At the beginning of an Olympic year, with a Games staged in London, BARRY NEWCOMBE, chairman of the SJA, delivered the annual report at the annual meeting, staged at the Old Cock Tavern in Fleet Street
Welcome to the annual meeting of the Sports Journalists’ Association of Great Britain, as we go forward into our 64th year, and once more gather in a Fleet Street pub, just as our predecessors and founders did when forming the Sports Writers’ Association in that previous London Olympic Year, 1948.
With ninety-nine days to go until the Olympic flame is ignited again here in London, it is tempting to look only forward.
But it is the nature, indeed requirement, of annual meetings and reports to reflect on the year just past, and it is fair to say that in all your Association’s seven decades, there can have been fewer more challenging years.
Because in the midst of the worst economic recession in living memory, this time last year your new committee was formed with one daunting task confronting it: how to manage the SJA’s two headline events and try to maintain our other activities and services to our members, without any major sponsors.
To coin a cliché from the sports pages, we were staring at the abyss.
Yet we meet here today having in recent months staged two highly successful sell-out awards events, and with a Treasurer submitting a healthy set of accounts. That we have managed to do so is only the result of some considerable hard work, some inspired leadership from our President, Sir Michael Parkinson, and some loyal support from the membership, many of whom are here today.
We approached Sir Michael last spring and appraised him of the Association’s plight. He approached some of his many connections, and was able to secure for the SJA a valuable one-year sponsorship from Ladbrokes, which is underwriting a series of sports lunches. We have already held highly successful, headline-grabbing SJA Ladbrokes Lunches with Baroness Grey-Thompson, or Britain’s most successful Paralympian, Tanni Grey-Thompson and with past rugby Grand Slam winner Simon Halliday.
Next month, we will welcome former England cricket skipper Alec Stewart to this very pub for lunch, when members can lunch for just a tenner (plus VAT, Mr Treasurer reminds me to say). And we also have the agreement of the Minister for Sport, Hugh Robertson, for the next occasion.
But one sponsor is no longer enough, and your committee sought a partner agency to help us market our activities better. My vice-chairman, David Walker, and secretary, Steven Downes, were delegated to meet with a succession of agencies, and we have appointed Red Torch as our sponsorship agents.
In the midst of that, another long-standing member, Roger Kelly, arranged a meeting with us for his employers, the Laureus Sport for Good Foundation, which was looking to promote their international sports awards staged in London in February.
I am delighted to say that Laureus, too, has come on board in a very generous sponsorship package which saw them become title sponsors of our Sports Newspaper of the Year prize at last month’s British Sports Journalism Awards, as well as a set of sports lunches for later this year.
Under financial pressure, your committee has had no choice but to scale back some of our activities. Our regular Bulletins have ceased. But we now try to communicate with our members at least twice each month with email updates – quicker, more immediate, and far, far less expensive.
We have therefore been able to continue with our SJA Yearbook, edited again this year by Paul Trow, and bigger than ever before. This year, all members will also have received an exclusive SJA pin badge, provided to us by the Olympic badge-makers, Honav, free of charge – though we do ask that all members should please complete the brief questionnaire that accompanied the badge. Next month, our members will also receive a free issue of the Press Gazette’s special Olympic issue, together with a generous subscription offer, another benefit of membership negotiated on your behalf.
Our recent amendment to our Yearbook’s publication date, moved into March, has assisted us in streamlining our membership year, so that those who have not paid their subs within two months of being due no longer receive the benefits of membership – a hefty incentive to renew, we hope. Bill Colwill continues to do sterling work as membership secretary, and we hope he will soon be handling many more applications to join the SJA in a new Associate Membership category which we hope will appeal to many who, while not qualified for the full benefits of membership, are interested in our activities.
For there is little doubt that the reach of the SJA has extended ever further in this digital age: as well as sending out emails to members, our primary communication tool, the SJA website, now receives nearly 80,000 unique visitors each month, with as many as 3,000 on a single weekday sometimes. Much of this “internet traffic” is driven by our Twitter feed, which only this week clocked up its 10,000th follower – and we know they can’t all be professional sports journalists, because otherwise the press boxes in the nation’s stadiums would be more over-crowded than they already are.
A great burden of our year’s work has been shouldered by Ian Cole, who this time last year stepped up to chair the awards sub-committee after David Welch stepped down. Sadly, as many of you will know, David died not much later after a short illness. His great efforts on the Association’s behalf over the years has helped our awards events reach the high standards that we now enjoy, and which Ian, together with great assistance from Martin Castle at Start2Finish, this year maintained and developed further.
It was with great pride that we were able to name Mark Cavendish, Rebecca Adlington and the England cricket team as the winners of our Sportsman, Sportswoman and Team of the Year at a glittering ceremony in front of 400 guests at a new venue, the Grand Connaught Rooms in Covent Garden, just before Christmas, where the speech given by another award-winner, triathlete Chrissie Wellington, will be long remembered.
Likewise, the Sports Journalism Awards last month were also widely acclaimed as the best yet. But we will not rest on our laurels, and will strive to improve even more. We owe a great debt of thanks to the chairman of the photography judges, Mike King, who will be undertaking the task again this year, and to Jon Ryan, who stands down after the customary two years as chairman of the writing judges.
Your committee is as strong as it has ever been, with a range of experience and influence, including as it does three current sports editors in David Walker, Howard Wheatcroft and Ben Clissitt, and one former national newspaper editor in Stuart Higgins. Mary Fitzhenry, with her connections within LOCOG, remains a dependable stalwart, while Getty Images’ Steve Rose is relied upon for his understanding of the photography world, and Janine Self, who is working on the frontline of football and sports reporting, has been a welcome addition to our ranks this year.
But we are also keenly aware that too large a burden of the ever-growing work of the Association is being carried on the shoulders of too few, and we are actively seeking volunteers, whether for committee duties or as regional liaisons and organisers, who can help keep our momentum going.
For the work of the SJA never stops: our sponsorship with BetVictor runs until next March, but our deals with Ladbrokes and Laureus are initially just for one year. Once our 2012 annual meeting is over, we will be out there again, looking for partners and trying to provide support to our colleagues in what promises to be an Olympian year.
April 18, 2012