Alan Merrick is a local hero who, like soccer, doesn’t get the respect he deserves

Our newspapers were filled with good stories last week, but a brief on the sports page caught my eye. The headline read: “Merrick named to coach Eagan boys soccer.”

Mike Shaughnessy, one of our two sports editors, found out that Alan Merrick would be succeeding longtime Eagan coach Kurt Virgin, who resigned abruptly after an investigation was launched into his handling of finances for camps he ran. On today’s front page, you can read more about Merrick and enjoy a photo of him playing with Pele, perhaps the greatest soccer player of all time.

We were going to place Mike’s story inside the paper, on the sports pages, but Managing Editor Tad Johnson and I decided to give it more prominent display after talking about what the story represents: It’s a story about a longtime Dakota County resident who made a name for himself in a sport – soccer – that is played by more Dakota County youths than any other sport.

In other words, it’s the kind of story you expect from your community newspaper.

As I’ve mentioned in this space before, I spent the middle part of my career as an editor at the Star Tribune. I argued futilely in news meetings that the newspaper should give more attention to soccer, the sport my children played, which is how I fell in love with “the world’s game.” But the metro daily measures the value of sports stories by the number of people who pay to attend games. And a lot more people pay to see the Vikings and Twins than paid to see the Minnesota Kicks, the professional team Merrick played for, or the Minnesota Strikers, the indoor team Merrick later coached, or, currently, the Minnesota Stars, the pro team that plays at the National Sports Center in Blaine.

But if editors allocated space in their papers by the number of participants in sports, soccer would get a lot more attention than it does, and we’d be reading less about the football, baseball and basketball teams and their endless demands for new taxpayer-financed facilities.

I must confess that despite my love of soccer, I spend a lot more time watching our hapless Vikings, Twins, Wolves and Wild than I do watching soccer. And I’m aware that few things can affect the Star Tribune’s circulation more than a good run by one of its big pro sports teams. Remember the Homer Hanky from the World Series years? That was a promotion that came out of the Strib’s marketing department.

Here at Sun Thisweek, we deliver newspapers free to the vast majority of the homes in Farmington, Lakeville, Apple Valley, Rosemount, Burnsville and Eagan. So we don’t have to worry about what sells newspapers. But we do spend a lot of time talking about offering papers that contain stories about local people, places and events. Alan Merrick now lives in Lakeville. For years, he lived in Apple Valley and his daughter was a star with a soccer club called Bangu that featured top players from the cities we serve.

Several months back, we met with the owners of a company called School Space Media. The company sells ads on electronic signs erected at high school sports venues. You’ve probably seen them at basketball and football games and track meets. The company decided to enter that business after doing some research that showed more people attend school sports than attend all the local pro games combined.

So the Alan Merrick story is our kind of story at Sun Thisweek. He’s a Dakota County resident who starred professionally and has coached locally in a sport boys and girls play in numbers that exceed any other participation sport. It’s true that the Kicks and Strikers failed as businesses, but the Eagan Wildcats will be on the pitch next fall providing good sport for players and good entertainment for the soccer moms and dads of Eagan.

And in July, thousands of soccer players from south of the river will spend a hot week at the National Sports Center in Blaine for the USA Cup, the largest youth soccer tournament in the country.

Now you’ve got my reasons for putting the Alan Merrick story on the front page. It’s a good story about a local man who will be coaching a team in the largest participation sport. I might not have been able to get soccer stories on the front page of the Star Tribune, but at a community newspaper, we measure the worth of stories by their effect on local communities rather than tickets sold at Target Field or the Metrodome.

Skol Vikings!

Larry Werner is editor  and general manager of Sun Thisweek and the Dakota County Tribune. He can be reached at larry.werner@ecm-inc.com. Columns reflect the opinion of the author.

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