Will Sport AM follow The Sportsman? Don't bet on it...

A year after the closure of an upstart rival to the 'Racing Post', a new title for punters is about to launch and another one could be heading for the starting gate. Tim Luckhurst asks if there will be more of a challenge to the old thoroughbred this time
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The Independent Online

A year ago, the notion that Britain might soon have two new sporting newspapers would have looked more than improbable. The Sportsman, brainchild of former Daily Telegraph diary editor Charlie Methven, had just ceased trading after incinerating £12m of investors' cash in less than seven months. Mr Methven's intended target, the Racing Post, stood alone as the bible of British horseracing. Market wisdom insisted there was only room for one title in this lucrative niche.

This week the team behind Racing Ahead Weekend (RAW), a new national paper, stand poised to challenge that conclusion. "What The Sportsman told us is that there is no market for another daily racing paper," says Stephen Mullen, the former Sun racing journalist who will edit RAW. "We will only publish at weekends and we will boil down to what the punters really need. The Racing Post is very good, but it is too broad and too expensive for the ordinary punter."

RAW is due to launch on 20 October, though Mr Mullen admits he has "fingers and everything else crossed" as his team work towards that deadline. It will cost £1 – 60p less than the Racing Post's Saturday edition. Mr Mullen calls it "a more concise and cheaper package aimed at a betting shop audience".

Dominic Ponsford, editor of Press Gazette, thinks it might work "Ever since the Racing Post killed The Sporting Life, history has indicated there is only room for one daily racing title. But gambling has grown so dramatically on the internet that there might be a place for a weekly."

Mr Mullen believes it and he appears not to be alone. The City and the racing industry are awash with rumours that the team behind the London-based financial freesheet City AM are planning a free weekly betting title provisionally entitled 'The Punter'. Insiders say the project is attracting a lot of interest from the betting sector and commentators including golfing legend Sam Torrance and former racing trainer Charlie Brooks have been approached to write columns.

"Yes, we are looking at it," confirms City AM chief executive Lawson Muncaster. "But we have not decided. We will only go ahead if we are certain that it will make money."

'The Punter' is being designed as a free supplement to be given away within existing newspapers, so offering a ready-made distribution model. Analysts say it is a plausible idea. "Betting is a multi-million-pound industry," says Mr Ponsford. "There ought to be plenty of advertising revenue to share round."

That makes a free gambling title particularly plausible. City AM, which initially built circulation faster than revenue, moved into profit recently as its targeting of young City professionals began to attract advertising. The route to profitability could be faster for a publication capable of appealing to large-scale high- street and internet bookmakers. RAW's paid-for strategy is similarly focused.

The Sportsman found that, beyond horseracing, there was no community of gamblers willing to buy a betting newspaper. This forced it away from its initial ambition to analyse betting opportunities in a wide range of sports and obliged it to fight head-to-head with the Racing Post. RAW knows it must concentrate on the turf from the beginning. "Racing Ahead Weekend is written by racing fans, for racing fans," says Mr Mullen. "Our research tells us that the readers don't want to buy one paper on Saturday and another on Sunday; they prefer the whole weekend's action in one go."

Mr Mullen will publish race cards in time order, not by course. "This is what the punter needs," he explains. "It is not just what suits the industry.

"You won't have to flick through looking for the next race. You can just sit there with the paper open on your knee."

It seems a simple, attractive idea, but there is little sign the Racing Post is worried.

The title seems ready to fight all comers. It has suffered circulation declines in recent years but still sells more than 72,000 copies a day. Last week it was acquired by Irish private equity group FL Partners from Trinity Mirror in a £170m deal. Among the new owner's first moves was to bring back former editor Alan Byrne as editor-in-chief. His appointment was welcomed by staff who regard his editorship from 1993 to 2002 as a golden era.

The man himself is upbeat, saying last week that he has little to fear from Mr Mullen's upstart intruder. "He's moving on to our territory and we wish him the best of luck," says Mr Byrne. "I hope he can expand the market, but it's tough out there and I think he'll find the punter is brilliantly served by the Racing Post Saturday edition already."

The Racing Post team see their biggest challenge as maximising the value of their website. The recent surge in online betting suggests that internet-gambling journalism has a lucrative future. But racing titles face the same dilemma as conventional newspapers: how to make the web pay. The Racing Post's new owners have not yet decided whether to charge for access to their online service. They do see a long term future for their acquisition.

"I've been in this market when we were taking on The Sporting Life," says Mr Byrne. "We discovered then the hard way – and the people who put their money into The Sportsman later discovered the hard way – that there's only room for one paper."

Mr Mullen comments:; "The Racing Post would say that, wouldn't they? I think they forget they are only 20 years old themselves. This is what Sporting Life said when Racing Post launched back in 1986. We are realistic: we will only publish at weekends except during Cheltenham and Royal Ascot."

RAW will be backed by advertising sales through E4 Media Management. Printing and distribution will be handled by Express Newspapers. Will it break the monopoly in racing coverage? Mr Mullen is experienced – in 2004 he launched the successful Racing Ahead monthly magazine – but the challenge will intensify if Mr Muncaster's team go ahead with 'The Punter'.

And if competition is a driver of quality, then gamblers are in for a treat.

Tim Luckhurst is professor of journalism at Kent University