Forty years ago the football transfer market went crazy: the British record was broken four times in 1979, more than in any other year before or since. A lot of this was down to Malcolm Allison at Manchester City, who shelled out a record amount for a teenager (£250,000 for Steve MacKenzie, an apprentice at Palace) and £1.45 million to bring Steve Daley from Wolves. That was later, unkindly but not inaccurately, described as ‘the biggest waste of money in football history’. Allison continued to spend money like a drunk in a bar; something the club never recovered from until it became part of the sovereign wealth portfolio of one of the richest countries in the world.
Now could something similar be happening in the recondite and less lucrative world of sports journalism? Here the interloper is a hyper-aggressive American sports website called The Athletic which is opening in the UK under the leadership of well-regarded former Times executive Alex Kay-Jelski. In the time-honoured way of ruthless American predators, they are on a hiring spree, raiding the sports departments of our best newspapers and throwing money, stock options, signing-on fees and benefits at many of Britain’s leading journalists. This is in turn leading to rapidly inflating salaries and bidding wars for talent. No bad thing, you may say; but some of the salaries could soon become unaffordable, with parts of our already beleaguered national and regional press having to pull horns in further, or even close.
The website, which promises to be free of adverts, has a subscription model (like Netflix and Spotify). It will concentrate on football, and not just the Premier League. Fans will be able to access granular reporting about every nook and cranny of their club. That seems to have worked in America. But in America you don’t have the huge range of high-quality sports journalism that is already available every day in our national press.
Papers such as the Mail, the Guardian and the Telegraph offer exceptional coverage and have invested heavily in their print and online offerings. In the US, the complaint is often that sports journalism has been undernourished; I don’t think anyone would say the same here. And the US doesn’t have the BBC’s excellent sports website. My friend Ben, a Swansea fan, can for example find out everything about his club from local press websites, the BBC, and independent fan sites. He already knows everything he needs to know.
Again in America, journalists’ access to the locker room — for all US sports — is guaranteed. Here, access to players and managers is ferociously controlled by clubs and agents. It takes time to cultivate the relationships that yield informed journalism. The late great Hugh McIlvanney had a famously close relationship with Sir Alex Ferguson. But that took years to develop. In America sports writers can have high status — they’re even the subject of acclaimed novels (take a bow, Richard Ford). Here it’s not so easy to unlock the secrets of clubs and players’ lives.
The men behind The Athletic take a pretty dismissive view of local press. Alex Mather, 37, one of the founders, talking about their US programme, told the New York Times: ‘We will wait every local paper out and let them continuously bleed until we are the last ones standing. We will suck them dry of their best talent at every moment. We will make business extremely difficult for them.’ Hmmm: nice eh!
I am all for the rewards of journalism being more fairly shared out, but I have the highest regard for what we have here and I feel that our Yankee friends — with their millions, their fashionable stubble, their groovy jeans and their brutal tactics — should show a tad more respect.
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