Why does the UK lack the sort of vibrant sports press seen on the rest of the continent? Roger DomeneghettI explores a conundrum.
Britain might lack the sort of significant sports press market found in the rest of Europe, but this wasn’t always the case. Launched in 1792, The Sporting Magazine, was the country’s first sport-specific publication. It employed a pretty broad definition of ‘sport’, covering everything from pedestrianism and bell ringing to squirrel hunting, dog fighting and duelling, to which it devoted a regular column.
By the time it ceased publication in 1870 a raft of other titles such as Bell’s Life in London and The Sporting Life, had been launched, all primarily devoted to gambling. They held stake money, provided judges for contests, and produced guides, annuals and score sheets.
One of these papers, The Sporting Chronicle, was launched by Edward Hulton in Manchester. It proved so popular that he was soon able to launch the Athletic News. By 1896 it was selling 180,000 copies a week and had become the country’s leading authority on football, its editor J.J. Bentley also acting as the Football League’s chairman.
The 1880s also saw the development of ‘football specials’ more commonly known as The Pink ‘Un or The Green ‘Un due to the colour of the paper they were printed on. These hyper-local, city or town-specific papers were printed on Saturday evenings and became so ubiquitous that in 1905 an early history of football described how Saturday nights had become ‘illuminated by innumerable broadsheets in colour like unto the rainbow’.
By the turn of the century some newspaper companies were publishing as many as four editions of their specials, at 5.45pm, 6.30pm, 7.30pm and 7.45pm. This desire to beat their rivals was widely acknowledged to be a driving force behind the developing media industry with a study in 1913 declaring that ‘incomparably the keenest competition in the newspaper world is developed as the result of rivalry to bring out the earliest news of sporting events’. By 1914 there were 87 periodicals devoted to various aspects of sport, an increase from 60 in 1894. However, this would be the apex of their popularity.
The demise of the British sporting press began with the First World War which, for four years, simply took away the one thing they required: live sport. The non-sporting press, albeit reduced in size due to paper shortages, could continue to fill their pages with the latest on the conflict and maintain a link with their readers. After the war, as the economic and technological restrictions disappeared, the dailies, Sundays and Saturday football specials were able to produce in-depth previews and fast, comprehensive match reports.
National ‘news-only’ papers, which had begun to devote increasing amounts of space to sport before the war, coupled this coverage with other news that also appealed to women, all but ignored both as participants and spectators in the sports press. Thus they provided what was, in their minds at least, a more rounded product.
This speedy demise provides a stark contrast with the football-led sports press in mainland Europe, which is still in rude health. The popularity of titles like TuttoSport; Corriere Dello Sport and La Gazetta dello Sport in Italy, AS, MARCA and Mundo Deportivo in Spain and L’Equipe in France is symptomatic of the fact their roots are much more deeply embedded in their respective societies.
There were two key reasons for this. Firstly, sport and the media are two of the most potent weapons in any battle to establish and maintain a cultural or national identity.
In Spain, where the ongoing tension between Madrid and the Catalan capital Barcelona was exemplified by last year’s referendum, there are four daily sports papers in those two cities alone (El Mundo Deportivo and Sport in Barcelona and Marca and AS in Madrid).
Similarly, Italian sports papers exist in a market defined by the strong and disparate regional identities of a country only finally unified in 1861. The Tuscan-derived Italian language is still forced to compete with each city’s distinctive dialect.
Gazzetta dello Sport, based in Milan, leans towards AC and Inter, however Il Corriere dello Sport, based in Rome, focuses intently on Roma and Lazio and Turin-based Tuttosport has little time for any football teams other than Juventus and Torino.
By contrast the British newspaper industry, like the country itself, is London-centric and dominated by papers produced in the main from offices based in the English capital.
Historically the European sports papers have also focused on a much broader variety of sports than their English counterparts. L’Equipe was born from the ashes of another paper, L’Auto, which was shut down following the country’s liberation at the end of the Second World War for sympathising with the Nazis.
L’Auto had built its pre-war success on the back of the Tour de France which it first organised in 1903 with the very aim of boosting circulation and overtaking rival paper Le Vélo.
The race did the job and L’Auto’s circulation leapt from 25,000 before that first Tour to 65,000 after it, helping to force the closure of Le Vélo in the process. By the 1930s L’Equipe’s circulation was well over 500,000 and following the war the paper took up organisation of the popular race and the Tour’s headquarters are still next door to those of the paper.
This success didn’t go unnoticed across the Alps and six years after the launch of Le Tour, the publishers of Gazzetta dello Sport organised the first Giro d’Italia. The two competitions are so wedded to the papers that created them that the race leaders’ jerseys take their colours from their respective newsprint – the Tour’s maillot jaune mimicking L’Equipe’s yellow paper and the Giro’s il maglia rosa representing Gazzetta’s famous pink paper.
There were some links between British papers and competitions in the early days, for example The Field provided the trophy for the first Wimbledon tennis championships in 1877. However no paper became synonymous with a sporting competition in the manner that L’Equipe and Gazzetta did and thus cement itself into the country’s culture.
The Saturday Specials were also killed off by their narrow focus on football. Unlike their European counterparts the papers’ growth developed as a consequence of football’s rapidly increasing popularity in the 1880s and 1890s. They focused almost exclusively on that one sport, paying little more than lip-service to others.
The Italian, Spanish and French football leagues were not established until the late-1920s and early-1930s, by which time their sports press was well established due to their coverage of other sports. Football has come to dominate the European market too, but as it was a late entrant onto the scene it had to state its case for coverage, and while it did so successfully the papers never forgot the sports that had served them so well before it came along.
This was the undoing of the football specials in England. Once they came under sustained attack from other media and, most damagingly of all, changes to the regular kick-off times, they had nothing else to fall back on.
Roger Domeneghetti is a lecturer in Journalism at Northumbria University and the author of From the Back Page to the Front Room: Football’s Journey through the English Media.