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.
Itâ€™s certainly a new direction for the federations, UK Athletics and the world giverning body, the IAAF, not least because it will openly confront â€œissuesâ€ in the sport, face up to controversial topics and initiate debates about the sportâ€™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. â€œItâ€™s really important we discuss the issues that are being talked about at our athletics clubs and in the pubs,â€ he said. â€œItâ€™s good for us to have a forum where we can influence those debates.â€
The first issue of the magazine, which goes on sale on Monday, priced Â£2.50, includes a feature on whether to scrap all current world records and start from â€œYear Zeroâ€, and discusses the merits of changing the rules to eliminate no jumps in the long and triple â€“ both subjects likely to raise a few hackles.
The magazine’s website, which went live on Thursday, allows such debates to be â€œinteractiveâ€. The site will also include clips of world records and athletics â€œheroesâ€ in action, as well as online polls on â€œthe best everâ€.
As Coe put it: â€œThereâ€™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.â€
Itâ€™s certainly a departure from the federationsâ€™ 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 â€“ 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 IAAFâ€™s or UKAâ€™s official word. It is â€œProduced for IAAF by Haymarket Networkâ€ according to the small print at the bottom of the credits.
Haymarketâ€™s an interesting choice. Lord Heseltine warned last month of â€œtighteningâ€ trading conditions affecting his group in the coming year, despite increased profits and turnover in 2007. Spikes is presumably part of its current â€œdiversification strategyâ€ while, no doubt, being subsidised by two federations helps a great deal if youâ€™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 shouldnâ€™t worry too much about it pinching advertisers. Spikes pretty much follows the old IAAF magazine style where the only ads are for the federationâ€™s official sponsors, or for the IAAF itself.
Also, Spikes clearly aims to reach readers that AW doesnâ€™t. As one journalist put it on Thursday, â€œItâ€™s the sort of magazine AW should be if it had the money.â€ Except that itâ€™s clearly not about reporting events and results: itâ€™s very much feature-led; and itâ€™s aiming young, with lots of colour, graphics and text broken up into little boxes.
â€œItâ€™s a bit of fresh air,â€ as Steve Ovett put it on Thursday. â€œItâ€™s lighter, fun. We need to enthrall the kids, to keep them motivated and interested. We have to make the sport glamorous and sexy.â€ 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).
â€œSpikes will be our shop front for a new era,â€ said Coe. â€œTo capture the imagination of those who follow the sport and to reach out to the next generation.â€
Itâ€™s certainly ambitious. Maybe overambitious? Weâ€™ll see.