Where sport comes first

Will readers be game for a daily paper devoted entirely to sport?
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The Independent Online
On 7 June, if all goes according to plan, Britons will be able to purchase something that consumers in Europe have long taken for granted: a newspaper devoted entirely to sport. But just how many people will find this an alluring prospect is something that is currently causing sleepless nights for the men behind Sport First, Keith Young and Bob Harris.

Young, the man who came up with the idea, has a publishing background but not one that you would associate with a sports newspaper. His company, Parliamentary Communications, produces the House Magazine, the journal of the House of Commons; he is also responsible for the Church of England's newspaper and for good measure publishes What Mobile, a buyer's guide to mobile telephones. Conscious of the lack of sporting credibility in this line-up, he has hired Harris, former sports editor of the Sunday Mirror, as editor of Sport First.

Although Harris cut his teeth on a tabloid, the new venture is to be an upmarket, 16-page broadsheet. "But it won't frighten tabloid readers," Harris hastily pointed out. "Put it this way. We're not going to be bothering with stories about footballers sleeping with models. But if any manager takes a bung, we certainly won't be ignoring that."

The obvious role models for the paper are the French L'Equipe and the Italian Gazzetta Dello Sport: Harris admits that he wants his paper to be a combination of the two. L'Equipe is colourful and full of snazzy graphics, the Gazzetta more sober in presentation but exhaustive in its football-led coverage. "We're going to have features, profiles and interviews," Harris promised. "But also new angles. If someone gets a groin injury, we won't just say so, we'll get a doctor to explain what that means." Just the thing for the breakfast table. "There will be plenty of graphics," Harris added, "but above all what we want is to give a good read."

Harris acknowledges the influence of the editorial content of the French and Italian papers, and it is difficult for him to ignore the overwhelming appeal of the two established publications: their sales figures. The Gazzetta sells 1,100,000 copies a day, and twice that figure on Mondays: breathtaking numbers. Harris claims that he would be content with a tenth of that figure. "We're aiming for a realistic readership figure of 100,000 a day," he said. "Above that and we are nicely in profit, and all our market research and projections suggest that ought to be possible."

But experts are divided about the paper's prospects. Lorna Tilbian, a newspaper analyst with the stockbrokers Panmure Gordon, reckons that Sport First is likely to do well on the back of interest in Euro 96 but may then struggle. "Given the timing, they should be OK in their first quarter," she said. "But price is a sensitive issue, and that's an awful lot of readers they are after. Given the current state of the UK newspaper market, I'd say they were being very brave." Steve Newbold, publisher of the magazine Total Sport, agrees that things are going to be tough. "They have got to be realistic. Going up against established national newspapers is not an easy ride." But Newbold thinks that if the paper can develop enough "key differences", areas in which it is distinctly different from the existing dailies, it may have a chance. "Personally, I think it could work. As a man, I read newspapers from the back to the front, starting with sport. But there are already specialist sections in the Independent, the Telegraph and the Express - Mondays are going to be the key to success."

Giancarlo Galavotti, the Gazzetta Dello Sport's man in London, believes that British newspapers have let the nation's sports fans down. "The British sports public is not as parochial as the press seem to think," he said. "We know that readers of our paper are followers of sport. So they are interested not just in their team but in the overview. But in this country, if you want to know anything about, say, a top team like Liverpool, you have to read the Liverpool Daily Post - even if you live in London. So the present system in this country is not satisfactory."

Steve Pinder knows how hard it can be to challenge the present system. Pinder, now a press officer with Channel 4, was co-editor of Full Time, Britain's last sports-only newspaper, conceived as a Saturday-evening football round-up. "It lasted for seven glorious issues," he recalled. "Our problem was distribution. But I think people do want to buy this kind of paper. If Sport First get the distribution right, they could have a degree of success. I buy L'Equipe every day - it takes me an hour to read a page, but I love it."

Pinder believes that being that novelty will not be enough to sell the new newspaper. "They have got to go further than the sports pages of other newspapers," he said. "They have got to have sizeable features: 800 words on basketball on a Wednesday. And they must have good writing - sports fans are a lot more literate than most people think."

So who is going to be writing for Sport First? Harris was coy. "Most of my staff are talented youngsters," he said. "There are no real superstars. But there will be some well-known columnists whose identity might surprise a few people." So far, Harris has recruited 18 staffers; by launch day that will have risen to 30.

The exact date of the launch is supposed to be 7 June, the day before the opening matches of Euro 96. But Harris concedes that his team may be pressed to meet the deadline. "We know we have got a major job to do to be ready," he said, speaking on his mobile phone as he dashed between meetings one evening last week. "Editorially, we will definitely be able to go on 7 June, but there are one or two things on the printing side still to be tied up." The benefits of launching on the back of the largest sporting event to be held in Britain since the World Cup in 1966 are surely too great to forgo, no matter what the difficulties, but Harris, somewhat surprisingly, is not totally fixated on that date. "If we do miss out on some or all of Euro 96, we still have plenty to go on this summer: Wimbledon, the Olympics. ... The point is that we have only one chance to get it right."

But even if they do, will anyone want to read it? Sports coverage in British newspapers has been expanding relentlessly in recent years, as Sunday papers have launched separate sections devoted to it, and dailies have followed suit in their Monday editions. British readers are notoriously conservative, and may feel that their interests are sufficiently served by their current papers. There is also the question of professional credibility: will British executives want to be seen on the train reading a sport-only paper, rather than hiding behind the covers of the Independent, the Guardian, the Telegraph or the Financial Times?

Bob Harris dismisses such fears. "We don't need to threaten the sales of any established paper," he said. "We will be a second buy for people. We aren't pretending to be like any other paper." Other than in needing readers, and lots of them.

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