Thursday, October 20, 2011

An Interview with Simon Kuper


Simon Kuper came to Seattle on October 11th to take part in a forum on the sport and promote his latest book, Soccer Men: Profiles of the Rogues, Geniuses, and Neurotics Who Dominate the World's Most Popular Sport.  Sarah Rudd and I were lucky enough to get an interview with Simon prior to the event that evening.  The interview focused on Simon's latest book, as well as his best-seller Soccernomics and his award-winning first book titled Soccer Against the Enemy.

The full interview, forty minutes in length, is provided below.  It should be noted that the interview picks up mid-introductions to provide context for my opening question.

Sarah and I are grateful for Simon taking nearly an hour in total out of his busy evening to discuss a range of topics with us.  Special thanks goes to Simon's editor at Nation Books, Carl Bromley, who contacted me to help set up the interview.  Carl gets social media and the key role it can play in keeping great print media alive and engaging.  Other publishers should be so lucky to have someone like Carl.

The Interview

Sarah Rudd (SR): I think I read Football Against the Enemy 10 years ago [note: the book was originally published in 1994]

Simon Kuper (SK): Wow

SR: I just randomly picked it up when I was at Heathrow and it was a pretty amazing find. I'd never really read a book that sort of spoke about soccer so intelligently before.

SK: That's very kind. I wrote it about 17 years ago, so it feels like it was somebody else.

SR: Well it's held up well. I read it 10 years ago, and I still go back from time to time and re-read chapters. I love the chapter on Argentina and their Diego-worship. Certainly with the World Cup last year that was interesting.

Zach Slaton (ZS): I actually wanted to ask you about that book. It was, beyond Soccernomics, the second book of yours that I read. So I have a later edition, the 2010 edition. And you finished that book, to quote you,
"It's been seventeen years since I finished my journey around the world to research this book.  I will never do it again. Forty-eight hours in a Ukranian train, weeks without hot water, and conversations in languages I don't speak - I have had enough."
SK: Absolutely. I think it is really only the kind of book you can write when you're 22... 23... It's hard to imagine how different the world was then. So, I would arrive in Estonia, and you couldn't really contact people in Estonia beforehand because how would you find out their phone numbers? How would you find out who they were? Even making a call could be difficult.

So I'd arrive in a country, get some local money, and go to a pay phone. I'd put money in the pay phone, and call some numbers an anthropologist or some journalist had given me. First, they'd be speaking a language you didn't know. Second, they'd say "Oh, he died," or "Oh, he lived here 20 years ago." Just the process of actually finding people was incredibly hard.

Getting information on Cameroon or the Ukraine, if you were in London [at that time] you couldn't actually get information on current events in those countries. You could find out about the history, but [not] what [was] happening in Cameroon [at the time]. So I went to the Cameroonian embassy and the guy wouldn't let me in because he thought I was a creditor. I guess they had a policy of not letting in people they did not know, because they were constantly being pursued by creditors.

Essentially now you could write the book without going to such places.

ZS: So it's more the world that the book was written within and the challenges it presented that you would not do again. Not necessarily the actual travel itself. Do you think [the travel] was integral to the book?

SK: It made it the kind of book it was. But now look. Here I am in the Sorrento Hotel. It's very nice. I am a middle aged man and I like my comforts, so this is very nice. If I were doing Football Against the Enemy I'd be staying in the cheapest place in Seattle, and I wouldn't be able to take a taxi. So I'd have to work out the bus [schedule] to get to the Sorrento Hotel to interview somebody. Who'd be somebody like me, a middle aged man with a job who would feel good. And so the older man would think, "Why am I talking to you?" The whole process was just so physically and mentally draining. But you're trying to get at something else -

ZS: Well, I was trying to get at my second question which is you're viewed in this role with Hornby, Goldblatt, and a number of other writers who have helped to establish this field over the last 20 to 30 years of a serious, large scale, popular field of soccer commentary and scholastic writing -

SK: Fairly popular, not very popular [a wry smile appears on Simon's face and I can't help but laugh]

ZS: In Soccer Men you start off explaining that you don't need to justify this field anymore, but that sometimes we need to remind ourselves to not take this so seriously. So you're not having to freeze your rear end off anymore and go to the lengths you had to in Soccer Against the Enemy, but on the other hand you are one of those foundational writers in this field that does take itself relatively seriously. So how do you strike that balance?

