Searching for football’s content business model

In the ever increasing battle to successful monetise quality content, Trinity Mirror has launched a couple of paywalled football sites.

The two sites – produced by Liverpool Echo and Middlesbrough Gazette – will be targeted at fans of Liverpool and Middlesbrough football clubs using existing staff to create the additional content.

Subscribers will be able to view “exclusive content” including “in depth analysis, additional comment, guides and opinion from well known names and additional podcasts and video”.

It’s an interesting move, but not one that I can see taking off.

Ultimately, fans are too used to getting content for free. They will simply go wherever they can consume what they want.

That being said, there is an appetite for more in-depth content somewhere – and this is something that the new network Dugout is trying to take advantage of at an elite level.

The question is can external publications compete with a club’s in-house channels to deliver this premium content?

Elite clubs are publications in their own right, often running with multiple staff in roles ranging from club journalist to videographer.

It’s more than the media now. There is a marketing value to all the media content that is produced, and the best clubs know this.

That means behind the scenes content and exclusive access has even greater value to clubs, meaning they are more than likely wanting to keep control of that themselves, and push it through their channels, rather than enabling it to go out to external publications.

There is of course always a place for impartial and objective outsiders – clubs naturally only focus on positives or at least issues that aren’t damaging to their brand.

But my inkling is that Trinity Mirror are going to struggle to get the behind the scenes content that is going to warrant a significant number of people to pay – I hope to be proved wrong.

It is a wider issue relating to sports content. There are so many sports, teams and players to consume, and now so many ways of doing so – whether it’s newspapers, radio, TV, magazine, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, live streaming, Snapchat, What’s App or something else.

Finding a way of successfully commercialising this resource outside a club becomes increasingly challenging.

Clubs can measure the ROI against ticket sales, merchandise and increased sponsorship.

It is an issue that journalism has been seeking the answer to since newspapers ventured online more than 10 years ago.

It was a debate that no one had the answer to during my studies all those years ago.

Another tactic Trinity Mirror have tried is launching football.london which, you guessed it, is a site dedicated to football in the capital.

It builds on the niche of local newspapers and creates a niche market within football.

It’s something we at JDG have contemplated in the past – our venture at thefootypost.com, which was targeted at North West clubs, is on the back-burner at present.

But there is still something about locality that draws a niche.

Whether it works remains to be seen, but the positive is, at least the journalism industry is still looking for that answer.

Rugby League media days: The inside scoop

Ever wondered what the state of play is at a media day for a Super League club?

I recently attended events for Salford Red Devils and the Widnes Vikings and thought it might be good to give an insight into what goes on.

Ahead of the Salford press day journalists attending needed to email the club with player requests.

This has been the case for the other press days which I’ve attended on behalf of Love Rugby League and it’s a good way of avoiding a frenzy on the day.

Once we arrived in one of the club’s meeting rooms we had to wait a short while before the first players we wanted to speak to were brought through.

As well as audio interviews my colleague and editor John Davidson also did a video interview with Kris Brining which ensured there was a bit of variety when it came to the content produced.

There was also a sponsor board set up at the end of the room with the Salford Red Devils brand on which offered a good background for video interviews.

Most of the other journalists from organizations such as the Press Association and the Sun newspaper were only doing audio interviews. This might mean the final content they put out is not that interactive.

After the press day had finished we did a Facebook Live rounding up key events from the day which was a fresh approach to sharing news with people that follow the page.

It is also a great way of increasing engagement because people can comment and also rate the content.

Super League were the only other organization to share content in this way – they decided to sit two Salford players down and let the public ask them questions.

This is another good way of increasing engagement and driving traffic which could be something loverugbyleague look to do in the future.

When it came to the Widnes media day there seemed to be slightly less organization because it was advertised as a 12.00pm start, but the players had some lunch first so it meant waiting around for a bit.

When they had finished it was left to the journalists to be able to recognise them and for some of the younger players that proved a bit tricky.

It might have been better to sit players down behind a table with their name on it so that everything was more organised.

In terms of the content people were producing, John filmed another video interview with one of Widnes’ new signings Tom Armstrong.

Again it is a different way of doing things and may help to attract viewers who don’t want to read text.

One of the good things about the Widnes event was the venue. It was held at the Parklands Club which had numerous round tables and chairs.

The media day also involved some players being photographed in their kit

When you did want to interview a player it was easy to make them feel at ease by offering them a seat and so they are likely to engage more about various subjects.

With both media days the journalists had to do a group interview with the managers, meaning there was no chance of breaking any exclusive news.

This is the case with a variety of sports and although everybody’s content can end up being similar it is a good way to make sure things run efficiently on the day.

One of the key things to take from this article is the change in the way content is being shared and consumed.

Facebook Live, which launched last April, is just one example of this constantly changing media landscape and is a definitive indicator for how things will develop in the future.

Finding that elusive first rung on the job ladder

Whatever field you aspire to work in it is very often a tricky proposition to get that break and secure your first job offer.

