses cheering from home, or at least the BlackFinn tavern on I Street in downtown Washington, D.C., Donovan and Dempsey and team weren't able to move beyond the first round of sudden death football. Defeat came again at the hands of Ghana, the pride of Africa, and the undisputed home team for the remainder of their run in the 2010 World Cup.

This was the scene at BlackFinn roughly an hour and a half before game time. Standing room only, people. I don't know who was more exhausted at the end of that 90 minute + overtime match, the U.S. team or those of us watching from Washington:

And here's the scene at the start of play:

Symbolically, perhaps, the taps ran dry about halftime. Everybody lost, really.

Well, check back for updates in another four years, I guess.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Football frenzy

If you haven't caught one of the U.S. team's games in a watering hole packed with dozens of soccer fans, you just haven't truly experienced the fun of the World Cup yet.

I was lucky enough to snag a bar seat at BlackFinn on I street for the USA v. Slovenia game a little over a week ago. At 9:30 a.m. (Eastern Time). To the left of me a businessman dressed nattily in a suit and tie downed a Bloody Mary. To the right, decked out in complete US Soccer Team gear two guys drank Guinness after Guinness.

I expected to see a lot of fans crowd into the bar, after all, this is the World Cup and expectations are high for the US team among soccer aficionados. But what I didn't expect was this terrific bonding moment among complete strangers. From the guy wearing red-white-blue face paint, wrapped in an American flag, to the well-dressed office manager, everyone roared to life with each goal, cheering and hugging at the 2-2 score, and screaming at the television in unison when the referees took away a go-ahead goal near the end of the match.

A New Englander, I can only compare it to a Red Sox playoff game or a Patriot's Super Bowl rolled into one. How else can you explain the jubilation over a tie in a sport the majority of us, I'm sure, don't really understand?

So I encourage all of you, my loyal, but silent readers, to check out the scene at 2:30 today. It'll be worth it, I promise:

Monday, June 14, 2010

What in the vevuzela?

With 32 national teams competing head-to-head to secure official bragging rights as the world's soccer powerhouse for the next four years, a trial of fire where the weak need not apply, a feat of feet, a battle for the ball, a tangle of the toes, an attack of the ankles, what are we all talking about?

Is it the 1-1 US-England draw after St. George's chosen one Rob Green let in the goal heard 'round the world? Is it Italy's struggle to remain at the top of international soccer despite fielding a national team with the median age equivalent to that of the Shroud of Turin? How about Germany's Australian blitzkrieg?

No. We're all talking about the vevuzela.

If you've been following the World Cup I'm sure you've heard (of) them during last weekend's opening matches. The beehive sound that drowns out all but the game's broadcasting team has been drawing international fire for the distraction it causes viewers at home and players on the pitch.

While FIFA will not ban the noisemakers, which I rate as more obnoxious than Pittsburgh's terrible towels, but less so than boom sticks, that hasn't mollified an irate television audience.

So join me as I scour the Web and the District to find a vevuzela in time for Friday's US match.

P.S. any tips would be much appreciated as a cursory Google search has yet to turn up results. Unless I'd like to purchase them in bulk. Which I don't. One vevuzela can go a long way.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Video killed the newspaper?

The greatest thing about the Internet is how seamlessly it combines all of our known mediums into one central repository. At the click of a mouse (to use the relatively old cliche) you can find stories, photos, videos and audio of whatever it is on your mind. Curiousity is cured with a Google or Wikipedia search - cats need no longer fear their age old nemesis.

But how to best combine these elements is an ongoing discussion. No where is this more in the forefront than in the news business. Struggling newspapers are trying to balance the practice of giving away information for free while making money. Television stations augment nightly news coverage with the written word and still photography. Radio programs are delving into podcasts, Web cams and video to shore up the audio-only platform.

Who has the best combination right now?

Where else can you go for sports news served up anyway you want it? If you want video coverage of the World Cup you'll find it there along with podcasts from columnists like Bill Simmons and in-depth articles from some of the best sportswriters in the business. NPR is taking a similar, if less glitzy, approach.

Now, some newspapers are also succeeding - and hopefully making money - with the online platform. From what I've heard and read, both The Washington Post and New York Times have figured out profitable approaches. The Wall Street Journal, with much of it's highly specialized content tucked behind a pay wall, is similarly doing reportedly well.