SK: Phil Ball wrote a very good book about Spanish soccer about 10 years ago called Morbo, and he says in the introduction

 "The great thing about soccer is that nine-tenths of the poetry is in the fact that it doesn't really matter."
And everybody who's writing about it or is a fan REALLY KNOWS it doesn't really matter.

So I am watching Holland in the World Cup final. I really wanted them to win, but I also hated the way they played so I had these conflicting feelings. I was very torn up, but there is a voice in the back of you saying, "This is an escape. This is an escape. That's what this is." And what irritates me often is the hysteria of the commentary. The anger, the lack of humor about it.

Nick Hornby's book is great in part because he KNOWS it doesn't matter, and therefore he knows he has a problem. The book is partly, "What is my problem?" And if he were saying, "I love Arsenal! I hate Spurs! I'm so gutted we didn't win!" it would not be a fun book and it wouldn't be an intelligent book.

Soccer generates news all the time. There's always results, a press conference, or a trade. You have this huge apparatus which all three of us are obviously a part of in some way via commentary. Most people don't consume soccer - they consume soccer talk. Which is what we're generating now and hope that some people consume. To make that talk more appealing we sometimes make it sound more important...

ZS: More important than it should be?

SK: Well, I have a friend who listens to this phone-in show in England on Saturdays called Six-On-Six and people call in and say, "Oh, our manager, I can't believe..." These are middle aged men calling in. My friend always has the urge to call in and say, "Have you EVER thought it doesn't... really... matter?" And I think that's the kind of corrective voice...

ZS: And that's what you have to remind yourself?

SK: Well, I always find it very easy, but in my own pompous way I like to remind others. [again, a wry smile appears]

SR: Were you surprised by the reception Soccernomics got? Did you see any pattern in how well it was received across different countries?

SK: Very much so. It was much better received [in the United States] than in England. The sales were better, the interest was higher. I think Americans are much more atuned to using data - they don't think it's wierd, they don't think it's stupid. Moneyball educated Americans in part, but also Moneyball describes a trend that happens in all American corporations as you know better than I do.

In England people say that data can't teach you anything about soccer, and "I already know about soccer so if you're telling me something new about soccer it must be wrong". Whereas the American readers and writers that I spoke to were much more open to listening and open to new ways of thinking.

SR: In Soccer Men the profile of Jorge Valdano portrays him as a very literate man, but then he is quoted as saying "Reading books doesn't win games." Do you see that as part of the cultural divide where maybe Spain isn't ready?

SK: Well, he wasn't really talking about books on data. I think Valdano is old school, and he's a romantic. I gave him Soccernomics, but there really aren't any books on data in Spain. So he wasn't talking about those books. He was talking about reading Marquez doesn't win you soccer games. Which is probably true.

In terms of books on data, I think the big Spanish clubs are starting to move that way. They're slow, but I think Moneyball was very important because it shows you how cultural connections work. English clubs were the first to find out, so people you mentioned in your email - Mike Forde - started in San Jose. Damien Comolli lived in the Bay Area - he's not English but he ended up in England because he speaks very good English and that cultural connection goes through language. So if you speak English, you're more likely to find out about Moneyball. You're more likely to understand baseball in the first place, and to be able to see what it means and its lessons for your sport. So the lesson has actually been bigger in cricket because it's very similar to baseball. Everyone in cricket read the book and said, "Oh my god! Why didn't we ever do this?" And now they're all doing it.

Soccer has been a bit slower because it's less obvious link. But the link is with England, primarily. The Germans have a long tradition of sports science going back a hundred years. It's a bit different, but very open to the idea that you can use data. Klinsman is another key figure because he lives in California, so he brought that to Germany in 2005 when he was managing the national team. The link goes through America and through English-speaking people, which means the Italians and the Spaniards are a bit slower to come on board.

SR: So does that mean that English clubs can expect to win more Champions League titles?