The sports journalism industry is no different in that respects and in an increasingly competitive market it is vital to try and differentiate yourself from the thousands of other people.

My journey to find employment in the industry started over two years ago when I secured a place on the Sports Journalism course at the University of Central Lancashire.

UCLan’s Sports Journalism course is accredited by the Broadcast Journalism Training Council. Photo credit: begstealborrowfilms.com.

This was really exciting news because it was the first crucial stepping stone which would lead on to plenty of great opportunities.

The university’s facilities are rated as excellent and the course has strong relationships with various sports and media organizations for example the BBC, Preston North End FC and Wigan Warriors. This filled me with a lot of hope ahead of my first semester.

During my first year I volunteered as a reporter for the university’s radio station covering the men’s hockey first team. I attended their home and away matches providing updates on key events. After each match I also wrote a report for the student newspaper’s website.

I was really grateful to be given this opportunity at the start of my university course. I was able to sample experience of both broadcast and print media whilst developing a variety of skills like time-management, research and working as part of a team.

Alongside my second year I was given another invaluable opportunity when I started helping out with Chorley FC’s media department.

I spent the whole season covering home and away matches providing live updates on the club’s Twitter account which has 15,000 followers, as well as writing match reports for the website and club programme.

I covered Chorley’s win against Lancaster City in the Lancashire Challenge Trophy final. Photo credit: boltoncentral.co.uk

As well as gaining invaluable experience in online media, I also got to sample a variety of press boxes including the one at Bolton Wanderers’ Macron Stadium which was a proud moment for myself.

At the end of my second year I decided it was time to try and diversify, because there are quite a lot of students who want to work in football. I felt like if I could gain some experience in another sport it would set me apart.

Initially I heard that British Ice Hockey were looking for people to help contribute, so I enquired but unfortunately I didn’t have the adequate experience.

Determined to broaden my horizons I asked if there were any other sports I could help write about and as it happened Love Rugby League belonged to the same company – JDG Media.

I contacted the editor, John Davidson, and was instantly given the opportunity to cover some rugby league matches on TV and write reports.

In the next few months I built up a vast amount of contacts and also provided a variety of content from in-depth features to match previews.

Looking back one of the best moments was receiving accreditation to cover the 2016 Four Nations final at Anfield Stadium. The ground is a spectacular venue and the media facilities are world class, so it was an amazing opportunity and one which I will remember for a long time.

JDG Media’s clients include sports governing bodies, professional sports clubs and marketing agencies. Photo credit: www.jdgsport.com

As part of my third and final year at university I needed to spend a week on placement and so I thought it would be a great opportunity to come to the JDG Media offices and meet the team.

Before I arrived I was keen to be given the chance to contribute and help out with a number of activities, including continuing to help provide content for LRL.

If I can further develop my list of contacts that would be another positive during my time on placement.

Looking ahead, when I finish university in a few months I would like to freelance for a sports website or the sports section of a newspaper.

I know freelance jobs are tricky to come by when first starting out, but I am keen to take my time and make sure my first position is one which I enjoy and offers the right working environment.

The journalism churning circle

The growth of digital and online journalism is a quandary that nobody has really solved.

The UK’s biggest newspaper, The Sun, went behind a paywall in 2013 and recently came back out of it, no doubt down to the fact that they were being largely ignored given the amount of free alternatives.

It is perhaps different for quality newspapers, such as The Times, who can at least point to publishing more investigative and in-depth articles, rather than “minor celebrity nip slip” stories which of course are picked up by every man and his dog once the Mail Online runs with it.

As a student in 2006, online journalism was still in its infancy. Nobody really knew how it was going to affect the industry. And more to the point, nobody knew how the industry was going to deal with it. It was a daunting experience for someone who had set out to become a sports journalist based on the traditional model. No longer was it going to be a case of work in a newspaper and then you’ll be writing a back-page report on Rochdale v Northampton (not sure why, but covering a game on a wet and freezing Tuesday night at Scotland was always the yardstick for reaching my ambition).

In reality, it’s not been dealt with. Perhaps because there is no answer.

Everybody is a journalist

Newspaper readership is dwindling, staff numbers even more so, and now everybody is/can be a “journalist”. The waters between a bona-fide journalist and a citizen journalist are muddied further every year, every iPhone release, every local newspaper closure.

In the social media age, publication loyalty has gone out the window. No longer do you go to the local shop and pick up the Daily Mirror every morning. You browse Facebook and Twitter, clicking on whatever headline takes your fancy, regardless of where it originates.

What a challenge that presents for any publication, who in reality can only survive and be viable through advertising. Fluctuating numbers and a lack of brand loyalty cranks up the pressure on the journalists and the business model.

Ironically, creating my own publication (LastTackle.com, now LoveRugbyLeague.com) back in 2005 was meant to be something to put on my CV to make me more attractive to potential employers. Instead, it became a reason for me not to be – the site was now competition to a rugby league newspaper, or indeed the sports pages of a local newspaper in a rugby town.

