Ex-First Artists exec leads buy-up of Athletics Weekly

Athletics Weekly is under new ownership.

The magazine, founded in 1945, has been bought from Descartes Publishing by a company run by Richard Hughes, a former executive with the First Artists Corporation sports management company, where the branding and marketing expert worked alongside chief executive Jon Smith as group managing director until 2008.

No purchase price for Athletics Weekly has been disclosed.

“After 11 years of publishing AW, the directors of Descartes feel it is time to pass on the reins,” Matthew Fraser-Moat, Descartes’ MD, said in a statement.

It is believed that the Oxbridge-educated Fraser-Moat, a jogging enthusiast who had no background in publishing before he led the takeover of Athletics Weekly from EMAP’s Peterborough-based magazine business in 1999, has been keen to devote more time to his family’s other businesses.

The new, Surrey-based proprietors, Athletics Weekly Ltd, are only the title’s fourth owners in its 65-year history.

The original, monthly Athletics magazine covered the 1948 London Olympics and recorded Roger Bannister’s first four-minute mile, as well as every other great moment in track and field history since the Second World War. It hit a circulation peak in the early 1980s running boom, during the Coe-Ovett era, selling 28,000 copies each week, including a 10,000-strong subscription base. Into the 1990s, the magazine was still selling 20,000 copies each week, despite the arrival of a rival title, Athletics Today.

But in the past decade, AW has faced steadily declining readership and has struggled most recently in the depths of the recession in the advertising market. Under Descartes, AW has not had an independently audited circulation for some time and according to insiders, in recent years its sale has dwindled to less than 6,000.

The new owners, however, have refused to be drawn on the magazine’s exact sales figures. Indeed, in the statement announcing the purchase, Hughes said, “I wish to thank Matthew for his safe stewardship of this iconic brand and for handing it over in such a robust and healthy condition. It will be a challenge to continue to provide such a high quality product.”

Hughes’s statement makes no secret that he will be looking at making online publishing an important revenue-driver for the business: with so many athletics event results now published on the web almost immediately each weekend, printed AW‘s old USP, with a publication day of Thursday, has been overtaken by 21st century technology.

“The coming years offer an exciting range of communication routes and the company intends to deliver on many of these, building on the work already undertaken by AW with the digital editions, iPhone apps and iPad versions,” Hughes said.

“I am very excited about AW’s future and working with all those involved in its production, while at the same time continuing to develop AW as the world’s leading weekly athletics publication at the heart of this sport.”

Hughes is also understood to want to build a sports publishing business, and sources suggest he will be looking at acquiring existing titles in sports such as road running, cycling and triathlon. There are no immediate plans to move the titles from Peterborough, where it has been based since 1988, nor to change the editorial team, where Jason Henderson has been editor since 2001.

Although they are not known to have much background in publishing or athletics, the magazine’s new executives are already well-connected within the sport. The new company’s chairman, Eric Anstee, is a long-time City acquaintance of Ed Warner, the chairman of UK Athletics, the sport’s national governing body.

Declaration: The author of this report, Steven Downes, was editor of Athletics Weekly from 1989-1991.

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