SK: I said to Billy Beane, "It probably won't be as big in soccer as in baseball because it's a different kind of sport." And he responded, "Maybe. It doesn't have to be because if it gives you an edge you have to do it. Say you have 30% of transfers succeed, and say through use of data you can raise that to 35%. That's an edge." So it's not going to win you Champions League by itself, it's not going to do what it did for the Oakland A's ten years ago. But it is enough that you should do it.

SR: MLS soccer clubs are underfunded, so it seems like this would be an opportunity ripe for this approach. Yet only one or two teams have full-time performance analysts. Do you have any insight as to why they're a bit slower to adopt such an approach?

SK: Probably because they don't have any money. Say a performance analyst costs you $30,000 just in salary, that's significant.

The other thing I think is that data hasn't really made big inroads yet, it hasn't really been game changing in soccer yet. Nobody can show it has totally made a difference. Often it makes a big difference for the most resourced clubs, so far, because they actually have the money to do something with it. It's not just having the data, but it's also having the money to crunch the data. The clubs who make the most use of data are Arsenal because it is run by a data man, Bolton who under Sam Allardyce and somewhat in their corporate culture, and now Liverpool.

The smaller clubs you might have one guy with a laptop, his access to the coach is questionable. In the lower leagues there often isn't any data. You might not know who completed which pass. So far it's only been a few clubs at the top end, and they keep their cards close to their chest. We can't even necessarily see when it has made a difference, even when it has. I can say with a lot of confidence that at Liverpool and Arsenal it heavily informs their transfer decisions. At most big clubs like Chelsea it plays a supplementary role. It does make a difference, and I suspect it makes something of a positive difference.

ZS: So you're talking to Arsenal supporters here, and you wrote an article a couple of weeks ago about potentially the advantage that Arsenal has and in Wenger's management of the data -

SK: had

ZS: - that Wenger had has diminshed greatly. From your opinion, what needs to happen with Arsenal? They seem to do relatively well with the meager transfer budgets they are managing, except for this last transfer window.

SK: They do ok.

ZS: Some would argue they've lost the plot. What do you see they need to change?

SK: It's a really difficult question. They are not going to sack Wenger, almost no matter what happens. I think they see that Arsenal are where they should be now. And for years Arsenal were above where they should have been because Wenger was a genius. Now you're in a situation where three clubs are richer, so naturally you're going to finish behind those three. Those three clubs have copied a lot of what they've done. Where do you find a new advantage?

I don't think Billy Beane has found a new advantage since the days of Moneyball, and I don't think Wenger will. It's very, very hard to do. I was thinking of Einstein - now I am not an expert on this at all - but I think Einstein for the last 20 years of his career just messed about. He was trying to get somewhere and he didn't get anywhere. Just a dead end. It's very hard to invent the wheel twice, and that's what Wenger needs to do. He needs to find something game changing, because all else being equal Arsenal will finish fourth. And when Arsenal finishes fourth, people like you will complain.

ZS: Actually, I won't complain.

SR: Not this year!

ZS: As an Arsenal fan, I'd say you're quite optimistic. I think they're going to struggle to finish fourth this year.

SK: Okay, well maybe one year on Wenger's career he'll underperform and finish fifth or sixth. For fifteen years he's very largely over achieved.

ZS: Clearly over achieved.

SK: So maybe this year, a transition year, difficult circumstances, good players leaving. Even if they finish fourth, the question people will ask is "Why don't they win any prizes?" Which is sort of an unfair question. They could have randomly won an FA Cup or a League Cup. They're sort of unlucky that they didn't, because they are in that zone as one of the clubs who can. It's wrong to expect more of Arsenal than that. They should be a team that gets in to the Champions League most of the time, because if you're fourth you can slip. But Wenger gets there every year. And they should be a team that occasionally wins a cup.

SR: Looking at Liverpool, they've splashed out fairly heavily on young, English players. Do you think they are overpaying for them because of an English bias, or do you think they're just able to see something that's worth putting this high price tag on these guys?