Over those years, attitudes to content has changed. In the early years, brand loyalty was still prevalent and so building an audience was a massive challenge. How it was even managed in the pre-social media days, one can only imagine.

Articles were produced with regularity, but there was not blanket coverage. A solid, if small, readership was built.

Upon re-branding in 2010, the site became more socially aware. Driving traffic through Facebook became a priority. The audience the site has on Facebook remain one of the most engaged and passionate across any sport site. Of course, it presents problems. If people are debating a story on Facebook, they aren’t on your site and aren’t clicking your adverts.

Social media meant it was easy for others to compete with us. They could invest money in social advertising and drive their numbers. In 2012, one of our main competitors had virtually trumped us in terms of visitor numbers within a year of setting up. The telling point was that 75% of their traffic came through Facebook, compared to our 13% through Facebook. Fast forward two years, and we are considerably ahead of that competitor.

Increasing the churn

It wasn’t a conscious strategy, but around that time the volume of content we produced increased considerably. The churn. It was no longer about fixed content targets, it was more about cover as much as you can, as often as you can. Such was the competition that social media presented, that if you missed one or two stories, you risked losing your audience to somewhere else.

This enabled you to build your base audience – the minimum amount of traffic you would expect on any given day. The total traffic may fluctuate depending on whether you had a particular juicy story, or in fact whether a link to a story was posted on a popular forum or re-tweeted by big Twitter profiles.

Growing that base audience became the key to success, ignoring the peaks that referring traffic might bring.

From a business point of view, even losing 5 or 10% of your traffic was a huge blow. In 2011, another competitor rocked up. They managed to replicate much of what made us successful (they even used our traffic figures as estimates to sell advertising in their maiden year) and became a serious competitor. The problem was, the audience wasn’t growing. All that was happening was that two sites were sharing the same traffic as before, making the business model virtually impossible for either of us.

The issue was that neither of us were doing anything different. They had come along and tried to copy our success. All that meant was they were attracting the same people we were.

We won the battle of the churn – perhaps mainly due to the fact that after seven years, giving up wasn’t an option for me.

The churning stakes went up a notch in 2013 when one of the trade newspapers decided to start a full-on assault to conquer online.

This was a bit different. They were producing quality content that was being shared across both their online and offline publications. They had resources. But again, in some ways, they were just replicating the stuff we had been doing for the previous five years or so. The churning went up a notch again. The desperate fight for numbers and attention meant more churn, more content, more tweets and more potential clicks (even if it meant 10 stories sharing 2000 clicks, rather than one good story).

Consumer understanding

That model has virtually been replicated across the internet. The LadBible model. Find a relatively interesting piece of content somewhere, package it up on social and drive traffic through to your website. Give me any subject, and it could have a website and social media presence with a few thousand likes by the end of the day.

Another point of note is that the new generations have little understanding of the business model behind these pages. Because they are so wrapped up in social and just believe anyone and everyone can create content (which of course is true), it’s almost as if they think it’s just someone like them running the pages.

No, it’s not. The LadBible specifically employ people to create content and post to the page. There’s no way that in the modern day churning circle that anyone could keep up without full-time, paid employees.

Yet you will see people posting the full story in the comments to “save a click”, or accusing sites of “clickbait” without realising that the sites need you to click to their website to exist, to pay the writers, to keep someone in a job.

Of course, operating a niche site is slightly different than one trying to appeal to the masses. And rugby league is certainly niche.

The question that’s now cropping up in my planning is – has the journalism churn gone full circle?

We’re taking a step back from the churn. It might have worked in previous years, but it has spiralled out of control. It’s not logical anymore. It doesn’t buy respect, not least from your peers, and it doesn’t really give you much room for growth in the business model.

Fighting back

The old journalism values appear to be fighting back. Quality, respect, reliability, authority.

Anyone can write a decent opinion piece from their bedroom. It takes something else to put together a decent piece of quality journalism.

Football blog award winner, The Set Pieces, is a fine example. Check out their about page. It says what they’re about in such a succinct manner that it is frivolous to even attempt to describe them myself. They focus purely on quality Hardly niche, due to it being football, it’s impossible for that site to be replicated in rugby league in a successful manner. However, lessons can be taken from it.

Another football example pointing to change is Goal.com. They have had their own controversies in the past, but their focus now appears to be on showing how they have a greater authority than Joe Bloggs’ football site from his back bedroom. They are giving increased profile to their journalists, showing them behind the scenes at matches and press conferences, almost as if to say “look, we’re here, getting this content from the source – we aren’t ripping it from somewhere else and we aren’t churning it out like competitor X”.

It’s through this authority that Goal, as a publication, can grow their brand, fight off the competition from the churn and the bedroom bloggers, and it’s perhaps their best way of making their business model work.

So, after 10 years, perhaps the only model for online journalism is to stick to the old values that made traditional journalism what it was. And of course, shout about it.