Feature

The Sportsman feeds the UK's gambling habit

The first new national paper in 20 years is poised to benefit from a social revolution, its launch team tells Darren Davidson.

It is day two of the first national newspaper launch since the ill-fated Today and there's a palpable sense of excitement at the shiny, glassy offices of The Sportsman, overlooking the Thames in Hammersmith.

It is a feeling not a million miles away from the trackside emotions of the punters to whose interests this new racing and sports betting daily caters. It is the buzz you get when you might be on to something a bit special but know there's no such thing as a sure bet.

And The Sportsman is undoubtedly something of a gamble. The majority of national newspapers are fighting hard to halt sliding circulations, and, increasingly, sports fans are turning to the internet and live TV for sports coverage and analysis. The horse-racing market is also monopolised by the Racing Post, although The Sportsman will look to offer coverage of all sports.

So why does Jeremy Deedes, the executive chairman of The Sportsman and an elder statesman of the newspaper industry, feel the need to take a punt on another new publication, having already worked on the launch of Today? Surely, one newspaper launch in one's lifetime is quite enough?

Deedes says: "I've only ever worked on newspapers. The idea of producing a new paper is all my proverbial Christmases coming at once. Twenty years is about how long it needs to take for the scars to heal. The Sportsman wasn't a painless birth; births seldom are, but they still bring a lot of pleasure. The Sportsman has been considerably less painful than the first birth."

Clearly, Deedes, part of The Sportsman's core team alongside its editor, Charlie Methven, and managing director, Max Aitken, is relishing working on a sports newspaper, admitting that he's passionate about the whole world of sport . But he also believes that the Sportsman team has spotted a gap in the market, despite the success of the market-leading Racing Post, which sells around 76,000 copies a day.

Deedes points out that the British gambling industry has grown considerably in the past five years. Betting exchanges and spread betting companies have proliferated; internet gambling has exploded, while the Government has fed this gambling frenzy by removing tax on gamblers' winnings. If Britain didn't already have a gambling habit, it has now.

Deedes argues: "Normally, great social revolutions are only recognised when you look back. We are in the middle of an extraordinary change in the betting landscape. We have become the gambling country of the world.

Until now, there has been no obvious route to reach pure sports-betting enthusiasts. They've been served by a scatter-gun approach. This is going to be a planned, 360-degree, 24/7 offering on a single platform."

That platform includes a web-site, thesportsman.co.uk, which launches on 2 May. However, The Sportsman's revenue model is not reliant on advertising.

Deedes says it "would be good if that could be reversed" but, in the short term, The Sportsman will make more money from its coverprice of £1 from Monday to Friday and £1.20 on a Saturday.

Deedes rejects the idea that potential advertisers - overwhelmingly from the gaming industry - would be better off targeting a male audience in the sports tabloids and the Racing Post. "There isn't anything for people seriously interested in sports betting," he argues. "We offer a 99 per cent pure offering; an undiluted audience. Sports fans watch sport in colour and no-one else has the number of colour pages we have or is able to devote the same amount of space to facts and analysis."

Judging by forthcoming promotional events - such as one involving dwarfs, to be held in the Square Mile - the paper is aimed at City boys with high disposable in-comes as well as a broader audience of sports-betting enthusiasts.

Methven, an Old Etonian and former Sporting Life and Daily Telegraph journalist, and Aitken, the great-grandson of Lord Beaverbrook, seem to embody the upper-crust end of The Sportsman's target audience. The two of them met at Oxford University well before the 29-year-old Methven secured backing for the venture from his friends Zac and Ben Goldsmith, the sons of the late billionaire Sir James Goldsmith.

Methven says: "The Racing Post has a narrow focus on the racing industry. Working on a daily newspaper, I started looking at what's out there and soon realised there are lots of people like me who want more." Referring to a feature in the newspaper on the darts legend Phil Taylor, Methven proudly thumps the desk and asks: "Is the Racing Post going to get Phil Taylor?"

He claims that The Sportsman, which will be marketed heavily on the skill of its tipsters, is already "ahead of budget and on target". It is aiming to achieve a daily circulation of 40,000 and has already secured £12 million-worth of contracts in advance from advertisers such as Ladbrokes and Betfair.

The Sportsman was planning to launch in time for the Cheltenham Festival but it wasn't quite ready in time. Methven says: "Cheltenham was one of three possible launch dates. No-one will remember in a year's time that we didn't launch at Cheltenham, but had we gone ahead and it wasn't right, they would have done."

But will The Sportsman last the course? The signs are good. The editorial product is praised by media agencies (though some are a bit miffed the commercial team hasn't been around to present its case) and The Sun and the News of the World clearly view The Sportsman as a good promotional vehicle, running double-page ads last week. And, according to agency sources, the Post and Sporting Life have upped their marketing budgets in response to The Sportsman.

The Sportsman's success will largely depend on its owners getting it into the hands of the right people and, if they continue to communicate their infectious enthusiasm for sports betting through the title's pages, it would not be an upset to see this young stallion giving the Racing Post a decent run for its money.