Deedes takes punt on a daily - Tuesday 12th of July 2005
So Britain is to get a new national daily newspaper, launched in the teeth of a severe advertising downturn but confident of capitalising on the nations growing obsession with gambling.
The Sportsman will spend around £12 million on its launch next spring, but despite its name, it hopes to be the paper of choice for gamblers: The Punter might have been a more apt title. This is not a sports section. This is a betting newspaper for people who are interested in betting on sport, says Jeremy Deedes, its chairman.
Few are better qualified to run a new publication than Deedes, an experienced member of a journalistic dynasty, former chief executive of the Telegraph group, and the man who helped Eddie Shah launch Today. He likes a flutter, too, so the paper is likely to prove a neat marriage of the personal and professional.
Looking tanned and relaxed, Deedes is sitting in the opulent surrounding of the Clermont Club in Londons Berkeley Square, surrounded by some of the ambitious young turks behind the new title, who include backers Ben and Zac Goldsmith (editor-in-chief), Charlie Methven and co-founder Max Aitken, who is managing director.
If commercial success depended on family connections, the Sportsman would already be a success. The Goldsmiths late father, James, gambled in these very premises, although he was better known for suing newspapers than bankrolling them. And youthful entrepreneur Aitken is the great-grandson of Lord Beaverbrook, arguably the greatest press baron of them all.
The concept was dreamt up by Methven, a former Daily Telegraph journalist, but he turned to old university friend Aitken, who has run several internet start-ups, to draw up a business plan. Deedes is the experienced hand they needed to give the project credibility, although more money will have to be found before it launches next spring, in time for the 2006 World Cup.
Charlie and Max came and saw me a few months ago, Deedes says. They wanted somebody whod been in publishing and who would get to the nitty gritty of how you put it together, how you print it, how you distribute it ... It helps if youve got your knees dirty in one of these things before. Its 21 years since we started Today and the thought of doing it again was extremely appealing. On top of which, I think it coincides with something that is changing in the betting industry.
Gambling is a growing leisure activity, boosted by the popularity of online poker, spread betting and internet betting exchanges. Those that indulge typically have money to spend: an attractive audience for advertisers. Advertisers dont have a conduit to get to them. Thats what we aim to provide.
This is no rag, however. The Sportsman will be a national, seven-days-a week paper, with up to 128 tabloid pages and more than 100 staff. The search for offices is well-advanced, with Hammersmith in London the favoured location, and the aim is to produce dummies within five weeks. Im talking to two or three print houses at the moment about printing and distribution, Deedes says. The longer we have been on the streets before the World Cup the better. It will be the betting bonanza of the year.
Deedes, Methven, Aitken and non-executive Compton Hellyer, founder and chairman of Sporting Index, have stakes in the paper. The cover price is a closely guarded secret, but circulation aspirations are modest: I think wed be pleased with 40,000, Deedes says.
The Racing Post sells twice that, but if initial estimates are conservative, the financial assumptions are anything but. The business plan as it sits at the moment is that we will be close to break-even in year one. How many newspapers have made similar claims, but find themselves struggling to make a profit years later?
Some other questions remain unanswered. The Goldsmiths coming in with some early finance has given us leeway to start talking to institutions and other organisations for the main finance. So were raising money.
However, newspaper circulation is falling - not just here, but in the entire western world and the City may be reluctant to invest. Former Independent executive Stephen Glover has failed to find backing for his high-brow broadsheet, although that would have launched into a market that is already well-served. And new titles have been launched before. Sporting Life found an audience - soon selling 80,000 a day - but it didnt find advertisers; Sunday Business (now the Business) won some critical acclaim under launch editor Jeff Randall, but has struggled to increase circulation.
The answer, Deedes insists, lies in the Sportsmans focus on a growing market. The betting story of the day will dictate the news values of the publication. It may be racing, it may be football, it may be cricket. It could be poker. It might be the City. It could, editor Methven interjects, be politics. But Deedes is clear that The key to it is advertising [in a] sports betting paper. The gaming industry is expected to be worth £50 billion this year and there is plenty of scope for commercial tie-ups. The Sportsman will also have an online presence from day one.
It sounds like hard work for a man who has been spending a lot of time on the golf course of late, although the Telegraphs new owners, David and Frederick Barclay, kept Deedes on as part-time vice-chairman at the group. Journalism, as Deedes is the first to admit, is not the leisurely profession it once was, but it is no less enjoyable for that.
Its a myth that its less fun. People seem to [equate] fun with how long we used to drink at lunchtime and its true, we used to drink a long time at lunchtime and a long time in the evening. We never used to go home and the result was those stayed married in the old days of Fleet Street for longer than five years were few and far between. [But] our lifestyles have changed. Were all healthier. But there is no other industry where you manage something different every single day of the year. I dont think theres anything that gives the same buzz as that.
Still, its unlikely Deedes will be allowing the Sportsmans journalists to go on some of the trips he enjoyed as a young hack. I managed to persuade the Evening Standard, many, many years ago, to play in the first ever world poker championships in Cannes, which meant that I stayed for a fortnight at the Standards expense in the Carlton Hotel playing poker for 16 hours a day. It must be one of the best jobs I ever went on. There wasnt a huge entry. I think I was the 32nd best player in the world.
That would make him a lot of money on the professional poker circuit these days. The Sportsman is a gamble that could prove more lucrative still.
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