Haymarket risks Spikes wound with track magazine

Last week, despite previous warnings about the dire state of the magazine publishing market, Haymarket launched a title in a joint ventire with UK Athletics and the international federation, the IAAF. MATTHEW BROWN flicks through the pages and assesses its chances of success

Launched at the O2 in London last Thursday by many of the great and good of the sport, Spikes claims to be carving a cutting edge in athletics marketing that will reach out and skewer new fans across the globe, especially the young.

It’s certainly a new direction for the federations, UK Athletics and the world giverning body, the IAAF, not least because it will openly confront “issues” in the sport, face up to controversial topics and initiate debates about the sport’s future in a way that sports officials have tended to shy away in the past.

IAAF vice president Sebastian Coe, pictured above right, made no bones about the need to engage. “It’s really important we discuss the issues that are being talked about at our athletics clubs and in the pubs,” he said. “It’s good for us to have a forum where we can influence those debates.”

The first issue of the magazine, which goes on sale on Monday, priced £2.50, includes a feature on whether to scrap all current world records and start from “Year Zero”, and discusses the merits of changing the rules to eliminate no jumps in the long and triple – both subjects likely to raise a few hackles.

The magazine’s website, which went live on Thursday, allows such debates to be “interactive”. The site will also include clips of world records and athletics “heroes” in action, as well as online polls on “the best ever”.

As Coe put it: “There’s a lot of good happening in our sport, both here and in the UK and globally, but we need to be much more creative and dynamic about how we reach out to promote the sport.”

It’s certainly a departure from the federations’ traditional websites and publications, which are decidedly cautious, if not rigorously censored, to keep as much distance as possible between the organisations and anything remotely controversial – as anyone who has freelanced for them knows.

So how have they overcome the same anxieties with Spikes? Well, chiefly it seems by franchising out the production to Haymarket Publishing, the media business chaired by Tory peer Michael Heseltine, and so removing the risk that this could be seen as the IAAF’s or UKA’s official word. It is “Produced for IAAF by Haymarket Network” according to the small print at the bottom of the credits.

Haymarket’s an interesting choice. Lord Heseltine warned last month of “tightening” trading conditions affecting his group in the coming year, despite increased profits and turnover in 2007. Spikes is presumably part of its current “diversification strategy” while, no doubt, being subsidised by two federations helps a great deal if you’re launching a new publication in such a notoriously limited niche market as athletics (Athletics Weekly, 20 years ago, when Coe was still bestriding the world’s tracks, had an ABC of 28,000; these days, unaudited, its circulation is said to be less than 7,000).

Perhaps the risk is minimised also by having the new magazine published only once every six months, initially at least, though the collaboration will do nothing but good for Haymarket corporately should they wish to pitch for official publishing contracts with Lord Coe when he is wearing his London 2012 hat.

What impact Spikes will have on Athletics Weekly, the 60-year-old established title, remains to be seen, although judging by the first issue AW shouldn’t worry too much about it pinching advertisers. Spikes pretty much follows the old IAAF magazine style where the only ads are for the federation’s official sponsors, or for the IAAF itself.

Also, Spikes clearly aims to reach readers that AW doesn’t. As one journalist put it on Thursday, “It’s the sort of magazine AW should be if it had the money.” Except that it’s clearly not about reporting events and results: it’s very much feature-led; and it’s aiming young, with lots of colour, graphics and text broken up into little boxes.

“It’s a bit of fresh air,” as Steve Ovett put it on Thursday. “It’s lighter, fun. We need to enthrall the kids, to keep them motivated and interested. We have to make the sport glamorous and sexy.” So, Yelena Isinbayeva, undoubtedly looking glamorous and sexy, appears on the launch issue’s cover. But how many potential buyers in Tesco’s next week will recognise the Russian pole vaulter?

Whether the kids will buy it, of course, is another question. Eventually, they hope, the circulation will go global. Initially published in the UK and only in English, the aim is to take it to Europe, then worldwide, with Germany rumoured to be in line for the first overseas edition sometime next year (Berlin is hosting the 2009 IAAF World Championships).

“Spikes will be our shop front for a new era,” said Coe. “To capture the imagination of those who follow the sport and to reach out to the next generation.”

It’s certainly ambitious. Maybe overambitious? We’ll see.

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