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Making Soccer Work on Sports Talk Radio: Darren Smith chats with SoccerNation

I've often imagined a world where two of my great loves in life could coexist. Sadly, the game of soccer and traditional sports talk radio in America

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I’ve often imagined a world where two of my great loves in life could coexist. Sadly, the game of soccer and traditional sports talk radio in America go together about as well as an NWA concert and the Republican National Convention.

Sometimes I wonder why dedicated soccer fans in this country, but then I remember people love betting my friend said that totosite, a well-known betting site, produces some useful insight on how to make the bets they want. Especially those who are also fans of other sports, people who exist in the millions, seldom tune in to sports talk radio, or rarely indulge in any form of more traditional sports media for that matter, i.e. radio, newspapers, and local television. They even take bets on the sport from somewhere like the top online sportsbook when they listen in on the game.

Then I’ll hear the cliche filled diatribes of longtime sports talk radio host Mike Francesca, who last summer on his prominent show on WFAN New York asked, “who is Lionel Messi,” after saying “I know absolutely ZERO about soccer. And, that’s more than I wanna know about soccer”. Francesca then went on an eight minute rant bashing Sports Illustrated for their 11 page preview of the Copa America Centenario.

““Eleven pages,” complained Francesca. “You’ve got to be kidding me! It’s a bunch of soccer matchups. No one’s ever heard of this event!”

What is all the more unfortunate is that Francesca’s words from last summer reflect not only the mindset of a significant portion of sports talk radio hosts and listeners in this country but of the people in charge of programming.

Why is it that the terrestrial radio powers that be seem to so fiercely reject all things soccer, and insist on using a sport that so many people worship and adore solely as a cheap comedy prop when program content is running thin? When will those bosses come to their senses and move past their archaic views, realizing that there is a viable market for soccer and surely ways to marry the ever-growing fanaticism for the sport in this country with our most powerful radio waves?

I sometimes worry that this battle is simply a desperate lunge at a lost cause.

In San Diego, there goes a man by the name of Darren Smith. He hosts The D-Smith Show, which airs every weekday from noon-3 PM on the Mighty 1090, a radio station with an historic duel-national transmitting tower in Rosarito that sends out one of the strongest signals in the region with programming that is listened to in both the U.S. and Mexico.

Darren is a soccer fan. He’s grown to truly love the game in recent years. He even hosts a soccer podcast, the aptly titled “Unnamed Soccer Podcast“, alongside D-Smith Show Producer and my Club Tijuana broadcast partner Jordan Carruth. He has recently added a 15 minute segment to his daily radio show dedicated to soccer, in addition to the hours upon hours of coverage of the ongoing local drama that is Soccer City SD, SDSU, and the fight for Mission Valley, as San Diego’s Major League Soccer dream hangs in the balance.

San Diego Union Tribune sportswriter and Footy McFooty Face lookalike Nick Canepa refers to Darren as “Pele Smith”, and “one of those cool hipster soccer dudes on the radio”.

I recently caught up with that cool hipster soccer dude at the Raglan Public House in Ocean Beach, the domain of the famed Gringo Xolos, fittingly after a Club Tijuana playoff match. We spoke about what it will take to make soccer work on sports talk radio, and what it will take create the fusion that could breakdown the stereotypes of old curmudgeons in traffic and scarf wearing scenesters on smart phones.

Darren Smith: “I think it starts with having balls. That goes for the sports talk radio hosts themselves and the bosses who can back them. If those bosses are your more traditional, conservative, talk radio programmers that we’ve routinely seen over the years, you’ve got to be able to convince them that if they want to have futures as radio programmers and keep talk radio alive and well, then they can’t think the way they’ve thought for the past thirty, forty, or however many years it’s been. You’ve got to think younger. You’ve got to evolve and not be afraid to change.

You need to be supported, and you most definitely need to have very thick skin. You’re gonna get a lot of push-back from people listening who are older and whiter saying ‘what is this soccer sh**’. You’ve got to stick to your guns, and just plow through helping to convince at least some of those people to be willing to change their ways, ways they were taught for so many years. You’ve also got to know the subject that you’re talking about, and you have to know in your heart of hearts that what you’re talking about is the right thing to be talking about.”

Nate Abaurrea (SoccerNation): “What about the flip-side of the coin, and the struggle to get soccer fans to listen to sports talk radio? There are people here locally that listen to your podcast but have never once listened to your daily radio show. How do you go about changing that?”

Darren Smith: “This to me is the much greater challenge. Traditional American sports talk radio has almost never been good to soccer fans. And you want that audience to listen to you. But you also have this audience that’s been there forever that really doesn’t care about soccer. This is the purgatory I find myself in sometimes.

How do we transition from what we were into what we think we can be?

You bring up the podcast, and it’s funny. I’ve been to so many of these Soccer City SD events, and people always come up and say ‘hey I love the podcast’. I don’t think anyone has ever actually come up and said ‘hey I really like your radio show’, or even a ‘hey, I hate your radio show’. I’ll ask them if they listen to radio, and then they’ll ask what time I’m on, and it kinda fades out from there. And this is the sort of paradox that we’re in with this, trying to figure out how we can convert the soccer fans who we know exist in high volume here in San Diego into a sports talk radio listeners when traditionally if they tune in they’ll likely hear a host call soccer “un-American”, or whatever other cliche you’ve heard a thousand times over the years.

So now you’ve got to make a point of appealing to the soccer fan. Like you have to really appeal to that person, basically reaching out to them and saying hey, I’m in this for the long haul. I’m one of you. I’m gonna go to the watch parties and be with the people. I’m not just using this because I think it’s an opportunity to pick up a younger demographic, though that is massively important as this is very much about our craft, our business of radio surviving. You’ve got to convince that soccer fan that you’re the genuine article, and that you’re doing this because you love the game and because you know that that soccer fan exists. But that soccer fan needs to know that you’re for real, and that your intentions are pure.

