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Media - Bill Hagerty on the broadsheets' new love affair with sport
They all laughed when the late Bill Shankly said: "Some people think football is a matter of life and death . . . I can assure them it is much more serious than that." Twenty years later, nobody's laughing, about football or any other sport. To the media especially, sport is a serious business, a heavy gun in an ongoing circulation battle that makes most heavyweight title fights look like kids' stuff.
The tabloids have always shown sports awareness, with the pages at the back of the papers carrying as much clout as those devoted to rock, movie and soap stars. Now the quality market appears to have woken up to the possibilities offered by a facet of life that has exploded in terms of standards of skill, sophistication and, most of all, money, even in the relatively short time since the revered Liverpool manager's snippet of homespun philosophy.
The Observer started the ball rolling, so to speak, with the introduction of its Sport Monthly, a dazzling magazine accompaniment to the paper on the first Sunday of every month. Then the Daily Telegraph decided to launch a daily newsprint add-on, a plan apparently greeted by Rupert Murdoch with gritted teeth and, most certainly, with an instruction to the Times to beat its rival to the punch (sorry, but it is difficult to avoid).
With the Guardian and the Independent both running separate sports sections every Monday and the Sundays weighing in (oops) with equal zeal - Tristan Davies's "new" Independent on Sunday boasts a revamped "Sportsweek" as part of the package - readers are being offered a load of balls, not to mention bats, running shoes and boxing gloves.
The papers have obviously decided sport is hot and are attempting to catch a ride on the coat-tails of a rise in popularity that has seen footballers and other leading sportsmen and women replace as heroes and role models the movie and rock stars of past generations. Robbie Williams and the Spice Girls still have swoon appeal, but mainly among adolescents. Once past puberty, most young consumers would swap half a dozen Ronan Keatings for one Michael Owen.
Football became chic when it was embraced by middle-income, mid-range executives a decade ago. But Britain's successes in last year's Sydney Olympic Games and the subsequent resurgence of both the English national cricket and football teams provided the impetus that, presumably, has persuaded editors to become gamblers in the games game.
The Daily Mail sports columnist Jeff Powell believes that dissatisfaction with other areas of life has turned the attentions of both men and, increasingly, women towards what for many is a readily available panacea. "In a superficial and trivial world," he says, "sport fills a gap in their lives. People despise politicians and politicking to the extent that only one in four have just voted for a party that won by a landslide. They are disillusioned with so much else that sport, which provides real competition and excitement, has become a substitute for life's far more serious aspects."
There is also the lad factor, Powell believes - "The lager lads who aren't interested in serious matters and who can't play well enough themselves can identify with sports stars, mainly footballers. Who would have thought that someone with half his hair shaved off and wearing an earring could be captain of England, let alone a hero to impressionable young kids?"
Selling on sport is not new in the newspaper trade, and readership surveys have consistently shown that a significant proportion of readers, all male until quite recently, read their papers from back to front, rendering the report on last night's Manchester United match more important than, say, a Cabinet reshuffle. No, that's silly - last night's Manchester United match is invariably more important than a Cabinet reshuffle, but you know what I mean.
Yet selling sport in isolation is a difficult trick. The dedicated weekly title Sport First is having a tough time, and no general sports magazine has ever succeeded in Britain, despite a couple of high-quality contenders. As for the football-only publications, the BBC's magazine, Match of the Day, went the same way as its television counterpart, and most of the others are struggling. "The Observer monthly magazine is good," says Powell, "but I doubt very much that it would succeed as an independent publication."
But never mind the volume of quality-newspaper sports coverage, what about the quality? The broadsheets have managed to wrest what was always an area of expertise away from the lower end of the market. There are no sports columnists writing today in the red tops who wouldn't be trounced in straight sets by the old Daily Mirror's great Peter Wilson. The Mail, with Powell and the veteran Ian Wooldridge, and the Mail on Sunday, which has a true thoroughbred in Patrick Collins, offer outstanding sports pages, but most of the better sports writing can now be found in the broadsheets.
Is it possible that the press is overestimating the circulation-building powers of dedicated sections, just as television at one time underestimated sport - the BBC sending itself off by suggesting there was no need for a dedicated sports channel and allowing Murdoch's Sky to get not one but three up and transmitting?
Perhaps, but it is, as they say at Royal Ascot, worth a punt. After all, George Orwell wrote that "serious sport has nothing to do with fair play. It is bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness and disregard of all the rules." Begging the pardon of the News of the World, all human life is there. Plus David Beckham's haircut.
Bill Hagerty is a former editor of the People