Stateside soccer is popular enough that Major League Soccer is on pace to overtake the NHL as America's fourth biggest league. The game is big enough that Fox paid $425 million for the rights to 2018 and 2022 World Cup coverage.
But is there enough demand for a new soccer magazine in an era when print magazines are flopping harder than Didier Drogba after a phantom tackle?
"If you look at how much the US soccer market has changed, it gives us a reason to be optimistic."
Gelf Magazine interviewed Kirby by phone to discuss his goals for the magazine, how he fell in love with the game, and his estimate of how many people read his Kate Upton article for his words. The following interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Gelf Magazine: Where did the idea for Howler come from?
Mark Kirby: It started as a conversation between George Quraishi and me. We're both magazine veterans who worked for various publications over the years and we're both big soccer fans. We actually never worked together, but we played together on the same men's league team and we wanted to have an outlet for how much we loved the sport.
We felt that more and more people were getting into the game and we saw it really taking off in the US. There's a healthy and vibrant online community for the game and we thought it would be cool if there was a print magazine for it, as well. Not long after we started talking about the magazine, we met Robert Priest and Grace Lee, our art directors, who had also been thinking along the same lines about creating a soccer publication, and Howler was born.
Gelf Magazine: What's your realistic goal for Howler and what's your unrealistic pipe dream?
Mark Kirby: Well, the four of us (me, George, Robert and Grace) all joke that our goal is for us to be able to go the next World Cup "on business."
No one's expecting to make a profit off Howler, but if we can get a sustainable business where we can make enough money with subscriptions and a little bit of advertising, then we'll be very happy.
I guess the pipe dream is that the magazine gets big enough that we can do it full time and have a real staff. Right now we all have other jobs; this is just a passion project.
Gelf Magazine: Striker was an American soccer magazine that lasted for a few issues in the mid-2000s before it folded. I spoke with their former editor-in-chief, Lang Whitaker, and he said that Striker couldn't overcome the obstacle of advertisers not wanting to buy space in a US soccer magazine. What will be the biggest challenge for Howler and what's your business model?
Mark Kirby: We're only going to publish quarterly, with a subscription cost of $50 per yeara lot more than most magazinesso we're hoping to make more money on subscriptions than would be the plan in most traditional magazines' business models. We're also keeping our costs low. There's very little overhead. All of the money from our Kickstarter and what comes in goes to the writers and photographers who are contributing to the magazine and to the actual printing.
Plus, if you just look at how much the US soccer market has changed since the mid-2000s, it gives us a reason to be optimistic. The MLS now gets big-name sponsors, ESPN threw a ton of money into the World Cup, and Fox Soccer Channel's ratings have increased.
Mark Kirby: I think soccer has already "made it" in the US. The magazine is not going to be especially concerned with whether or not soccer is a mainstream sport or whether it has "made it" in that sense. The game is already huge if you go to places like Portland, Seattle, or Brooklyn.
I was blown away when I first discovered Woodwork in my neighborhood of Prospect Heights. It's just a soccer bar, but there are loyal fans there every night watching games, and the bar draws a great crowd on weekend mornings for European games. Just to see a bar open solely for soccer gave me a lot of hope.
It also shows just how much foreign soccer has caught on in the States over the past five years. In the past you had to have a premium cable package to get soccer games, or you had to watch them online. Now FSC is included in most cable packages, making it easier to watch for the average American to watch. When the European clubs look for where they're going to make the most money on a summer tour, they often come to the US.
Gelf Magazine: How did you get into the game?
Mark Kirby: I grew up in York, Pennsylvania, and I played youth soccer as a child. I was a goalie because I had exercise-induced asthma, which might also have been a result of being a fat kid who played too many video games.
George is a lot more deep-rooted in the game. His dad was a pro soccer player in the '70s. Needless to say, George has much more soccer pedigree than me. That's part of what's fun about the magazine: We have a nice mix of my outsider view and the view of George, who's always been knee-deep in the game.
I rediscovered my love for soccer after the 2006 World Cup, when I basically wasted the next six months of my life obsessively watching FSC every weekend. At first I was a fan of Chelsea, since it had signed every great player from the '06 Cup. But I had a friend who was a diehard Arsenal supporter, who pressured me into becoming an Arsenal fan and ridiculed me for even entertaining the notion of supporting Chelsea. Unfortunately for me, as soon as I started liking Arsenal, they stopped winning trophies.
Gelf Magazine: Do you call it soccer or football? Why?
Mark Kirby: I call it soccer. The soccer vs. football discussion happened early on at Howler. We felt that often with US soccer fans, there's a little shyness in their affection for the game because it's an outlying sport. We wanted a direct approach to the game. It's something we love, and except for one of us we all grew up calling it soccer, so we decided upon using soccer.
Gelf Magazine: What do you think of the Olympic soccer tournament?
Mark Kirby: Serious soccer aficionados would say the tournament of the summer was the Euro, not the Olympics. It's a kind of like watching the under-23 national teams compete. But it's also a great way to tide fans over until the start of the Premier League in a few weeks. And I'm just happy whenever there's soccer on TV.
Gelf Magazine: As an Arsenal fan, how did you react to the departure of Robin van Persie?
Mark Kirby: I don't feel personally offended or betrayed by him. If you're an Arsenal fan in the era of mega-money club teams, it's part of fandom to watch great talent develop and then go elsewhere. His public statements weren't the classiest way to go, but I saw his leaving coming a long ways away.
Gelf Magazine: You wrote the cover story for GQ's July issue. Can you give me what you think is the ratio of the number of people who saw the photos from your Kate Upton article to the number of people who read the accompanying text?
Mark Kirby: Probably 500:1. If you include people who saw the pictures on the internet, then it's a lot more, probably closer to 1,000,000:1.
Gelf Magazine: Have you contemplated putting Kate Upton on every Howler cover?
Mark Kirby: If we could get her, we'd love it. I'm not sure we have the clout to book her just yet. If we could, that would be my answer to your business-model question.