The recent issue of ESPN The Magazine created a fair share of controversy in soccer circles when it hit newsstands featuring Giuseppe Rossi on the cover accompanied by the stirring headline: “Meet America’s best hope at the World Cup …”
The publication’s editor-in-chief, Gary Belsky, told MLSsoccer.com that this was planned for some time with a “reveal cover” making the concept of Rossi as cover boy even more intriguing.
“The combination of the provocativeness of the idea, the power of the picture and the quality of the story made us decide about four or five weeks ago to choose this as the cover,” Belsky said.
The "idea" that he refers to is that of a player born and bred in the United States who then decides to represent his parents’ country of Italy. New Jersey native Rossi spurned the US National Team, which could sorely use players with his talent. The fact that he scored against the US in the 2009 Confederations Cup was salt in the wound.
“As we got closer to it [the story] we felt this could be thought-provoking and provocative,” Belsky said. “And more than anything in the magazine we’re aiming for thought-provoking and provocative but especially so with a sport that is not part of the ‘Big 6’ or ‘Big 8’ in terms of our coverage.”
The question was raised of whether the Rossi story was even worthy of a cover, especially for a player who is, to this day, still uncertain of making the final 23-man roster for Italy after a mediocre season at Spanish club Villarreal.
“This is one of the smarter stories we’ve executed because it takes you to a place a lot of Americans don’t understand," Belsky said.
The feature was written by ESPN The Magazine senior writer Jeff Bradley, the brother of US National Team manager Bob Bradley.
Another point of discussion that emerged was the audience targeted with the cover. Was it the American soccer fan? The international soccer fan? Perhaps the mainstream sports fan?
“We are trying to please as many people as we possibly can with our selection of covers over time,” Belsky said. “Mostly we are trying to surprise readers every time. And so I don’t necessarily think our readers were expecting to get a story about world soccer in this particular issue but that when they got the cover they would ask ‘What are they talking about?’”
Senior editor Brendan O’Connor, who overseas soccer coverage, said part of what the magazine is trying to do is create commentary among sports fans.
“Most of the reaction is about the player himself [Rossi] and people weren’t reacting to our choice of doing it [the cover]," O'Connor said. "People reacted to the fact that he grew up in America and he’s playing for Italy and what that means for American soccer in general and Giuseppe Rossi in particular. That’s what we wanted to do—we wanted to start conversation.”
The soccer conversations in ESPN The Magazine are just taking off. Belsky said there will be at least one more soccer cover for the World Cup preview issue. And beginning with that edition, the magazine will feature four consecutive weeks of World Cup coverage, an unprecedented streak for a single sporting event in the history of the magazine.
Also on newsstands is ESPN’s 2010 World Cup Guide, which Belsky says is the second all-time best seller for stand-alone newsstand guides the company has ever produced. It is second only to the Michael Jordan issue for his Hall of Fame induction.
“It’s doing extremely well,” Belsky said. “Our soccer covers routinely sell very well on the newsstands. Newsstands are not a big part of our business, but we look to the newsstand to get trends and soccer does well.”
ESPN has also published a World Cup Companion by David Hirshey and Roger Bennett which debuted in recent weeks.
This summer’s event is a company priority for ESPN. The unprecedented coverage across all platforms and the editorial decisions that will be made are bound to generate more debate in the weeks ahead.
“Even though they might have issues with the particular choices we make, we [ESPN] are one of the largest media platforms in the world,” Belsky said. “ESPN The Magazine is one of the two largest sports magazines in the country, I think they appreciate that all coverage is good coverage in this situation. ESPN is saying that there is another soccer story that is worth you paying attention to.”