The Sportsman: now that's what I call a really big bet

It's tough out there in national newspaper land: just look at this month's official circulation figures. So why would three media toffs risk their money and their reputations on a new daily sports paper?

You would have to be a gambling man to consider launching a new daily newspaper in times like these. As we see again today with the publication of the latest circulation figures, it is hard to maintain sales, let alone increase them, so why would anyone join battle now? They would surely have to have a mindset that embraced large binoculars and checked sports jackets, or find contentment gazing at the green baize.

As it happens they do. Most of the names associated with the proposed launch of The Sportsman are ... well, sportsmen. They are familiar with betting terminology; they know their accumulators from their trebles, their each-ways from their Yankees. They are toffs or nearly-toffs, with famous antecedents, moneyed, been to Annabel's, played a bit of poker. They are the Deedes, Aitken or Goldsmith of their generation. Jeremy Deedes, former chief executive at the Telegraph, is non-executive chairman. They'll enjoy a flutter, or a bit more, off duty, but they would not risk their fortunes. So why The Sportsman?

Here we must enter a world that is increasingly populous, yet a mystery to those of us who have never penetrated it - the world of the online punter. We read of online poker companies being floated to produce mind-boggling market valuations. We examine websites such as SportingOdds.com, SportingLife.com and SportingIndex.com and we suddenly realise you can bet on any sport online, not to mention poker and blackjack.

Is this sad? I think so. The idea of the lone poker player in front of his screen trying to read the inscrutable face of the opponent he cannot see is tragic. But no more so than the lone gambler on the horses, dogs or goals. Suddenly, and those of us not involved in online gambling communities (an oxymoron if ever there was one) have remained unaware of this, it is big business. Where there's business there's potential advertising, and where there's potential advertising there's room for papers. That is the logic of The Sportsman.

Not that this is a vacant market. Trinity Mirror owns the well established Racing Post, selling about 84,000 copies a day. It made a reputed £18m last year. It is seriously profitable, and the gambling boom has aided that. The Sportsman, the brainchild of Charlie Methven, a former Daily Telegraph journalist, will be trying to share in these profits of sin.

As long as I can remember there have been conversations, often after a drink or two, about whether the British market could sustain a daily sports paper in the style of France's L'Equipe. We are, after all, sports crazy, Olympic hosts, and we have two sports radio channels and a satellite TV broadcaster whose success is based on three channels of sport.

We have seen the success of sports magazines, mainly football magazines, such asWhen Saturday Comes and Four Four Two, and their influence on sports journalism in established national newspapers.

But there have been two main reasons why the daily sports newspaper has not become a feature of British publishing. First, the huge expansion in the number of pages in our newspapers has meant that the space given to sport has increased vastly. Separate sections such as those published by The Daily Telegraph and The Sunday Times can run to 24 pages. Not that major sporting events increase circulation discernibly, with the possible exception of World Cup and European Championship football. It's just that all the papers commit to sport, and special supplements for big events, because all their rivals do. They cannot be the odd one out.

And then there is the fact that sports pages do not attract advertising. Look at them; look at the huge areas of editorial space in which pictures and words luxuriate; but seldom an ad. Companies tend to become involved in sponsorship rather advertising. General display advertising will reach a greater audience on the news and feature pages. Sports pages are restricted still to that proportion of men who are interested.

Even today I shiver when I read that Charlie Methven "will be publisher and editor in chief once £12m have been raised". Even today I smile as I read of all the encouraging noises coming from potential investors, and wonder at the confidence of the claim that the title will break even with daily sales of 40,000. I've been there, made the presentations, dozens and dozens of them, to stony-faced potential investors whose eyes glaze as you speak enthusiastically of the editorial concept and engage when you mention the rate of return on their investment if the project flies.

My involvement was The Sunday Correspondent. We raised the £20m, published the paper for 15 months, and then, as a result of circumstances there is no space to describe here, closed. I've never regretted doing it, but I cannot help reacting as I do to the Methven- Deedes plan.

The growth is online. The poker is online. And yet The Sportsman will be a daily newspaper. The traditional betting person, and one senses that those behind The Sportsman are very traditional, has a vision of a racecourse and distaste for a betting shop. Online betting is another world. The Sportsman mentions online, but it does not seem central enough.

