The temptation to indulge in elaborate footie-style metaphors is
irresistible. Phrases about publications being ’shown the red card’,
’scoring hat-tricks’ or even ’doing a little dirty tackling’ are hard to
avoid when analysing the football magazine market - one which, I feel
bound to point out, is ’cheek to cheek on the terraces’ if not ’full to
But then football is a sport that commands a passionate, fanatically
dedicated following, and it seems almost churlish not to embrace those
terms with the gusto of the genuine football fan.
In fact, the print media sector covering the beautiful game is in such
robust health, it is the publishing equivalent of Liverpool FC’s new
talent, Michael Owen, or West Ham’s Rio Ferdinand: young, vibrant and
full of promise.
Over the past two years, the market has exploded and now includes more
than 70 publications, ranging from weekly teen titles to glossy
monthlies for adults, and from crude fanzines to ambitious club
magazines with newsstand distribution. At the same time, the national
press has increased its coverage of football enormously.
In the past 18 months alone, the sector has welcomed two new monthly
titles, fitba, focusing on Scotland, and On the Ball, covering women’s
football, as well as a delegation from Italy’s leading sports newspaper
publisher looking to launch a football-led sports daily in the UK based
on La Gazzetta dello Sport. In May last year, Chelsea hired Paul
Hawksbee, the editor-in-chief of IPC Magazines’ football titles, to
re-establish Football Monthly, the title bought by the club in April
The British public, it seems, cannot get enough column inches on the
game, and there are several reasons for this relatively new
Jason Dear, agency sales manager for Haymarket Publishing’s FourFourTwo,
singles out one major contributing factor: ’The market has exploded off
the back of the Taylor Report, which sent the hooligans away, brought
families back into the stadia and raised the profile of fans from C2DEs
to ABC1s,’ he says.
The Taylor Report, drawn up after the 1989 Hillsborough tragedy in which
95 fans died, stipulated that stadia had to be all-seater by the end of
the century. But, by the 1995/1996 season, all the Premiership and First
Division clubs had converted, driving away the more violent, undesirable
fan element, which refused to be contained in seats and could no longer
afford the drastically inflated ticket prices. Estimates suggest the
cost of an average Premier League club season ticket rocketed by 40 per
cent after Taylor’s recommendations were implemented. Chelsea, for one,
charged pounds 479 for a seat at all of the team’s home matches last
The arrival of a ritzier crowd caught the attentions of smart publishers
with a keen eye for a new opportunity. Publications such as FourFourTwo,
Goal and Total Football were soon launched, unashamedly targeting posher
fans with their high disposable income and desire for more intelligent,
in-depth footie analysis. The national press, detecting a potentially
lucrative market, began to launch increasingly comprehensive football
Now, all the major national papers have a dedicated sports section on
Mondays, while titles such as the Guardian and the Telegraph have
separate sports supplements three times a week.
’Sport as a whole, with soccer a big part of that, has been a major
driver for new readers and a younger, male ABC1 readership over the past
ten years,’ Hugo Drayton, marketing director of the Telegraph group,
The Telegraph can add as many as 40,000 extra readers on Wednesdays when
the results of its phenomenally successful Fantasy League are published.
’This is evidence, if evidence were needed, of the role of football in
our readers’ lives,’ Drayton says.
Another key factor behind the sport’s robust print media market is the
increased TV coverage on offer since Rupert Murdoch won the rights to
Premier League football in May 1992, and started broadcasting the
’The impact of Murdoch and Sky TV cannot be overestimated,’ Tim
McCloskey, deputy managing director of BMP Optimum, says. ’The explosion
in coverage means you can now get games five or six days a week. As a
result, football has become more of a talking point - even at dinner
parties in Islington.
The more people watch it on TV, the more they talk about it and the more
they want to read about it: it is a self-feeding thing.’
Other people argue that the increased TV coverage has meant there is
money pouring into the game, making the grounds safer, more attractive
and rendering football fashionable - even bourgeois. ’It is far removed
from the grey game watched by grey people on a grey day that it once
was,’ McCloskey says. ’Football has become more showbizzy and glamorous
with the likes of David Beckham and Teddy Sheringham achieving gossip
Another reason for the healthy development of the market is the
performance of the teams themselves in the top national and
The football publications market is necessarily seasonal and closely
linked with the sport. Hence, the beginning of the season always creates
heightened interest and the July to December ABC period is always the
strongest for sales.
In the years when there is no World Cup or European Championship, most
titles experience notable sales dives and associated drops in ad
revenue. Conversely, the sector flourishes when one of those events
takes place, particularly, when England and Scotland are doing well.
Euro 96 started the trend but there are understandably high hopes for
France 98 too.
’Someone once said the worst place to be during the World Cup is down
the pub on the outside of a conversation about football,’FourFourTwo’s
Dear says. ’Hence the big events really trigger extra sales of the
magazines among people who are not specific club fans but who are
massive England fans and want real soccer information.’