SK: They do overpay. I think they know that. Torres wanted to leave, so they got a brilliant price for him. Something like £55M. So they say, "Ok, we've got £55M. We've lost a really good player, so now we've got to build a new team because we have a new owner. The fans are very angry. We need to satisfy the fans now. " So they spend £25M on Andy Carroll, and you always overpay for center forwards anyways. Say the guy was only really worth £18M. You need him, you have a lot of money, the owner bought the club cheap and is willing to spend, so why not?

In some ways you can overpay, as long as you are aware you are overpaying. If you're Manchester City, you always overpay. But they're okay with that. And in some sense Liverpool are okay with that. It's only when you don't have any fallback or support options like Arsenal that you can't afford to do it.

SR: I thought it was curious that you included a profile on Freddy Adu in [Soccer Men]. He's recently come back to MLS this season. What are your thoughts on his career trajectory and where it can go from here?

SK: I think he should be aiming to become a week-in, week-out MLS player and take it from there. There's no reason to presume right now can be anything more than that given the failed years in Europe. So I would say start playing every week, and he gets better and maybe he could get good enough to play for the US. It would be great.

To go back to the Nike fantasies when he was 14 would be absurd. The last few years have proven that's not the player he became as an adult. Presumably no one expects of that him anymore, right?

SR: Right. We're all hoping that maybe he'll get it together, and like you said be a very good MLS player. If he were to go back to Europe I think a lot of people would be very excited, but would [also] be surprised.

SK: I don't think he is going to be the guy. I think there is going to be someone else, some American. I follow Dutch football, having grown up there, and people are really impressed with the way Altidore started. He's already had a better career than Freddy Adu. He might be closer to being that person. I would be very surprised if in the next five years you don't have an American outfield player playing for one of the Top 8 clubs in Europe.

SR: Have you been following Brek Shea's career at all?

SK: No.

SR: He's sort of the next hot young thing.

SK: Where is he now?

SR: He's currently with an MLS team called FC Dallas, but there are rumored bids to lure him to Europe. So he might be the next guy.

SK: How old is he?

SR: 21

ZS: or 22 (Note: Sarah was wright - Shea is 21)

SK: He's probably already too old to become a great player. There seems to be a problem with the way Americans educate young players in that you all come out at the top end with very competent, hard working, efficient offensive players. And nothing more. I would suspect that anyone who is in the American academy system and college - worse if you're in college - is never going to be that great player.

SR: So do you think someone like Giuseppe Rossi made the right decision to jump ship at age 13?

SK: Oh yeah, totally. He's really the best American player. Is there another player?

SR: Neven Subotic

SK: Right. There's another one. So you have various very good American players, and the problem is then to make sure they stay American.

SR: Well hopefully that is part of Klinsman's allure. Maybe he will convince one or two people they should play for us.

SK: I think it would go through a sponsor. I think you get next time Nike will do it they will choose a slightly older player because they're not going to make the same mistake and bet on another 14 year old. Then they say "Look, we really want you to play for the US." Because the sponsors really need a big American player more than anything else. "We'll give you bonuses based upon national team appearances. So you can earn as much playing for the US as playing for your club."

ZS: In Soccer Men you've made the point that players are not good interviews, but that you like to profile them. However, one of the more interesting things for me personally was the interview with [Johnny] Repp and [Bernd] Holzenbein. The thing that got me was where you were approached at the end of it and were told "this is one of the most memorable moments of my life" -

SK: This friend of mine I had brought along with me.

ZS: Can you describe what that evening was like, beyond what you were able to write down. It seems like it was...

SK: You know, we had beers and I can't remember every word they said. It wasn't like they were incredible revelations. It's not like I suddenly saw what it was all really like. It wasn't at all like that.

It was just two very pleasant guys who were free to talk because they weren't playing for anybody. It was an away day for them. They had gone to Rotterdam, someone had put them in a nice hotel and we listened to them. They liked each other as well, even though they couldn't really understand each other very well. It wasn't so much that things were said that I went away thinking "Oh, my god!", it was just the camaraderie, the amiability, the niceness.

You're with these guys and I think it was more for my friend. I had met these guys before so it wasn't the first time I had met them. Although it was rare to be in such a relaxed setting. For my friend to be sitting there and to be getting beers and having a nice time, like you do with friends, and he's thinking, "Oh, my god! I am sitting here with Johnny Repp!"

