Sport: publishing's banker

It may be a truism that football-mad Britain regards sport more highly than any other form of news, but the phenomenon is not far off the rest of the world. Sports of any kind are the ideal fodder for print. Its behind-the-scenes intrigues and on field battles launch circulation curves and, in magazines at least, leave otherwise reticent advertisers foaming at the mouth.
Clearly, in the frenzied media environment propelled by the tribal fanaticism which sport alone can induce, South Africa is way up there.

Locally the sports magazine market is dominated by Touchline, the Naspers-owned publisher which has Kick Off, SA Sports Illustrated, Runner’s World and Golf Digest in its sporting stable. (Kick Off is by far its largest title, with some 1,8 million readers). These titles account for a significant percentage of sports print adspend [see AdEx revenue table], and by implication a fairly sizable proportion of Touchline’s profits (other Touchline titles include Men’s Health and Shape).

Newspapers are equally aware of the inherent worth of a strong sports readership, although their advertising upside is not as strong as in magazines (the differential is due primarily to the ‘wastage’ element). The Sunday Times last year launched Sport, a sports magazine intended to act as a value-add for current subscribers and to attract new ones. Says editor Stephen Haw: “Though it is difficult to measure these things, it is thought that the mag is responsible for 5,000 to 10,000 new subscriptions. To date there are no readership figures, but the mag is going out to around 100,000 subscribers.”

Coinciding with the opening games of the ICC Cricket World Cup, Independent Newspapers launched their own stand-alone sports supplement in four of their daily papers The Star, Pretoria News, Cape Times and The Mercury. Also called Sport, the supplement goes out in broadsheet format every Monday. “The primary driver [for Sport] was not ad revenue, it was value-add for our readers,” says Andrew Cuthbertson, group sales director in charge of The inc, the national sales and marketing arm of Independent. “If we look at circulation and sales budgets, we have seen above anticipated readership in the four carrier titles since Sport was introduced.”

Meanwhile the Mail & Guardian’s sports section leapt from two or three pages to 24 at the beginning of April. This is a staggering increase, considering that the paper has itself often been only 48 pages in the cost-cutting period since it was bought by Zimbabwean entrepreneur Trevor Ncube last August.

“In our reader survey, most readers said they wanted to get more sport. Just about everyone reads it, even women read sport. Everyone thinks sport is for the boys. Nonsense, well written sport anyone will read,” says sports editor Julia Beffon.

And people continue to read even when their team is doing badly, as SA Sports Illustrated editor Robert Houwing notes. “However well or badly the national team are doing, hope springs eternal. We’ve discovered that even though the Springboks have been in a trough for two or three years, the appetite for rugby is insatiable. We’ve happily been able to cash in on that.”

With this dedicated, evergreen readership comes the magazines publisher’s holy grail: people to buy the publication and advertisers who want to reach them.

“Sport is the publishing banker,” says Houwing. “In this most depressing time for [South African] team sports we’ve had some of our more encouraging news-stand figures.”

Indeed, according to AC Nielsen’s AdEx figures, the adspend for January to December 2002 on SA Sports Illustrated was R14,5 million, which was a whopping 37 percent up on the same period from the year before.

Interestingly, SA Sports Illustrated and the Sunday Times sports magazine are something of an exception in the magazine market. They are multi-sport titles, while the trend has been to focus on one particular sport. There are no other examples, says Houwing, of this type of publication, except perhaps the Observer Sports Monthly in the United Kingdom.

Houwing sees his main local competition as the male lifestyle magazines like the GQs and FHMs. “They are lad mags with a 5 to 10 percent sport component. As we are competing on that terrain, we have become a little lifestyle geared.”

And then, of course, there is the swimsuit edition - of which the closest thing to sport is that model Megan Mackenzie’s brother is cricketer Neil, whose leg pad she wore in one year’s shoot.

“Our legendary annual swimsuit edition usually does more than double the average sale of other months,” laughs Houwing.

Although as yet offering nothing comparable to Megan in a bikini, the Sunday Times sports magazine is also different from most other sports magazines in that it’s not focused on one sport “and has no cover price,” says editor Haw.

“Editorially it attempts to cover sport in an off-beat, sexy kind of way through behind-the-scenes features that range widely over just about anything that could be considered a sport, from boxing through sky-diving to pie eating.

