Methven on The Sportsman's failure

Former editor-in-chief of The Sportsman Charlie Methven has told Press Gazette of his sadness that the paper has gone out of business just days after breaking even for the first time.

And he said he believes it would "definitely" have had a long-term profitable future if the millionaire businessmen behind it had been willing to give it more time.

This week, some 60 journalists and 20 other staff are out of work after the paper's main backers decided to pull the plug. They will get their wages up until Friday, but will receive no other pay-off from the company.

The Sportsman was launched six months ago as Britain's first new national daily newspaper in 20 years, and aimed to cover all sports gambling.

Three months ago it went into administration. But despite cutbacks, including the axing of the Sunday edition — and a relaunch with more emphasis on horse racing — the administrators said they had failed on Friday to attract enough new investment.

The paper had an initial target break-even sales figure of 40,000, but the last official ABC, for May, was 16,315 — of which 12,762 were paid-for.

The Sportsman was the brainchild of former Daily Telegraph diary editor Charlie Methven, who was joined by chairman Jeremy Deedes, a former chief executive of the Telegraph Group. Managing director Max Aitken left two months after launch.

Methven said of the paper's losses: "To put this into context, they invested £11 million in this business, Sheikh Mohammed invested £43 million in the Racing Post before it became profitable, Eddy Shah spent £30 million on Today and it still wasn't profitable — and those figures were 20 years ago. That £11 million was spent over the past 15 months.

"It's a very ironic situation — I don't know of any newspaper that has folded while increasing its profitability. The administrator himself thinks it is rather odd. Last Saturday we produced the first paper which turned a profit. It sold 21,000, which is what our break-even figure is now."

When asked whether the paper would have stayed in the black, given more time, Methven said: "Absolutely definitely, this was a newspaper which within seven months of launching was already reaching break-even — albeit on one day in the week. It could and should have worked."

Methven's parents and Jeremy Deedes were shareholders. Ben and Zac Goldsmith were also major investors. But the balance of financial power was held by the trio of Ben Arbib (son of City financier Martyn Arbib), Dermot Desmond (billionaire owner of London City Airport) and property tycoon Martin Myers of Mountgrange Capital.

Methven said: "If Jeremy and I could have done anything differently, I wish we had built ourselves in more leeway in the business plan. Our initial plan was predicated on everything going perfectly.

"We hadn't planned on things taking a little longer to get right, with distribution being an absolutely key one. Distributing a national newspaper when you are not part of a major group is very difficult."

He said that former Mirror group circulation boss Robin Holt, brought in three months ago as managing director, had "really got a grip on that process — we were starting to really reap those benefits over the last few months".

Methven added that in each of the last six weeks, circulation had gone up by 5 per cent.

"A year ago there was nothing, and last Saturday 21,000 people paid £1.20 for this newspaper. Some of them came from the Racing Post, but not all of them, not even more than half of them.

"If we were launched as part of a national newspaper group, the stage at which we have got to would have been seen as a success. We ran out of money just as the whole thing was starting to gather pace."

Holt still believes there is room in the market for a competitor to the Racing Post — which last year made £18 million profit for parent company Trinity Mirror.

He said: "Newspapers are very expensive animals to train and take to maturity; it needed £4 or £5 million put in to make it work. I still feel that any market with just one player is not going to be a healthy one.

"There is an opportunity for another newspaper of this kind to come in and be successful. But it's a long haul and it could take two, three, four or even five years."

Deedes paid tribute to the staff, saying they had put in "a Herculean effort over the past weeks, in very difficult circumstances. Producing a daily newspaper places enough demands, to do it enthusiastically every night, while the future is in doubt, shows a dedication way beyond the realms of duty. I can only say thank you".

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