Why sports papers have never made the crowds go wild

Soccer-mad Britain has failed to be won over by a national sports newspaper.

Chris Mann considers the arguments.

Confession time. When I was offered the editorship of Sport First
back in 1999 I had heard of the paper but had never actually seen a
single copy, never mind read one. It was then already more than a year old.

The disappointing thing almost six years on is that most people still haven’t glimpsed a copy.

For
those of you in the dark, Sport First styled itself as “The National
Sports Newspaper” and attempted to be Britain’s answer to L’Equipe, La
Gazzetta dello Sport, Bola and the daily sports papers in Europe that
are widely read and hugely profitable.

At one time Sport First was being published twice a week, on Sundays and Fridays, with an ABC of 100,000.

What’s
remarkable is the paper is financially supported by just one man, Keith
Young, a 68-year-old Evertonmad millionaire entrepreneur. He must rue
the day he met the team of journalists punting the idea of S port First
to him because it has cost him upwards of £6.5m, but I know that he is
close to giving up on his expensive dream.

Others have been close
to joining the fray. In the late 90s the Mirror Group, under Kelvin
Mackenzie, dusted off the Sporting Life title and were close to a
launch before baulking at the cost. Mackenzie’s TalkSport later had
talks about buying Sport First and relaunching it. There were plans
pre- Desmond to turn the Express into an all-sport paper and there was
a similar plan for The People.

On a smaller scale, my predecessor
at Sport First, David Emery, has carved out a tremendous niche with the
Non- League Paper, which itself is now two days a week. British
Football Weekly , originally a product for Australasia and the Far
East, now shifts upwards of 15,000 copies a week here in the UK.

So
there’s an even smaller slice of the pie available and a year ago Sport
First, in an effort to move to stronger ground, was re-branded as
Football First. But it has now become just a PA-produced skeleton of
what it once was. Which is why, at a cover price of £1.20, it is
selling fewer than 25,000.

So why hasn’t it worked and is there really no room for a national sports newspaper in the UK?

There
was no shortage of good and knowledgeable writers – regular columnists
have included Jack Charlton, Alan Brazil, Mike Parry, Chris Kamara,
Tony Cottee, Tom Watts, Henry Kelly, Richard Keys, David Pleat and the
late Kenneth Wolstenholme. The paper, at up to 64 pages, also offered
more in-depth coverage than anywhere else.

But the problem was that the paper was not given a sporting chance of survival.

The
marketing spend for the past four years has been absolutely zero and
the print run has oscillated wildly from 350,000 to the current 70,000.

However,
the biggest obstacle is that the existing newspapers in the UK already
give sport, and soccer in particular, massive coverage compared to
their continental cousins. As I write, I have the Telegraph sports
section (eight broadsheet pages) and the Daily Mail (16 tabloid pages)
giving me pretty much everything I need to know about every major
sport. But today in France the edition of Le Figaro doesn’t even
attempt to go where the Telegraph goes, and offers just one page of
sports coverage.

Which is why L’Equipe, at just 50p for 18 packed pages of excellent coverage is a must-buy for any sports fan.

Similarly,
in Italy, the national heavyweight broadsheet daily Corriere della Sera
has just one and a half pages of sport, whereas the pink-shaded La
Gazzetta dello Sport runs to 24 pages for about 55p. Like both of
those, Record in Portugal is a serious player. With 120 staff and just
about more correspondents covering Benfica than the club has players in
its squad (yes, there is actually a “goalkeeper correspondent”).

Record
started out as a one-day-a-week sports paper 20 years ago, but now
publishes every day and is the country’s biggest seller. It’s a
remarkable success story but one based on a premise of giving the
reader what he wants.

That picture is replicated elsewhere in
Portugal and across Spain as newspapers, devoted to specific clubs, are
devoured by fans, partly because many of these clubs don’t have match
programmes for domestic games.

Could it work here? On a regional
and local basis it already is, especially on Sundays. But nationally
there’s just the Racing Post flying the flag with any credibility.
That’s more to do with betting than live action, but the result is a
healthy circulation on certain days and tremendous profits overall.

But the Post didn’t get there overnight. It’s a solid brand that is tried and trusted.

The
problem for any new product would be the initial investment required to
get it to that kind of position, unless it were a very low cost
offshoot of an existing production, like a Standard Sports-Lite or
aMetro-Sports.

But then, the argument goes, surely you need to
offer something a bit more upmarket, and specialised, than that to
attract real sports-fans?

It’s a conundrum that has occupied the
minds of the major execs on our newspaper groups for a long time and I
can assure you, still does. But with soccer’s stock rising and
newspaper sales falling, it might just be a match made in heaven.

Chris
Mann was editorial director of Sport First until December 2004 and is
now director of business development at Pete Richardson Communications.

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