At one point we were trying to work out would Repp go home, would he drive home that evening? Would my friend have to take the train home that evening? And we're all sitting there in Rotterdam and Repp said to my friend, "Noooo! We'll all stay here! You'll sleep on my floor." So this friend of mine, the icon of his youth is saying "Sleep on my floor, we'll have a great time!" That, for me, was sort of the stunning aspect. All the walls were broken down. No more divide.

ZS: Almost like as much as you said in that chapter where you went to some of these forums where people who were maybe not even alive during that World Cup final were putting up these walls between [Repp and Holzenbein] because of the roles they played in what you may say was a very serious juxtaposition of the conflict over the War. You obviously had this interplay between the German and the Dutch sides that used to come up, maybe not as much today. All that breaks away - you have these two guys who can't understand each other, one of them is offering to have one of the guys sleep on his floor, is that one of those moments where everything fades away?

SK: It's true that for Dutch fans the Holland/Germany World Cup is good vs. evil match that we lost. The Germans of '74 were villains. For the players it was obviously quite bitter. There are talks of "I had a header that just went past the post. I still dream about that." Then you're with the guy who beat us. In fact, dived for the penalty - we say he dived for the penalty, Holzenbein. And he's just a nice guy.

You realize we build them up as legends, we build them up as myths in our minds about who these people are. By the time they're 55 it's just really pleasant. It might differ per country. I wonder if anyone will sit around with David Beckham like that when he is 55. I somehow doubt it.

ZS: I think you make the case in the book too that these guys brought something to the table just in their conversations that you don't normally get in an interview with a soccer player. You mention that they're able to do this because they're freed from the professional involvement, they're freed from the professional responsibility. Have you found that in other players that you've interviewed? That the only good player interview you get is when they're an ex-player?

SK: Mostly, yeah. In the same book there's Bruce Grobbelaar. I think he was just kind of pleased to meet me, because he had somebody to talk to who was sort of from England where he had spent twenty years. I just wanted an interview. I would have been happy for twenty minutes, and instead we spent this whole night drinking in Cape Town. And I did actually sleep in his spare room!

He drank about four hundred times more than I did. We were completely wasted at the end. And I was trying to make notes, it was an interview. He knew I was interviewing him. He's drinking, I am very far gone and I am taking notes. Then we go back to his flat and he says, "Oh, we'll have one more drink outside!" And then I sort of go into a coma in the spare room, and the next morning he drives me in to town and I go off. It's probably the nature of the person, but also probably being out of the game. They're actually quite keen to have someone come and listen to their stories.

Also, it's more interesting when you can talk about your whole life, when you can look back on your whole life. With Lionnel Messi, if he were here, it'd be more like, "Did you play well? Can you win? How's your knee? Were you angry with the referee? What do you think of what Mourinho said?" It's very sort of the moment and boring, and you don't have much reflection. Plus you're 22 years old, so you don't have as much to say.

SR: So is that why you sort of loathe the autobiographies of so many young players?

SK: I don't know about loathe. I mean I loathe Ashley Cole's autobiography.

When I was ten I read these books as well, and there's a problem when you're twenty five and not willing to reveal the truth. And you're not a reflective person by nature because most people aren't.

SR: Do you think players are more honest as time elapses? Sort of like how Diego Maradona finally admitted that he did actually use his hand in 1986.

SK: Yeah, because when you're in the bubble it all feels very important. I remember I was with these journalists waiting in a mixer for players to come off the pitch. Villareal had played in Paris. It was a nothing game, 0-0, and I was waiting because I wanted to speak to this one Dutch player and ended up with two minutes with him because the press lady whisked him away. Irritating. It's one of those moments when you think, "What the hell am I doing here?" Villareal, a provincial team, there are about 40-50 Spanish journalists who come along, and the rule there was lots of mics, and radio stations, and talking into the radio while we're waiting for the players. Just the self importance!

And then the Spanish players come by. "Come to me! Come to me!" He interviews the Spanish player, and the Spanish player says a few words into local radio that is live as we speak. Just this huge apparatus for something that is utterly meaningless. And the joy of the access to the player - the player comes to the microphone and he says a few boringly meaningless words. And yet in that envrionment who is going to say anything else? And if you do say anything interesting you're punished for it.