“It has a bit of a lifestyle focus - about sport but also whatever happens around it. This is also partly to distinguish it from the way sport is treated in the main body. Hopefully, though, with more advertising, it could look a little like the Observer Sport Monthly.”

Seems Haw is touching on something that Touchline publisher Paul Ingpen believes is a key to his group’s triumphs. “The success of Touchline has been the ‘how to’ recipe: how to improve your life through that particular sport.”

Ingpen says most sports magazines behave like newspapers, reporting on results and news that might be outdated by the time they get to the reader. “They are actually missing the trick. 90 percent of readers don’t care who won the comrades. They are just trying to lose their baggy arse.”

Passion for the subject is another key variable Ingpen cites for Touchline’ s dominance.

“The big thing is passion for the sport. Most of the staff on Runner’s World run, Golf Digest guys play golf. The critical thing is to have horses for courses, get people who enjoy what they do. You can’t teach that.”

And Touchline are confident their passion will work off the page, too. Golf Digest is launching a TV programme with sister company SuperSport in June. Although it has collaborated with SuperSport before, this is Touchline’s first foray into formal TV, and is based on research that suggested a gap for this high viewership sport.

GETTING back to the statistics, South Africa is as soccer mad as the rest of the world, and the largest three sports titles cover the ‘beautiful game’. Amakhosi (the Kaizer Chiefs title) has some 4-million readers, while Kick Off and Soccer-Laduma have 1,8 million or so readers each.

Amakhosi of course has a captive audience with Chief’s supporters, but they are willing to pay the R4,95 cover price. It also has Thomas Kwenaite, or TK, as editor and he is as much of an icon in soccer reporting as the team is in playing. Kick Off is exceptional in terms of the number of readers, says Piet Smit, the technical director of the South African Advertising Research Foundation (Saarf). According to Saarf’s qualitative research, the highest readership figure its researchers found for one copy was 23. He suspects that it might even be higher as the researchers were restricted to urban areas and had they tracked the magazine through the rural areas, they might have found more.

“Football in Africa is massive,” says Kick Off publisher Mike Allen. “That’s where we’re looking for growth in the future. Soccer is just going to get bigger.”

Soccer-Laduma’s publisher Zizi Hollander echoes the ‘passion factor’ as a key reason her title is so widely read.

“Soccer is a passion, and if you understand passion and are passionate yourself the rest is simple. Our readers respond to the excellence of Soccer-Laduma. They have a fierce loyalty and a sense of ownership. They are quick to compliment, but as quick to criticise.”

But advertising hasn’t been as favourable as the readership figures, she adds.

“Although we always had a ready market of readers, after six years of successful publishing, the advertising industry still hasn’t come to the party. In retrospect, this has been a blessing as it forced us not to rely on ad income for survival. Once the ad industry realises the true value of

Soccer-Laduma, those revenues will be pure profit, which we can reinvest in the title and related ventures. We show our loyalty to our readers by only increasing our cover price once every two years.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the titles dedicated to rugby lag well behind soccer. SA Rugby, belonging to custom publishing specialists Highbury Monarch, prints around 22,000 copies per issue and is still awaiting official ABC figures.

SA Rugby editor Simon Borchardt views SA Sports Illustrated as his major rival, and isn’t too fazed by the SARFU Quarterly, the only other English language competitor. Borchardt glosses over the editorial minefield in this sector when he says: “In the past the rugby media were accused of sunshine journalism. We have adopted a hard-hitting approach. This has landed us in hot water, but has made us the voice of the rugby public.”

Rugby also has one Afrikaans language title, Pale Toe. Its editor Chris Schoeman says it fills a gap for a sport whose majority of administrators and players are Afrikaans.

“There’s definitely a market for the Afrikaans reader, they love their sport and rugby,” Schoeman insists.

Moving further across the sports spectrum one is confronted with a plethora of specialist titles, dedicated to everything from cricket to fly-fishing. Singularly they are of varying depth and quality, but taken together they appear to reflect the common consensus. A loyal fan base and a pool of waiting advertisers? Welcome to publishing’s bank.

An avid rugby fan, Shapshak edited the Mail & Guardian’s sports section through three world cups and has written on rugby and the Hansie Cronje saga for the London Observer. He is the current Telkom ICT Journalist of the Year.

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