'The Sportsman', Britain's first national daily for 20 years, launches next week. Can it win?
Sunday 19 March 2006
Ever since Queen Elizabeth I fell in love with gambling for big stakes, the pastime has been a favourite way of the well-heeled and well-born to redistribute a little of their wealth. But few of them have ever wagered quite as much as the team now preparing to launch Britain's first new daily national newspaper for 20 years.
If you saw Sky Sports News last week or watched a Premiership football match, you probably noticed the name "The Sportsman" on pitchside placards and in advertising breaks. The brainchild of former Telegraph Group chief executive Jeremy Deedes, entrepreneur Max Aitken and Old Etonian former Daily Telegraph journalist Charlie Methven, it aims to reach profitability within a year. The expert consensus is that it will succeed.
Thirty years ago, men poured out of football grounds hungry for titles known as "the pink 'un" or "the green 'un" - local newspaper sporting supplements rushed out to capture the drama of Saturday afternoons. Now only a handful survive.
France has L'Equipe, Italy Corriere dello Sport and La Gazzetta dello Sport. Spain boasts Marca and AS. But in this country, it is 10 years since anyone tried to launch a standalone sports title. Then, Alan Ruddock was the development editor for an attempted revival of Sporting Life. "In 1996, the research pointed to a potential readership of about 200,000. We got within a month of launch before the board bottled out. But the dailies fought back. French, Spanish and Italian dailies contain such limited sports coverage that people need separate sports papers. In the UK, the need was less clear."
Mr Ruddock believes the market has changed. "The team behind The Sportsman knows what it's doing. The product will be much more limited, aimed at sports betting not sport in general."
Fleet Street's Mr Deedes, the chairman of The Sportsman, confirms this is the key to success. "This is unashamedly a betting paper. Racing and greyhounds used to dominate betting and people went to bookies to place their bets. Now they bet in a huge number of ways - online, via betting exchanges and at conventional bookmakers," he says.
"Until recently, sport on television only happened once a week. Now you have a massive diet of television sport and every sport has its betting followers. For many of them, watching sport without betting is like having a drink without a cigarette."
UK gambling revenues grew from £7bn a year in 2001 to £44bn last year. Legislative changes have helped, by removing the tax on gamblers' winnings and permitting the creation of "super casinos". The biggest result has been an explosion in online betting. Earlier this year, £10m was gambled by Britons in 12 hours on a single one-day cricket international between South Africa and Australia. Analysts expect the sums generated by this summer's World Cup to dwarf that.
"There is a huge gap in the market for a paper of this kind," says Professor Leighton Vaughan Williams, the director of betting research at Nottingham Business School. "Sports betting has expanded sixfold in five years." Some estimates anticipate a domestic gambling market worth £50bn by the end of this year.
Mr Methven, the paper's publishing editor, detects a hunger for information: "Our team can deliver a service that has never been on offer before."
Mr Deedes adds: "These people want to be informed betters, not lottery betters. They need the analysis to make that possible."
Investors, including Ben and Zac Goldsmith and City tycoon Michael Spencer, the head of Icap, a listed moneybroker, have committed their own money to the launch budget of £11.5m. Like Mr Deedes, Mr Aitken, great-grandson of former Express owner Lord Beaverbrook, has committed time as well as money. He is The Sportsman's managing director.
Professor Vaughan Williams thinks they will see a profit. "Legislative changes have cut margins and increased opportunities. Ten years ago, it was almost impossible to win at betting. Now it is actually possible to make a profit. The Sportsman has the potential to be the equivalent of a specialist investment journal."
That means previewing matches and races rather than reporting on them. Mr Deedes says: "A lot of what the existing papers do consists of reports of last night's action. We will guide people through what they need to know to place informed bets." He believes that this will make The Sportsman immune to retaliation from conventional papers "They simply don't have the space to do what we will do."
But the market is not devoid of competition. For dedicated gamblers, there is Inside Edge, a magazine that offers tips on everything from poker to tennis. The established player is Trinity Mirror's Racing Post, which earns £18m on turnover of £49m and sells 80,000 copies per day. That is a lucrative monopoly. Alan Ruddock says: "Racing Post has expanded its coverage in anticipation. It is doing much more than just horseracing."
"Inevitably, people will see Racing Post as our nearest rival," says Mr Aitken. "But in reality it is a publication that is aimed at the racing industry rather than the wider sporting public."
In fact, Racing Post now has a section dedicated to betting on sports including cricket and American Football. "I hope for their sake there is room for two papers," says Racing Post editor Chris Smith. "There is a new breed of punter who is not interested in racing - but do they want to buy a paper to bet on football? They will have tough competition from national newspapers, which cover football in a huge amount of detail. It is a gamble and it will take two to three months to see how successful they are going to be."
A crucial element is the new title's determination to give equal weight to its printed and online versions. Every journalist among the full-time staff of 120 employed at The Sportsman's Thameside headquarters in Hammersmith is contracted to contribute to both. Mr Deedes says: "We believe gamblers will want to buy the paper in the morning and then get updates online throughout the day. We will give changes in going conditions at race courses and injuries to footballers. We want to create a 24- hour cycle of handing readers on to the website and vice-versa."
Achieving that, says Professor Vaughan Williams, will mean being totally accurate 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The initial evidence is that The Sportsman is in the process of learning how demanding that is. Mr Methven had hoped to launch in time for last week's Cheltenham Festival. The decision was taken that The Sportsman was not quite ready. But it will be on news-stands in time for the Grand National and established before June's World Cup, which Mr Methven describes as "the biggest gambling event in history".
Mr Deedes is candid about the scale of The Sportsman's own gamble. "To be profitable, we have to have a circulation of 45,000 and above. Our advertisers are the betting platforms - bookies, online sites and betting exchanges. Our contracts with them are all based on reaching that circulation." It will appear in tabloid form with up to 128 pages and an initial print run of more than 50,000 copies.
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JEREMY DEEDES, CHAIRMAN
Former chief executive of the Telegraph Group, the London Evening Standard and Today. Last in the headlines when he was tempted out of retirement to oversee the sale of the Telegraph to the Barclay brothers. The Deedes family does not relish inactivity; His father, William, is still reporting at 92. Jeremy, 62, believes he provides the "grey hair and experience" to make The Sportsman work.
MAX AITKEN, MANAGING DIRECTOR
Maxwell William Humphrey Aitken, great grandson of the legendary 1st Baron Beaverbrook, who was owner of the Express during its pre-Second World War heyday. Educated at Cambridge, he is a former treasurer of the Conservative Party and the European Democratic Union. He says: "Prior to launch, we have had incredible support from advertisers and commercial partners, which bodes very well."
CHARLIE METHVEN, PUBLISHING EDITOR
Youthful, charming Old Etonian. Former Daily Telegraph "Peterborough" columnist and father of the paper's NUJ Chapel. After reading theology and philosophy at Oxford, he worked as a racing reporter on Sporting Life. "My priest friends knew I'd end up doing no good." Admits he has no experience of running a large company but The Sportsman was his idea. Wife Charlotte is a member of the Pearson publishing family.
BEN AND ZAC GOLDSMITH, INVESTORS
Sons of the late billionaire Sir James Goldsmith and friends of Mr Methven. Came on board in the summer of 2005 as The Sportsman's first investors. They have no managerial role in the project but are reported to have called Mr Methven to ask whether he would like their sister Jemima's ex-husband, the former Pakistan international cricketer Imran Khan, to write for the paper.
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