If you want to feel the difference between traditional betting and the new online poker world, visit the Inside Edge website. This is the online trail for the new magazine from Dennis Publishing, the firm behind Maxim. The language and mood are different.

While brave men plan to enter the daily newspaper market, this month's ABC circulation figures continue to show wide areas of decline. Comparing June of this year with June of last, all titles, daily and Sunday, have lost sale apart from The Times (up 3.4 per cent) and The Independent (up 0.2 per cent).

Otherwise downward drift, worst in the Sunday red-top market (The People down 9.1 per cent, the Daily Star Sunday down 15.9 per cent, the News of the World down 4.6 per cent, the Sunday Mirror down 2.6 per cent). In the daily market, the worst year-on-year figures come from The Guardian (down 7 per cent), the Daily Express (down 6.8 per cent) and the Daily Mirror (down 5 per cent). It could be that everybody's waiting for a new daily sports paper for gamblers. But don't bet on it.

Peter Cole is professor of journalism at the University of Sheffield

DIARY

Not taking it sitting down

An unhappy experience for Vanity Fair columnist Michael Wolff when he went to last week's opening night of Toby Young's play Who's the Daddy? (about the sexual shenanigans at The Spectator). In the interval, a fellow theatregoer spilt wine over the part of the bench where Wolff's wife was sitting. Wolff went in search of someone to clean up the mess, but returned with only some kitchen roll that was inadequate to the task in hand. "Are you going to offer to swap seats with my wife?" Wolff asked the wine spiller. "Certainly not," came the reply. "It's all wet." "Yeah, but who made it wet?" asked Wolff, somewhat staggered by this lack of good manners. And the culprit? None other than Tom Bower, husband of Evening Standard editor Veronica Wadley.

Boris and the bogus

Meanwhile the Spec's editor Boris Johnson - a central figure in Who's the Daddy? - did not grace the opening night with his presence. But he claims not to feel betrayed by Young and his co-author, Lloyd Evans, both of whom write theatre reviews for his mag. But Bozza does have one reservation. "Whatever happens, I don't want Toby Young using this as a chapter in another bogusly self-deprecating book about how everybody disapproves of him." As if the thought would ever cross Toby's mind.

Nix from Nexis

There has been another crackdown by the management of the Telegraph Group. To cut costs, staff have been given individual passwords to access the worldwide cuttings library www.nexis.com. Hacks have been warned that use of the system is being closely monitored to discourage profligacy. Since the Telegraph recently scrapped its paper cuttings library, some hacks are pretty cross about being spied on like this. Ex-Telegraph employees who took voluntary redundancy in March are particularly narked. They had become accustomed to free use of the notoriously pricey LexisNexis, which began denying them access late last week.

Lying in wait

The headline in Friday's Daily Mail - "I lied to MPs over Railtrack collapse, Byers tells court" - was no surprise. The former Transport Secretary (pictured) did indeed admit in the High Court that a claim he had previously made in evidence to a Commons committee "was not a truthful statement". But the Mail came very close to missing an opportunity to tear into a New Labour hate figure. Byers uttered the incriminating words in front of an almost empty press bench. Only the man from the Daily Telegraph and an ITN correspondent stayed while the rest of the herd moved off to another court. Could it have been the absence of journalists that inspired Byers's sudden frankness?

Piers' new peers

Now Piers Morgan has become a media owner, he is keeping some unlikely company. At The Oval last Tuesday, he joined Dutch bankers ABN Amro to watch England being stuffed by Australia in the one-day cricket international. "These guys will be backing me in my new venture," Piers said. We can hardly contain our excitement.

So that's all right then

This week's conspiracy theory corner focuses on the 16-page tribute to the London bombing victims produced by the Evening Standard last Wednesday. The lead piece, about Michelle Otto, is all of 1,500 words. Buried in them, apropos of nothing, is a comment from Ms Otto's sister in which she says: "I don't blame Blair. I don't feel angry about what he did in Iraq" - words which just happened to be used in a very large display quote. Hmmm...

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