A major by-product of the gentrification of football and the fresh
injection of cash into the game has been the dramatic development of the
club titles. Manchester United, arguably the most famous and
commercially minded football team in the world (with an income from
merchandising alone of around pounds 28 million and a club valuation of
pounds 440 million), started the ball rolling in 1992 with the launch of
its own official glossy publication, Manchester United magazine, aimed
squarely at its five-million UK fan base.
The title, which costs pounds 2.20, sells almost 140,000 copies,
according to the latest ABC figures for July to December last year,
making it the biggest-selling club-owned magazine. The second biggest
club title is its sister publication, Glory Glory Man United, which
launched in August 1994. It is targeted at eight- to 15-year-old ManU
fans and has sales of almost 63,000 (it notched up an extraordinary 135
per cent year-on-year sales increase from January to June 1996 and
January to June 1997). Liverpool FC’s own publication is close behind
with sales of 56,352.
These titles now account for three of the UK’s top-ten selling,
ABC-audited football magazines - a dramatic change on the market,
compared with ten years ago when club-specific publications were
unaudited, rather grubby and cheaply produced.
Steve Keeney, sales and marketing director of Zone, publisher of the two
ManU titles, says Manchester United is so successful because it is
effectively a consumer title.
’Two years ago, it had almost no ads because it was budgeted to make all
its revenue out of newsstand sales. The design wasn’t very
advertiser-friendly, so it was redone to make the magazine look more
glossy and more like a lifestyle title rather than somewhere between a
lifestyle product and a fanzine,’ Keeney says.
As well as being the top-selling club title, the newsstand publication
is the second biggest-selling football title and the biggest football
monthly. Keeney believes it is the improvement in production values
combined with the fanatical following of the individual clubs that has
helped these publications take off.
’Being a real fan has become more fashionable and acceptable since the
new era of Premier League football,’ Keeney says. ’Club titles are
succeeding because they are 100 per cent devoted to a person’s team.
Everything in them is relevant, compared with, say, only 40 per cent of
editorial in other titles.’
The rapid expansion in football print media has, so far, been supported
by advertising revenue, suggesting that the different titles are
managing to provide sufficiently different audiences to advertisers.
Newspapers, for example, are pulling in a wider range of advertisers who
are keen to tactically exploit stories in the sports pages themselves
and who appreciate the daily edge the papers provide. These might
include anything from car manufacturers to betting firms, or the
individual club sponsors or major sponsors of the upcoming World Cup,
such as JVC and Budweiser.
’Advertisers were initially conservative and most preferred to be in the
front of the paper, but that is now changing,’ Drayton says. ’We are
getting car, fashion and fragrance advertisers as well as ones that are
more related to sport, because they are all increasingly understanding
the power of sport to get to a younger, more affluent male
At the same time, the club titles are attracting a different breed of
style-conscious advertisers. Despite a certain scepticism among press
buyers as to the appeal of actively targeting such a specific audience
as a single club’s fan base, the club publications attract support from
the worlds of fashion, music and even satellite TV (60 per cent of the
readers have cable and satellite TV).
Meanwhile, most of the weekly football magazines are relying on the main
client-base of sportswear manufacturers such as Adidas, Nike and Reebok,
who simply want to get people who are interested in playing footie to
buy their gear. And the glossier, more adult titles are becoming
increasingly successful at pulling in any client keen to target ABC1 men
with a high disposable income.
’Magazines such as FourFourTwo can creep onto beer and lager schedules
and maybe even car schedules, while the current issue of Shoot! usually
just carries ads for Clearasil and Twix,’ McCloskey says.
Some press buyers are sounding warnings about the future of the market,
however, claiming it is rapidly reaching saturation point and that there
is not the advertiser revenue or consumer interest to continue
indefinite support at the current levels.
’A lot of the mainstream publications are suffering because of the club
titles, and the coverage in the national press means the news is now
long-gone by the time some of the magazines come out,’ says Gareth
Williams, who mainly buys for Nissan at TMD Carat. ’There just isn’t
room for all the publications in the market at the moment.’
Particular scepticism is saved for the future survival of the monthlies,
with observers questioning the ability of the market to sustain all of
At the same time, the weekly market has already experienced some
fall-out: year-on-year sales are down 31 per cent, while last May IPC
Magazines’ 90 Minutes was folded into Shoot! and BBC Match of the Day
changed frequency from weekly to monthly last summer.
The immediate future looks fairly rosy, however. 1998 will deliver a
solid run of football through to the end of the year, including the
World Cup followed by the 1998-99 season. There is also a tight finish
to the Premiership. Sales should particularly benefit in June and July,
as well as August if England perform well at France 98.
After that, at the end of the day, Brian, it will be down to the
individual titles’ own skills at promoting themselves, competing on
cover price or correctly assessing the particular demands of their
readership. Football publishing, it would appear, is a game in two