But my focus today is on video and how to use it appropriately, particularly for newspapers. It's a topic I discussed frequently in the past with Carl Perreault, director of in New Hampshire. While video clips are all well and good, unless they capture the scene of an accident or fire or crime, they don't draw much traffic, according to Carl.

By that logic this video should be going viral, if it hasn't already:

So what videos don't work? Not having the page impression numbers in front of me it's hard to say, so I'll have to go from personal experience.

Rarely do I watch news videos online unless it's a breaking news situation. Packaged news, the sort of stuff you see on the nightly news, doesn't stand alone well, not in my opinion. Unless it takes a different angle on the story - the written story - like a sidebar, I don't generally click "play." All too often it glosses over the event without providing enough good footage to make up for what you're already missing in hard news.

Need an example? Tune into the nightly news sometimes. What you'll find, outside of fires/live crimes/natural disasters, is a lot of stock video (i.e. "here's the street where so and so got in an life-threatening car accident yesterday evening" or "here's the front of Town Hall where so and so took this stand.")

It's easier to skim an article than it is to sit through a two minute video. It's also less obtrusive if you're in a public setting or the office, where watching talking heads break down an issue could become a distraction to others.

Factor in the time and effort to make a good video, shooting film rather than taking notes or photos, editing and posting and it is not always in the best interest of the journalist to focus on filming rather than writing.

Here's another good example of using video to augment a local story at

And here's an inventive take on combining a photo slideshow and podcast in a video at I'd be interested to see how much traffic this video receives:

Let me know your thoughts, if you have any, in the comments section below.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

That once-every-four-years international non-Olympic sports thingy

Back in college I tried really hard to get into soccer.

I swear, I did.

I spent a couple of days surfing the Web, figuring out the teams, deciding who I would pledge my undying love to (It was a draw between Michael Ballack's Chelsea FC and Liverpool's much cooler logo), learning the rules, rosters, etc.

It didn't take.

And it's not because I don't like the concept of liking soccer. In fact, I'm in love with the concept of following soccer. Who wouldn't want to be an aficianado of "the beautiful" game? On paper it sounds great, very sophisticated even. Like having a taste for 12-year-old single malt highland scotch and Cuban cigars.

But in reality it means scheduling your day around games (or "matches") taking place across the Atlantic, following multiple leagues and ever-changing rosters with little to no emotional connection to what's going on. For me, watching a soccer match was like trying to get excited about a San Jose - Anaheim NHL game. And for me, sports is all about the emotional connection.

But once every four years I have the opportunity to watch and actually enjoy soccer and that time is quickly approaching. The only thing not to like about the World Cup is how it seems to divide sports fans - American sports fans - into three camps: the self-righteous footballers, indignant soccer haters and everybody else.

Of course this could just be overhyped by the ol' sports media, but just wait we'll be inundated with columns, articles, podcasts discussing why Americans can't/don't/won't embrace the world's most popular sport. Here's ESPN's Jeff MacGregor:

Hanging there somewhere between the comic and the tragic, the right and the wrong, the left and the right, the truth and the lie, is our American relationship to soccer. Well, to football. Futbol. Fußball. Whatever. Even as the world gets smaller, how is it possible that at this late date we remain such strangers to The Beautiful Game?

The 19th World Cup, under way this week in South Africa, will at last change all that.

Unless, of course, it does not.

Because predicting the arc of soccer's popularity in the United States is a fool's errand. It is also a cottage industry. Never more so than during the quadrennial global tournament. Thus, by mid-July, we'll all be up to our necks in the oracular math of "what if?" What if the U.S. men do well? What if they do not? What if TV ratings are up? What if they are not? What of Slovakia? What of Slovenia? Or Fredonia? What if Landon Donovan plays like Landon Donovan McNabb? Whatever happened to Beckham and Pelé and all those sky-high hopes for stateside soccer? Who at long last will become the Prometheus of American footie? Of what real use is a goalkeeper, anyway? And what if tens of thousands of words a day are spilled into the Gulf of Lexico in service of the idea that meaning must be made of it all? Who cleans that up?

What if?

"Help!" cries the American sports fan. "Enough! I just want to know whether to send my noncontact sons and daughters to soccer or to band practice after school!"

