I wrote the bulk of this in late August 2014, during the rowing world championships. Didn’t post it up, thinking it was too whiny. But then what it said came completely true…. Read the first section from 2014, then read to the bottom.
Rowing is in serious danger of being dropped even further down the list of which sports matter in Britain (and most of the world), and you can do something about it.
Somebody’s going to have to — in fact a lot of people are going to have to — or else we will become an idiosyncratic corner of the sporting world, fit only for Boat Race jokes and Olympic tolerance every four years, on a par with synchronised swimming and Greco-Roman wrestling. Yes, really, I mean it. If you don’t get how serious this is and what a golden opportunity we have to change things for the better, please keep reading.
It’s a long blog, this one.
Tough, it needs to be.
First, a digression. Five years ago the situation was different. Sports importance in the media was based largely on what the ad-men told the editors and producers the likely revenue was. Advertising revenue was linked heavily to leisure spend. The sports which won were those in which spectators tend to spend a lot of money — on tickets, travel to events, equipment and memberships to play the same sport in their free time, clothing and branded merchandise. Multiply this by spectator numbers (mostly TV), and you’ve got a decent measure of what media gurus take to matter.
So football, a sport in which even a very averagely keen fan might well buy a replica shirt and travel to several live matches every year, as well as kick a ball about in his or her local club, and which probably three-quarters of the UK population wants to watch on TV regularly, was and still is top of the heap. Behind that come ‘major’ sports with similar levels of interest/participation/buying, but lower numbers — golf, rugby, cricket, horse-racing, tennis, motor-racing and lately cycling.
Then you start to get into what the papers consider to be ‘minor sports’ territory. Not a huge following in national terms, not much merchandise, not really lucrative in marketing terms, rarely on TV. Rowing has long been one of these, and it has had a bigger profile than most for two reasons — the annual televised Boat Race, and the national-treasure status of Sir Steve Redgrave and Sir Matthew Pinsent who are genuine household names.
Despite this, in a world where no media now tries to cover everything, and stories are picked either for shock value or because they involve an ‘important’ sport, rowing has been low in the pecking order. As newspapers went through the Noughties depression, they mostly ditched minor sports people didn’t seem to care about. Redgrave and then Pinsent retired, and it’s much harder for most other rowers to build a big profile in their shadow. Since it made no difference to reaction or readership whether they bothered to carry a report on the semi-finals of a world cup regatta, editors mostly stopped doing so. The Indy, Guardian, Observer, Mail, Express, Evening Standard and many others stopped almost completely, putting in only a few lead-rower features except in Olympic year (when the rules briefly change and reporting racing becomes sexy again for about a month and a half.)
It’s really hard to move up this ranking. I believe that nothing will ever rival football in the UK, partly for historical reasons. Athletics, through a combination of increased TV coverage and canny marketing of personalities as brands (think Jess Ennis, Mo Farah) has moved up into the major sports group. Team Sky singlehandedly shifted cycling from ‘minor’ to ‘major’, aided by the Chris Hoy Effect on the track and the overlap of Bradley Wiggins’ road and track careers, but even that fades at non-seasonal times. Without someone spending millions on major events, most sports will stay minor and then the question is, are they top of the minor league (eg equestrianism, boxing) or bottom?
Ok, digression over. The recent change, and it’s come about mostly in the last 2 years, is the new way in which the print media, TV, radio and online-only sites are measuring interest in sports and thus how much coverage they should get. Of course, it’s based on the internet because that is how the younger generations, the ones the advertisers are most interested in catching before their habits form, mostly engage with sports news now. If you’re over 40, you probably won’t like it. I’m afraid you have to deal with it — it’s not going to change.
Nowadays, simple online page-views are not enough: not least because advertisers are now canny enough to know that people often flick ‘through’ pages and quickly on to something else.
Instead, what counts is reaction.
Anything. Basically something which shows in measurable statistics that you have read the article, looked at the photograph, or watched the video. This isn’t actually new – in the old days, coverage of a sport depended on how many Letters to the Editor it tended to provoke. When I started at the Telegraph in 2002, a phone call was starting to have more impact. Five years ago it became emails. Times move on and now publicly visible internet reactions rule — probably because of the very fact that they can be seen by every reader, not just the editors.
