Media: Football season kick-starts sales

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SOMETIMES IT is hard to know if the money spent by the tabloid press on marketing is really worth it. Every September when the schools go back and holdays are over it is as if a starting pistol goes off. Television advertising money is spent, new magazine supplements are launched, give- aways are given away. And then all the marketing activity stops in October and circulations fall away again.

Or so the marketing behemoths of the tabloid market, The Sun, Daily Mail and The Mirror, all found to their cost last month.

They all showed a month-on-month drop in sales because they eased up a little on the marketing pedal. The Mirror fell to its lowest sale since June - down nearly two per cent to 2,307,901 last month, compared to 2,353,905 in September. The Mail fell from 2,398,073 to 2,378,428 and The Sun lost nearly 65,000 copies a day, taking it down to 3,608,880.

But while the September-October fall in sales is traditional, sales generally have not been so predictable this year as in the past. Neither The Mirror nor the Mail went through a traditional summer downturn and so September was not the lift it normally is.

In July and August The Mirror sold 2.37 million and 2.53 million respectively, and football seems be to thank for it. It was then that the paper doggedly stuck to its campaign for Manchester United to re-enter the FA Cup and, to the surprise of many, managed to put on sales. Proof that Manchester is not necessarily the place where you find United fans, the sales went up all over the country.

The Mail had an equally good summer, so that April and May have actually been the paper's worst months this year. June, July and August were remarkably strong for the Mail, despite speculation earlier in the year that its three years of fairly non-stop growth since the demise of Today could have peaked.

The Mail has been publishing in Spain and Florida for the past two summers and its management believes that its readers on holiday are beginning to get used to the idea that their favourite titles are available near the beach. One manager at Associated even hopes that soon only the football season will affect summer sales. Improvements in technology and distribution will mean that soon everyone can get their paper wherever they want it. Which ignores the fact that people need holidays from news too.

The broadsheet market showed more resilience between September and October, with The Independent and Financial Times in particular showing month-on- month growth of more than 3.5 per cent each.

This contributed to The Independent's ninth month of year-on-year increase and its highest market share since November 1997.

The Independent benefited from a substantial television advertising campaign linked to a price promotion. Yet The Times and The Observer both also used television advertising last month, only to see their sales figures fall compared with September.

The FT, for its part, is in fact selling only 3,000 copies a month more in the UK than it was a year ago because most of its growth has come from overseas sales increases.

The Sunday market rose by less in September and so few titles fell at all in October. The tabloids stood remarkably still, which for some titles is a blessing. The Sunday Express has been averaging a five per cent sales decline over the last six months, so growing by 0.2 per cent last month must have brought some relief at Blackfriars, headquarters of the group.

But the niche part of the Sunday market is where the real celebrations will be held. Sunday Business continues to grow strongly, with sales up 2.5 per cent in October, taking it to above 60,000 copies a month.

But it is Sport First which proves just how close is the connection between football and newspapers. The weekly sport newspaper struggles with inadequate distribution and few resources for promoting itself, yet has shown just what a good idea a dedicated sports title is.

It has just broken the 100,000 sales barrier with a whopping 10 per cent month-on-month sales increase. The only question must be how long the paper will remain independent of bigger media groups, or finds itself with some dedicated sports-only competition.