I hope soccer becomes popular in this country. Because sports are fun. But hearing why the American public is boorish by failing to follow MLS or FIFA on non-World Cup years or why American sports are so much better is the real bore. So sportswriters, do you part, help me learn about the history, passion and everything else there is to love about football without the psychoanalysis.

UPDATE: Just came across this Joel Dreyfuss column on largely the same topic. At least I'm not alone:

"There's still a certain amount of snobbishness in following international soccer from the U.S. It doesn't rank up there with squash racquets peeking out of your briefcase, but by rooting for proper "football," you join that secret society of snobs who talk 4-4-2 versus 3-5-2 lineups and actually understand the offside rule. I have to admit, since it's gotten a lot easier to be a soccer snob, that's probably not a good thing for exclusivity. But there are definite benefits in being able to lie on your couch over the next several weeks and flip your remote between two World Cup matches."

Saturday, June 5, 2010


I've got Metro on the mind lately, it seems.

At first glance, the D.C. Metro (or WMATA for short(?!?)) is a step above anything you can find buried beneath the cities across the world. With one swipe of your Metro SmartTrip card, you're given access to the vast labyrinth connecting the District with Virginia and Maryland. Forty-five degree angle escalators whisk you down into the bowels of the city in feeling reminiscent to Dante descending into the inferno.

There you find yourself in dimly lit caverns of a futuristic design that would fit well in any sci-fi film, awaiting a hissing steel (well, probably aluminum and plastic, but why quibble when we've jumped the shark with our prose a paragraph ago) chariot to ferry you away.

Compared to the Boston T, the Metro initially comes off as technology-friendly, clean and just overall more competent. But that's before you spot your first rat, deal with the endless delays and the increase in travel time that just switching lines adds. Then you realize that for all of it's post-modern glitz, the Metro is just another poorly managed mass transit system with a thick layer of gild.

But that's not what I wanted to get into here. No, what I really wanted to discuss was Metro Etiquette or "Metroquette," a word I just made up. The subject popped into my head after I stumbled across this morning:

"At Metro Center, the escalators from the upper to lower platforms are 3-wide. On a NORMAL metro day, at least ONE of these stair cases is not operational...often two. Folks, if you have a functioning "up" escalator on the right hand side, what the hell makes you think that the non-functioning escalator on your far left is there for you to walk up? I hate people that do this."

Welcome to the underground phenomenon that is Metroquette. The first rule of Metroquette is you don't talk about Metroquette. The second rule of Metroquette is you don't talk about Metroquette. That's because it's the sort of unspoken system that holds together societies across the globe and time spent explaining its finer points is time wasted.

Actually the first real rule of Metroquette applies to the escalators. If you're in a hurry, stay to the left; if you don't mind wasting precious seconds of your life riding the Metro escalators, by all means lounge on the right. But NEVER lounge on the left.

Tourists are the usual perpetrators and it's hard to get worked up about them (though that Japanese family that held a strategy session on their next destination and inadvertently blocking the escalators a couple of weeks back came perilously close). For DC denizens the punishment is death.

Third rule of Metroquette: Let the people on the train off before pushing your way onto the train. This makes for the efficient transfer of travelers both on and off each car, though a particularly touristy weekend or hectic commuter day (i.e. delays abounding), it can devolve into a blood-thirsty fight to the finish. Punishment depends on the circumstances. You gotta do what you gotta do.

Fourth rule: When you're on the train, make way for those getting off. The Metro regularly makes announcements urging passengers to move to the center of the car as to create room for newcomers. Unfortunately, this is usually ignored. But those who do "follow the rules" pay for their mistake by having to force their way through a thicket of passengers not willing to budget an inch to let someone out, because really, why should they change for someone else? (Yes, I'm talking about you, cool dude with your sunglasses on and iPod buds in your ears. We know you know the rules. Don't be a jerk)

Fourth Rule, Part B: if you've got the outside seat and someone on the inside wants out, let them out.

There are more rules, but most fall into the misdemeanor category, i.e. loud cell phone conversations that just annoy everybody, body slamming your way onto a packed car seconds before the doors clamp shut, begging for change (I've actually seen beggars move from car to car asking for money), blocking seats with luggage, using up more than one seat during rush hour, etc.

I'm just glad I'm not the only person who thinks about this stuff.

(h/t Kate and James)