The game could be over for special sport papers

Are you getting enough news coverage of your favourite sport or would you like more? About 36 per cent of the population, which adds up to 16.4 million of us, like reading about sport, according to Target Group Index research.

Sport is now one of the main battlegrounds within the national press in the struggle to win new readers.

Most titles have significantly boosted their sports coverage over the past couple of years in an attempt to capture the elusive young male.

On average, sports editorial as a proportion of the total newspaper has increased by 8.6 per cent since 1994 and there are now four cable and satellite channels devoted to sport, 87 specialist magazines, as well as the Internet and teletext. The vast array of digital television and radio channels is just around the corner, and many of these will be also dedicated to sport.

All the signs point to a huge number of enthusiasts with an insatiable appetite for news of their particular favourite. We saw the launch of Sport First in March, a dedicated newspaper for those who couldn’t get enough.

I’m sure those at the paper did their best but life has been tough for the title. Sport First has gone from a two-section Sunday broadsheet, with plans for becoming a seven-day operation, to a singlesection tabloid in the space of six months. Claimed sales are about 50,000 but the target was 100,000.

We now hear that the much heralded relaunch of the Sporting Life has just been put back from its autumn launch, to spring 1998. And to add to its problems, the paper’s launch editor John Mulholland was sacked this week by its owner, the Mirror Group Newspapers. His former employer would only say: “His continued presence would further delay and put in jeopardy the whole project.”

The plan for the Sporting Life was to launch it as a tabloid newspaper, seven days a week targeting upmarket men. Its aim was a settle-down circulation of 120,000. One must ask why the delay and wonder whether there is a viable demand for any dedicated sports newspaper.

Obviously, to attract readers it must offer something the current providers do not. Such as quality journalism, new writers, unique stories and in-depth features. All of this requires significant investment. And it must be priced competitively for the consumer – an important factor assuming that a sports paper is a top-up read for most people.

An in-house survey of sports enthusiasts (mostly football fans) found that most thought the coverage in national newspapers is sufficient. The occasions when they would buy a secondary title are likely to be one-off events such as the World Cup, or an in-depth review of a specific match. None of which sounds habit forming – a vital prerequisite for any strong business plan in the paper business.

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