Amid all the other suffering it’s inflicted worldwide, the COVID-19 pandemic has ravaged the already-beleaguered media landscapes of Canada and the United States.
The New York Times reported last year that “an estimated 37,000 employees of news media companies in the United States have been laid off, furloughed or had their pay reduced since the arrival of the coronavirus.” Comparable recessionary repercussions could be seen around the globe with closures, cutbacks and declining revenue. From a distance, it doesn’t exactly look like the ideal time to launch a brand-new content platform.
But that’s exactly what The Striker Texas did in February.
Introducing itself to the Lone Star State’s teeming soccer communities as Austin FC prepared to become its third MLS club, the subscription-based multimedia startup hit the ground running with an ambitious plan to cover all levels of the game across a vast domain of some 30 million people, home to nine fully professional teams and somewhere north of 300,000 players overall.
As much of a headwind as the pandemic may present, the site’s creators see a far bigger tide moving in their favor as the beautiful game keeps growing in Texas – and they believe they can cover it better, and bigger, than anyone in the mainstream media.
“We want to cover MLS the way soccer is covered in every single country besides the United States,” co-founder and executive director Roberto Silva told MLSsoccer.com. “We want to cover MLS the way football or basketball are covered in the US. That's our goal.
“There’s still a gap that the media has not understood,” he added, “and we're still treated as a minor sport in many ways, which we're not. I know for a fact we're not, and the numbers show that.”
The Striker Texas has made a flurry of intriguing hires, assigning local beat reporters to Austin FC, FC Dallas and Houston Dynamo FC. That's in addition to various other coverage areas (youth, college, lower divisions and the top flight), hosting several podcasts and featuring reader submissions, grassroots community news and forum sections.
Veteran Dallas-based journalist Jon Arnold thought the plan was “kind of idealistic” when Silva first approached him last year, but was soon won over to join the fledgling staff as a senior writer and podcast host.
“It's difficult not to be excited by it. Because as a lover of the game in this state, in this country, there's a lot of gaps in soccer coverage. And the more we can fill that, the better,” said Arnold, a Goal.com alum who also pens the “Getting CONCACAFed” newsletter and contributes to The Dallas Morning News, The New York Times and other outlets.
“That sort of holistic approach to the state’s soccer is hopefully something that generates success and generates passion, and also lets us be truly the community that sort of unites those disparate groups. Because we know that soccer is big in Texas; we know that this is a soccer state. Yet it feels like that hasn't necessarily coalesced into one thing. It does feel like the Midland youth coach and the Houston Dynamo superfan never meet, whether that's geographic or whether that's cultural differences that truly do exist in a state as big as France.”
The site also includes Spanish-language content and during its first month of existence hosted The Texas Soccer Summit, a four-day online convention with a wide range of discussions and panelists. They included Dynamo head coach Tab Ramos, FC Dallas head coach Luchi Gonzalez, Austin FC president Andy Loughnane, referee Ismail Elfath and dozens of other luminaries from Texas soccer and beyond.
Of particular note, The Striker Texas has committed to sending its MLS reporters to all of their teams’ away matches where allowed by COVID regulations, a hefty investment in travel costs that remains a relative rarity. Silva reckons that it’s the only US soccer site with that level of on-site coverage, no small chunk of an annual budget he places in the high six figures.
“When people ask me, ‘How’d you make this happen?’ I say it in another way. It was easy, I found a crazy guy that was willing to put some money on a crazy idea. That's the only thing that we have that maybe nobody else has, is a guy like Rene,” Silva, a Brazilian who moved to Austin almost eight years ago, said with a laugh.
That would be Rene van de Zande, a Dutch-born medical technology magnate who invested in Austin FC’s USL predecessors the Aztex and Bold – Silva was the latter’s first general manager – and holds a suite at LAFC’s Banc of California Stadium near his home in Los Angeles. He’s a believer in North American soccer and willing to back it up with financial support, especially given the startling groundswell of excitement – and coverage – as MLS arrives in Texas’ capital city.
“It's a really exciting moment for soccer in the state. And I think that's why we're launching right now,” said Arnold. “The energy that you feel behind Austin, I think it can be contagious.
“There's an opportunity now and there's a chance that Texas can become, I don’t want to say an MLS state, but a market where it feels like MLS matters.”
ATX will ring in Texas soccer history on Saturday night (9 pm ET | UniMas, TUDN, Twitter) as they christen Q2 Stadium with a visit from the San Jose Earthquakes. The Verde’s long-awaited home debut also figures to be a memorable milestone for The Striker Texas and its staff, considering that the site's concept dates back to a socially-distanced chat over coffee between Silva and journalist Chris Bils in Silva’s Austin backyard during the pandemic's nerve-jangling early days.
Bils, at the time a freelance contributor to the Austin American-Statesman’s soccer coverage, expressed his concerns about the MLS expansion club’s prospects for gaining the full attention of the area’s existing media scene. Having just left the Bold himself, a victim of COVID-imposed cutbacks, Silva agreed. He also envisioned an even bigger scope, befitting a unique, far-flung state that spans some 800 miles from end to end.
“Don't get me wrong, we are a for-profit company,” Silva explained. “But our mission as a company is to educate, is to make soccer stronger in the state of Texas … and if that takes some time to make all that happen, well, so be it. But we're either going to do it right, or we're not going to do it.”
While The Striker Texas appears to be the first undertaking of its kind, Silva says it’s received a positive reception from readers, advertisers and potential partners alike. Arnold believes that the site can amplify the rising tide of enthusiasm behind Austin FC, which holds the potential to “energize the markets in Dallas and Houston” with longer history and less hype, similar to what’s unfolded in the Los Angeles and New York markets.
“There is a big opportunity there,” said Silva. “I think we're creating something very unique, very honest.”