It was announced at the Telegraph in mid-2014 that the success level of stories, ie whether they supported the DT’s aim to increase its readership, would from now on be based on what’s loosely called ‘social media reaction’. This is a broad church. It includes simply pressing ‘like’ or ‘favourite’ at the foot of an online article or video, or adding a comment, as well as more obvious SM methods such as retweeting on Twitter, sharing on Facebook or other hubs.
For newspapers, making a comment at the foot of the online version of the story is by far the best. But it really doesn’t matter what the comment says, as long as it is not pure gobbledygook. You can slag off the piece, the sport, or the author. You can be positive, add something interesting related to the story, or just express your support of the sport or athlete. Or you can say ‘good coverage’ while simultaneously whingeing about why the paper/news site/TV station doesn’t do more on this particular sport. [Eg: “Great Boat Race article, but why isn’t there anything online about the Head of the River?“] It must be coherent, clearly written by a real person not a program, and show that you have fully read the piece.
Look at today’s sport in the online Telegraph – because it’s one I know tracks this information. A piece (nearly any piece) on football gets published online, and within a day there are dozens, sometimes hundreds of reactions. Dozens of comments, lots of +1 FB likes, retweets, the whole shebang. Now compare this to minor sports, and you’ll see what I mean. Often (including most rowing) they attract complete silence. I finally received a decent level of likes and retweets for my 2014 world champs eights report (and two whole comments!), but the rest of my Amsterdam articles pretty much led to interaction in single digits, or zero. People were reading the stories, but they were simply not reacting. As far as the editors go, it might as well have been a mis-click. The same is true of the Guardian and many other papers and sports news sites.
The Telegraph sport index is quite dynamic: if a story is getting lots of reaction on its day of publication, it will first move onto the front webpage and eventually move higher. (Football stories top the list on most UK pages because hundreds of people react to them.) I am certain other websites are the same, even though the BBC and ITV sports news websites don’t yet show how many comments they’re getting. They will soon. They will already be counting them, you can be certain.
September 6th 2015, Aiguebelette
That’s what I wrote last year. Then, in early summer 2015, the new Telegraph sport policy hit rowing. Nothing from trials after the Boat Race fuss was over. They put my European championships pieces online, then the final report from Varese, then blank again. Nothing from Henley Royal Regatta despite amazing results and large numbers of column inches in the print paper. Nothing from Lucerne at all. Nothing on the team selection (by the way, all these got space in the paper), while the story of James Cracknell gallantly saving a man from drowning, which is not sports news, had prime position in the rowing index. Nothing from Aiguebelette for day after day this week. And then, suddenly, the Saturday Olympic-finals piece was published online last night.
So today, for the first time since May 2015, a Telegraph international rowing story has gone online.
If this is going to have ANY impact at all, lots of people need to react. If they don’t, I suspect we will subside to a point where rowing in the Telegraph only gets online when feature articles about big stars are published. News stories about racing will be ignored as they have been most of the summer.
If you want rowing through the winter on the Telegraph website, before the Olympic fracas kicks in, go and post a comment, share the article, or tweet the link. Comments are best but any reaction is good. I don’t care if you hate my writing, just react to it.
This is your chance to show the Telegraph sports editorship that rowing supporters DO care that their sport is covered properly. If we could get 20-odd comments on this weekend’s piece, perhaps they will put more online.
It’s up to you.
Measurements of these social media and online interest stats takes place constantly, and is collated at every level: daily, weekly, monthly and yearly. Comments, likes and retweets are still have some value, even if they are made several weeks later.
If you support rowing and want to see it have a higher profile in the UK, then go to an online newspaper article about the sport — recent or a while ago — and comment, or like, or retweet it. Doesn’t matter which paper or magazine, but it DOES have to be the independent press – there’s no need to persuade bloggers, national federations or team publications to carry on covering the sport. The difficult area is the press which doesn’t HAVE to cover rowing, the publications which cover other sports too and currently only choose rowing occasionally because they think it doesn’t have many supporters.
If you don’t want to join Twitter, Facebook or other social media yourself, then ask someone else to do it for you. Athletes, you should be like-ing and sharing articles which mention your crew, routinely. Hopefully so will your friends and relatives. Say something, it doesn’t matter what.
Do it now.