So yeah, much better to be in a bar with someone twenty years later.

ZS: Who was your favorite player to profile or interview in this book?

SK: The hero of my youth was Cruijff, and I thought once about writing a book about him. What you have there is a condensed three thousand word version. That was where I had the most thoughts, the most I wanted to say.

I enjoyed writing about Lothar Matthäus because I had access. He was a way of working through the German player myth, and I thought there was something kinda funny about him.

ZS: That was a very interesting chapter in the book where he almost didn't recognize what he symbolized. Or was it that he refused to recognize?

SK: I think athletes generally have a problem with... to us they become symbols of something. They can't see that. They think, "I'm a person. I'm a professional."

So there is this great Paul Simon story where he's in a restaurant in New York, and he sees Joe DiMaggio in the restaurant. Of course he's waited for this moment for years because he knows that DiMaggio must know about his song. He's a bit nervous because he thinks DiMaggio might not like it. At one point, DiMaggio comes over and they start to talk and DiMaggio's fine about it. He's like, "I think it's sweet that you sang that about me. But what do you mean 'Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?' Everyone knows where I am because I am on the TV ads. Everyone knows where I am. So why did you say 'Where have you gone Joe DiMaggio?" So Paul Simon wants to respond, but then he realizes Joe DiMaggio can't see himself as a symbol. He just thinks "I'm this person with this job." And he doesn't understand what he meant to Paul Simon as a kid.

ZS: I've heard you're working on Soccernomics 2. I don't know if you have another working title for it. What's going to be the vision for it? Is it a new book? Is it more of a revision to the existing?

SK: It's about half way. It's about 25%+ new. So we want to warn people that they mustn't expect to be buying 100% new text because that would be deceiving the consumer. But on the other hand, there's a lot of new stuff. So even if you've read Soccernomics 1.0 you should read it (the wry smile emerges for a final time).

There's going to be new chapters on "Why Spain?". Match data, using Moneyball-type data on pass completions to assigned players, which is happening now. We've ellaborated on the question, "Why do clubs never disappear?" and why do they never go bust. In every chapter we've added a lot of updates.

ZS: That last point you made, "Why clubs never disappear. Never go bust." One of your latest articles in the Financial Times talks about the ramifications of the European Court's decision on licensing of TV rights. How do you think that's going to impact the requirements that UEFA is going to ask clubs to meet? You famiously made the point in chapter 4 of Soccernomics that clubs aren't businesses. They aren't run like businesses. They have a life of their own. How much do you think [this court decision] is going to impact their ability to operate like a business? There are some pretty doomsday scenarios, which you down play down in the article. But not being able to carve up the television pie the way the Premier League wants to is going to greatly affect their ability to continue to grow TV revenue.

SK: I think they will continue to grow TV revenue. Because [this decisions affects] just Europe, and Europe isn't a growth market. They'll grow it here, and in Asia as growth markets. Europe is static. People watch the Premier League.

I think the big risk is piracy, the sort of Napster-scenario for soccer. I didn't have time to write about it in that article, but already you can get hold of the match you want to watch on the internet if you're clever enough. It's not a great experience today, but it will be great in five years time. So then you get the situation of "Why should I pay my cable provider? Why don't I get it from this Chinese provider or some other Internet means?" Once people can get Premier League matches for free, which is what happened to the music industry, what do you do?

Even if you were to shrink revenues by 90%, so you go back to the level you had twenty years ago. Twenty years ago you still had clubs. You'd be fine. Everything shrinks then. All the wages would shrink. I don't see that happening. I am very confident that all of these clubs are going to outlive all of us.

ZS: But you see this as not just being a Premier League problem? Certainly the Premier League has a bit more risk here, but you're making the case this would be Europe-wide.

SK: Yes, but only a few TV rights are of interest. The Premier League, the two big Spanish clubs, the Italians. Nobody else gets really significant TV revenues.

ZS: In the article you made the point to have the English clubs make themselves immune to that potential reality and go after other forms of commercial revenue. You made the point that in Germany, Bayern earns so much money -

SK: Yeah, Bayern earns nearly double what Manchester United earns from sponsorship, even though Bayern doesn't have many fans outside of Germany.

