Media: Ahead of the field

After the first few issues, they thought it was all over. But Sport First has shown there may be a market for a sports paper.
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The Independent Culture
THE CONVENTIONAL attitude to the idea of a dedicated sport newspaper in Britain is that they are just another way for wealthy people to lose money. The turbulent birth pangs of Sport First and Sporting Life would seem to back this up.

Sport First, the newspaper dreamt up by Keith Young, the owner of Parliamentary Publications, seems to have dropped out of the media spotlight. It delayed its launch several times because City backing disappeared and it eventually limped out in March as a Sunday paper rather than the daily that was originally planned.

At Mirror Group the public loss of the first editor and delay in re-launching Sporting Life added to the feeling that the medium is doomed.

But quietly, and without anyone noticing, evidence is emerging that the sport-only newspaper might not be such a bad idea after all.

Sport is the hottest media commodity of the moment, as seen by the interest in Manchester United and Silverstone. Yet doubters have always argued that the strength of sports coverage in general newspapers in the UK makes a dedicated title redundant.

In Spain and Italy papers like the Gazzetta Dello Sport developed their readership when general newspapers had unsophisticated production technology. Early deadlines meant they could rarely carry late football results, so there was a gap for specialist titles. By the time production of the general titles had caught up, the sports papers were established. In the UK general newspapers have expanded so that a quarter of all pages are now devoted to sport. This compares with just 10 per cent of space devoted to politics, 7 per cent to crime and 5 per cent to entertainment and the arts.

The huge expansion in separate sport sections and sport-led promotions suggests there is only a small gap for a sport-only title. However, it might be that no one has understood how big the appetite for sport really is.

With little publicity and patchy distribution Sport First is now selling 70,000 copies every Sunday. This is a remarkable achievement considering the paper has a staff of 10 and has had an uneven history. The launch eventually happened in March, but without the backing it remains a Sunday and has had to struggle with a variety of printers. When the football season ended it closed down its northern distribution for the summer and concentrated on getting distribution and printing sorted out for the start of the new season. Strangely it now finds itself being printed by its potential rival - Mirror Group. A printing and distribution deal with the owners of Sporting Life means Mirror can presumably keep an extremely close eye on its rival's sales.

David Emery, the editor of Sport First and the former head of sport at The Express, is sanguine about the Mirror deal: "I think Mirror Group see it as a straight business proposition. The important thing is that we are now available across 80 per cent of England and Wales." Last week the paper posted an unaudited ABC of 67,071.

Keith Young has spent pounds 3m of his own money to get this far and is still hoping to raise extra funding to print the paper on more days, but going daily is not a priority. "We are now able to support the paper on a progressively improving basis. My investment every week goes down. The bad news comes less frequently and the good news gets better."

Young believes he needs to hit a circulation of 100,000 to 110,000 for his paper to start breaking even. Advertising will not do it alone. Young admits that the paper still needs a lot of improvement and any objective observer might wonder at its success. Design and layout of the paper are considered primitive and the choice of columnists is pedestrian, to say the least. All of which leads one to think that if such a paper can succeed, David Montgomery and Mirror Group might be on to something after all.

Yet Mirror Group's re-born Sporting Life is still a long way off. The original re-launch editor, John Mulholland, left after a new strategy of massive research was sprung on him. That research is still a long way from reaching a conclusion. Grey Advertising has been hired to test four dummies with the public. Three of the dummies are pure sport, while the fourth is heavy on what is being described as "lifestyle". The results of Grey's research will not be known until January, which leads insiders to believe that the paper will struggle to hit the streets in the spring of next year. If it misses the end of the football season chances are it will not be seen until August 1999.

Brendan Parsons, the former editor of the Sunday Mirror, has Sporting Life as one of the "special projects" he oversees and Pat Pilton, the Mirror Group's managing editor, is acting editor, looking after the 30 or so people who have taken up the jobs they were offered by John Mulholland. Others may arrive nearer launch date and Mulholland's deputy, Richard Ellis, is still on board. Mirror Group will not disclose what it is spending on Sporting Life, but it is already more than Keith Young's pounds 3m for Sport First. Given more resources and more national newspaper experience, chances are the Mirror can make a go of it. If, that is, it ever gets its paper out there.