Media: Life's hard in a two-horse race

For 10 years, the Sporting Life and Racing Post have been neck- and-neck competitors. And few would dare to bet on the final result. Ian Davies reports
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The Independent Online
The rolling downs of Epsom provided the backdrop last Saturday to the struggle for supremacy among horse racing's top thoroughbreds. At the same time, a battle equally as intense was being fought for the hearts and minds of the racing fraternity by the two publications whose pages adorn the walls of the nation's betting shops - the Sporting Life and the Racing Post.

It took only a few minutes for Shaamit to claim victory in the Epsom Derby; but the contest between the sport's two daily newspapers has run and run for 10 years, and the Sporting Life's reshuffle of its format last week signalled the latest move to attract this niche readership. It would take a brave man to bet on the eventual outcome of this race but, thus far, the winners have been the readers, who have a choice of two papers in an environment where only one can be economically justified.

This point was starkly illustrated in July 1983 when Sporting Life's old rival, the Sporting Chronicle, disappeared. This gave the Life, whose circulation was 65,764 when the Chronicle fell, a monopoly. The Life reaped the benefits, its sales rising to 80,239 in January-June 1985, but it was blighted by union problems, its future was clouded by doubt, and there was a real possibility that racing might have no trade paper.

Enter Sheikh Mohammed, of the phenomenally wealthy Maktoum family that rules oil-rich Dubai. The Sheikh developed an interest in horse racing in the Seventies and is now the most successful owner on the planet. In 1985, his money created the tabloid Racing Post. It was a big bet.

The Post, under its founding editor Graham Rock - an ex-Chronicle man - was launched in April 1986 at the price of 25p. The Life, at that point, retailed at 40p and, even then, hardly made a large contribution to the coffers of its owner, Robert Maxwell, at that price.

The newcomer, by poaching several high- profile writers employed by the Life, gave notice of its intention to make it a bloody fight. The defections prompted a volley of solicitors' letters and Maxwell himself urged in vain the journalists to stay. The Life's cover price was slashed to 25p and Maxwell promised his staff that "the Maktoums will find competing with me as much fun as chewing frozen concrete".

The tabloid format of the Post proved something of a commercial mistake. The betting shops, which are the biggest single customers providing thousands of guaranteed sales each day, preferred the broadsheet Life, which gave all the necessary form details on one page. (Prior to the Chronicle's closure, betting shops took the Chronicle and the Life. On the Chronicle's demise, sales of the Life shot up by 7,000 immediately.)

Had the Post been a broadsheet it may well have performed significantly better than its initial 1986 circulation of 38,091. At that point, the Life was selling 75,462.

Other mistakes left the Post trailing. The design of the new paper's racecards and form was far too radical a departure from the traditional format for the racing industry's conservatively-minded readership. And the Post's editorial pages lacked the gravitas to poach the Life's established readership. Indeed, fuelled by its price cut, the Life, rather than losing readers, gained them. In 1987, while the Post limped forwards to 38,583, the Life moved from 75,462 to 85,503.

Had the Post, at the time losing serious amounts of money, been backed by anyone with lesser resources than Sheikh Mohammed, it would surely have closed. But the Sheikh's resolve was seemingly stiffened by criticism he suffered in the Life, which proclaimed itself the only "independent voice of racing".

His faith was rewarded and in 1988, the Post made headway. Under its new editor, Michael Harris (who is now chief executive), its layouts became more modular and less brash. Suddenly it looked more like a quality tabloid, and the Post's form and racecards section were also given an effective redesign. In 1989, while the Life's sales slipped to 86,861, the Post's rose to 46,014. As as we moved into the Nineties, the Post weathered the recession, which has seen the titles' combined circulations fall from 133,409 in 1988 to 117,413. Between 1990 and the latest November 1995 to April 1996 figures, while the Life has declined from 78,722 to 68,707, the Post's circulation has risen to 48,706, giving it a 41.5 per cent market share.