The Premier League's brand is amazing as we all know. So even in Seattle here we are talking about Arsenal. And you can have this exact same conversation in Soweto and Shanghai because people know about the club, but very few of them watch. If in certain markets you target advertising, and you target reach, and you target selling shirts, that might be a smarter way.

In China and India they've screwed up. Very few people watch. In China people watch the Champions League on terrestrial TV and it's huge. Nobody buys the channel with the Premier League.

SR: Do you think the Premier League might follow the model of Spain and try to alter kickoff times to cater towards the Asian market?

SK: We already do. A 12:45 PM kickoff in England is evening in Asia. I can't see it starting earlier, you know nine in the morning. You may get more games going to 12:45.

So far, the UK TV rights are still bigger than foreign TV rights. Foreign TV rights don't matter that much yet. The trend is like this - UK is like this and foreign rights are like that (second hand held flat but above second hand held at an incline).

SR: Do you think it is difficult to balance the two growth markets - Asia and the United States - when they're such opposite ends of the time zones?

SK: Yes, but you have nine air time games every weekend. The Champions League is a problem for the US market.

SR: It's lunch time for us during the week, so we can pop out for a little bit.

ZS: I think the bigger challenge we face here, that MLS faces here is that a lot of people are willing to get up here in Seattle at 7 AM to watch a match rather than sometimes go watch any MLS match other than the Sounders.

SK: Yeah, nobody watches the MLS on TV. It doesn't really matter because American soccer is this mosaic, and it doesn't depend on MLS.

ZS: So you don't see that being a critical roadblock at all, or an enabler either way?

SK: Well, it hasn't blocked you guys. In 2011 why would you need watch to watch Real Salt Lake rather than Manchester United if you lived in Seattle? Ideally the composite US fan would support a US team and Manchester United, and that's often the case. It's not like it was 100 years ago where the only games you had access to were local.

I see that in India, in China. Why should they be very interested in their local clubs? They're not! In India I hosted this conference on soccer and how it could grow. They have the same issue - they really like soccer, just not Indian soccer.

ZS: Do you see a challenge though for American growth? For being an exporting nation of talent? You mentioned we're due for a break through, a forward-playing player in a large European league. Is there any faster way to develop US soccer internationally, or when it comes to our national team based upon some of the concepts you've talked about in your books previously?

SK: I think the key for the US in that you have the raw material, the 25 million of people who play some soccer. You have loads of players. So the question is not, "What happens when they're 22 and in the MLS?" because that's already too late. They're never going to be a great player. It's what happens when they're six to eighteen, where the US doesn't seem to be optimizing. To some degree that's natural because you have a generation of coaches and parents who didn't know the game. That's changing now. I think you need to work out how the rest of the world is doing it, which is really [found] in Ajax and Barcelona. Because it's not happening here.

ZS: I think that's all I had.

SK: Well, very nice to meet you! Thank you very much.

SR & ZS: Thank you very much!


  1. Very interesting. Thanks for posting that.

  2. Thank you for the compliment! It was certainly an interesting evening with Simon. I hope to be able to do it with other authors and soccer luminaries, although perhaps I will keep the length down next time. I transcribe about four times slower than it takes to talk, so the whole endeavor took around five to six hours between the interview and transcription. That's a significant amount of time when I am doing this in my small bit of spare time.

  3. This was very interesting read; certainly quite different from his interview with the New York Times. I think its remarkable how he talks about dullness and interview diplomacy in the PR-age, all while allowing his own thoughts to take voice quite freely to the extent that you can easily imagine how having a conversation with him might go. He's certainly very intelligent - he knows that - and seems like a man who isn't too interested in putting on a cape of faux humility when talking about his books or their sales.

    Thank you very much for posting; I'll be following you on twitter.

    -Manny (@OneArsenal)

  4. MannyK - Thanks for the compliments & the follow. I definitely got the impression from the interview that Simon doesn't mince words and definitely knows how well he writes. It was very refreshing to hear such an honest interview with a respected author, and not once did he say anything about something "being off the record."