Again, that can be incredibly challenging when that same soccer fan can tune into sports talk radio, during a World Cup, and hear all about how soccer sucks and how the diving floppers are rolling all over the field. So there’s a trust issue there between the soccer fan and the radio host. It’s important to understand that.”

Nate Abaurrea (SoccerNation): “It’s interesting, because with that common lack of trust that you speak of comes a high level of loyalty to those in the sporting media at the other end of the spectrum, those who make a point of genuinely reaching out to the American soccer fan and becoming a part of what was for so long a very niche sporting community in this country. Have you noticed that, and if so what has that meant to you?”

Darren Smith: “I definitely have, and as flattering as it can be, I don’t think it’s anywhere near its zenith. We’ve got a long ways to go, locally and nationally. I’ve also received plenty of push back from the soccer community due to that lack of trust, since the very first day we started bringing soccer into the fold.”

Nate Abaurrea (SoccerNation): “What are some examples of that push back?”

Darren Smith: “You’re a poser’, ‘you don’t really care about the game,’ ‘you’re just doing this to be hip.”

Nate Abaurrea (SoccerNation): “What are some examples of the push back from the other side?”

Darren Smith: “Soccer sucks,’ ‘it’s a sport for sissies and foreigners,’ ‘get that crap off my radio.”

Nate Abaurrea (SoccerNation): “So you’ve got distrust blended with self-righteousness from one side, and ‘get off my lawn’ language from the other side. How do you win?”

Darren Smith: “I don’t know yet. I’m still trying to figure that out. But I’ve got to convince the people in this vibrant soccer community that I would be in love with all of this whether it was a part of my broadcast life or not.

But I also do want it to be a major part of my broadcast life, and I want the soccer community of San Diego to know that there is a media outlet that truly serves their best interests. I want them to know the same way I want the programmers to know that this can be mutually beneficial.”

Nate Abaurrea (SoccerNation): “Talk about the symbolism of all this happening here in San Diego, with our proximity to and relationship with the Xolos of Club Tijuana, and even Mighty 1090’s relationship with Baja California, and the power, literally and figuratively, of the station’s signal, 50 thousand watts that very much represent the same Sin Fronteras mindset that Club Tijuana calls their own.”

Darren Smith: “First off, we are in the perfect place to be spearheading all of this. There is not only an ever-growing Anglo-American soccer market, but an ever-growing market of Mexican-Americans who don’t want their soccer coverage 100% in Spanish. There is a huge community of people who follow Liga MX for instance, who want coverage of the league and of course the Xolos in English.

The Mexican-American millennial has become one of the most engaged and important demographics in this country, and if we of all people in our craft here in San Diego don’t realize that, then we are f***ing idiots and we deserve to shut down. I want the likes of Paul Arriola and Joe Corona from Xolos, and people like Shannon MacMillan, Landon Donovan, Eric Wynalda, and so many others on our shows because those people need to be on our shows.

And as far as the Xolos go, they are plain and simple a part of our sports community here in San Diego. It’s beyond just talking soccer with them. They are a local team. They are a local radio topic that must be talked about.

You and I, Nate, have spoken all about just how cool it is to have our station in two countries, and what that represents in these days and times with everything that’s going on politically. I meet people at Xolos games, Tijuana based journalists, who are surprised to see me actually at the games. They’ll say something like ‘wow, we thought you were just saying you would come down here because you’ve got a Mexican radio signal’. I tell them every time that I’m there because Xolos are a part of my community, and the best thing soccer fans in San Diego have, for now.”

Nate Abaurrea (SoccerNation): “I have to ask you lastly about your recent Twitter exchanges with Union Tribune Sports Columnist Nick Canepa. In your view, how should a soccer fan combat an individual like Canepa, and at a certain point, do you just give up the conversion effort and consider that individual a lost cause?”

Darren Smith: “You know, we’ve spoken all about how young soccer fans in this country aren’t really in touch with American sports talk radio hosts. Well, I can tell you that they’re probably even further out of touch with old, white, grumpy, newspaper columnists.

Nick’s had a great career and has offered a great service to the sports fans of San Diego for decades, but I really think his attitude toward soccer during this MLS to SD period has shown that his time in the limelight should be nearing its end.

At a certain point with an individual like that, whether it’s a Canepa, a Francesca, or whatever, you do have to realize that they just don’t care, and that they probably never will. You’ve got to pick your battles.

People like Canepa and Francesca are culturally against soccer. People like that are growing smaller and smaller in numbers. Meanwhile, there are millions of people in this country who might not be the most educated or most passionate when it comes to the game of soccer, but they possess open minds and a willingness to evolve. My fellow show host at 1090, Scott Kaplan, is one of those people. He’s willing to learn. Encourage people like Scott to keep learning and continue embracing the sport.

Those are the people we need to convert. And we need to be patient with those people, those millions of people who are legitimately trying to embrace the game of soccer despite growing up without it being a prominent part of their lives. The dedicated lifelong soccer fan in America can do the game he or she loves a great service by helping to educate people, not by mocking them because they didn’t say a certain terminology correctly. Compared to so many people here in San Diego, I myself am relatively new to the game. But I love it sincerely, and I want to see it thrive. I know it’s gonna be a major part of my life for years and years to come.

Let’s all be open minded as individuals. That’s just as important for the dedicated soccer fan as it is for the talk radio programmer and traditional sports fan. We need to be accepting of one another, and we can all do our part in advancing the game of soccer, the craft of radio, and our status as a soccer community here in San Diego and Tijuana, and our status as a true soccer nation here in the United States. Share your passion for the beautiful game. You will help in bringing people together.”