With the bookmaking industry in decline because of competition with the National Lottery, the Life's stranglehold in the betting shops has become less important. The casualty will provide little comfort in the Life's offices in Canary Wharf: 600 betting shops have closed in the past 18 months. That accounts for a minimum of 1,200 Life sales lost. Moreover, while the Life, part of the Mirror Group (a major shareholder in the Independent), is driven by an imperative to turn a profit, the Post's financial position is unclear.

The Post is rumoured to have racked up losses of pounds 40m since its launch but it is said that the annual losses on the paper are offset by the profit from a single hour's oil production in the Gulf. While the Post continues to run at a loss as a rich man's plaything, the nervousness at its offices in Raynes Park, south-west London, will not be dispelled. Should the sheikh fall out of love with British racing (unthinkable at the moment, but anything is possible), the Post would lose its one and only benefactor.

The Post's chief executive, Michael Harris, does not dispel the notion the Post's destiny remains at the mercy of its owner's whim. Harris claims the Post's "commercial performance has improved significantly over the past two years", but won't put a figure on it, leaving the impression that the Post is adding to its huge losses at a slightly lower rate.

However, he insists that the Post sets itself "a strict pagination budget to which it adheres". Harris also says the Life has the higher pagination. The current Post editor, Alan Byrne, also disputes the fact that, given the proprietorial wealth, his paper holds the financial aces. "The Life has economies of scale," he said. "It shares its overheads. We have to cover our costs alone."

The Life's editor, Tom Clarke, maintains that his newspaper remains the long odds-on favourite. Clarke says: "The Post have gained market share, but then they are the newer product. In the last year, we have stopped their progress and are still the dominant force."

Prior to what Clarke describes as its "reader-friendly reshuffle" last week, the Life had been designed primarily with the betting shops in mind; the race cards and form would flow across the same sheet of newsprint leapfrogging through the paper. In its new format, racecards and form are on sequential pages. For the readers, things are certainly easier to find. But with racecards and form now backing on to each other, betting shops now need two copies of the Life to fulfil the function that one could have provided until a week ago. The move may backfire.

Both papers now sell for 85p. That may seem to be a lot of money for a newspaper, but then the Life and the Post are not ordinary newspapers, but deserve to be regarded as highly specialised data-packed trade journals. Compare their prices with racing's other data provider, the Timeform organisation, which charges pounds 5.50 for a racecard, which contains a fraction of the information available in either paper.

The demand for such specialist products is relatively impervious to price change; if the Post and the Life doubled their prices to pounds 1.70 their circulations would almost certainly not halve. And their trading positions would improve. In a highly competitive market, annual price increases at more than the rate of inflation would seem to be the only strategy if British horse racing is to be serviced by two daily newspapers.


1859: The Sporting Life founded. Early editors include William Hill, Lints Smith and Morley Brown. In its prime, it would enjoy a readership of close to 200,000.

1883: The Life becomes a daily newspaper.

1985: The Life loses around pounds 3m. Distribution problems mean that on occasions only emergency editions are available, and its most famous reader, the Queen, dispatches couriers from Balmoral to fetch copies from the paper's offices.

1986: Racing Post founded by Sheikh Mohammed al-Maktoum, with Graham Rock as editor. Circulation for the last six months of 1986 is a respectable 38,091, compared with 79,291 for the Life. But Robert Maxwell, new owner of the Life, warns: "There's no room for two such publications. The Life has been tops for 126 years and I am prepared to spend whatever is required to keep it there."

1988: Michael Harris is appointed editor of the Post.

1994: The Post's circulation reaches 44,144, against the Life's 69,631. Michael Harris becomes its chief executive, and the editorship goes to Alan Byrne.

1996: The Post celebrates its 10th anniversary with a special edition of the newspaper. May's circulation is 52,221, giving it a market share of 42.8 per cent - the highest in its history. For the first time, its readership (as opposed to circulation) is greater than that of the Life.