On the long, hard and fruitless battle to monetise sports betting content.
With a launch budget of £11.5m The Sportsman arrived on the news-stands, in time for the 2006 Grand National and June's World Cup. Those connected with the paper had spoken of " incredible support from advertisers and commercial partners". It was said that for the newspaper to be profitable it would have to achieve a circulation of 45,000 and above.
A key part of the the new title's strategy was that it would focus equal time and effort on its printed and online versions. Betting enthusiasts, so the argument went, would flock to the newspaper's internet site because of its convenience, its 24hr accessibilty and the fact that its content would be customised to their real time needs.
Alas, this was an argument that had been heard many times before and, as our brief history of the online sports content market reveals, the goal of monetising sports related content online remains an illusive one.
The online sports content sector saw its first major casuality back in May 2001 when QUOKKA Sports, the Nasdaq-listed Internet company filed for bankruptcy protection in the United States, reporting a net loss of $US149 million ($293 million) for the year to December 20 2000.
During its short life, the company spent more than $US100 million developing an infrastructure to deliver real-time coverage of sporting events over the Internet and broadband, which included the acquisition of three rival Internet sports content companies. The company's rights portfolio included the Sydney Olympics and Whitbread yacht race and at its peak, it had employed close to 700 staff.
Then there was Sportal, one of the most high profile sports content companies, it received £50m start up funding from Bernard Arnault's investment vechile Europatweb, 3i and Nomura. The company won the contract to produce the official website of the European Championships, for which it received £7m of publicity throughout the duration of the tournament and formed a partnership with the bookmaker Coral Eurobet to offer football betting alongside its coverage of the Euro 2000 championship. During Euro 2000, Sportal's website registered an astonishing 130m hits.
In May 2001, Sportal announced that despite the significant traffic flows it was generating it was not able to generate sufficient revenue from banner advertisements, content syndication and the marketing partnerships it had formed with the betting industry, to survive.
In August 2001, Sportal received a cash injection of 8 million Euros from investors, including Europatweb, Rob Hersov, its founder, Whitney and Co and Dawnay Day Lander, an investment boutique. However, in November 2001 time was called and the company was sold to UKBetting for £191,000.
In October 2001, the UK sports content market witnessed another casualty, with the entire share capital of Sportinglife.Com being sold to AIM-listed UKbetting for just £2, with a further constituent element of the deal of £1m going towards the paying off the company's debt.
Whilst SportingLife.com had been one of the UK's most visited sports websites, with 708,000 unique visitors and 43 million page views in June 2001, the sites operator PA SportingLife had recorded losses of £4m over the previous twelve months; despite a number of high profile advertising contracts with leading bookmaking companies.
Shares in 365.Corp a provider of premium telephone services and sports content sites, were trading at over £3.50 in March 2000. At the time of its flotation, the company had raised £50m, it was valued at £450 million and operated a broad portfolio of sports content sites targeted at the UK, Europe and the US. On the morning of December 14 2001, the company's shares were trading at 6.25p valuing it at £13m, significantly below its cash reserves of £15m.
In November 2001, 365 signalled the end of its ambitions to be a leading online sports content provider, with the announcement that it had entered into a partnership with Chrysallis which would allow the two companies to combine and ringfence their internet operations under the umbrella of a new company "Newco".
In to the new company, 365 put its Formula One, football and rugby sites alongside the Rivals brand of Chrysalis. Each company held 40 per cent of the stock with the management holding the remaining shares. 365 provided £700,000 and Chrysalis £1.3m working capital for the company and £250,000 each for future acquisitions. Chrysalis and Eckoh Technologies sold their Rivals Digital Media internet business to UKbetting for £2m in December 2003.
Sports.Com, was 30% owned by the Nasdaq quoted, sports content provider Sportsline, a subsidiary of the media giant CBS. In December 1999 when the shares of Sportsline were trading at over $80, Sports.Com announced that it had received £49m worth of investment from funds including IMG and the Soros Private Equity Partners. In July 2001, the company raised a further £9.3m in funding from existing investors, including US company Sportsline.com, Soros Private Equity Partners and sports management giant IMG.
In an effort to monetise its web traffic, Sports.Com migrated from building sport-specific sites for the European market into becoming a company which provides sports content and a betting service. Alas, it was a case of setting up one loss making business, in order to bail out another loss making one and it was no surprise when in May 2002 the company announced that it had been put into administration.
In July 2002 UKbetting plc announced that it had acquired the betting operations of Sports.com Ltd, for a cash consideration of £670,000. According to unaudited management accounts, the results for the six months ended 30 June 2002, SCG Enterprises reported revenues of £8.8 million and loss before interest, tax, depreciation and amortisation of £454,000.
In May 2002, UKbetting.com continued its strategy of mopping up failing sports content sites, when it paid £13.7m for Teamtalk, the sports radio, internet and telephony group. For the 9 months ended 31 December 2001, the company had reported ebitda losses of £7.6 million. Net cash which was £42.9m at 30th June 2000 had fallen to £17.4m by 31st December 2001. It is estimated that Teamtalk currently has around 2.36million unique users generating around 38million page impressions per month
When announcing year end results to Dec 31 2005, UKBetting said that its content network had generated 8.5 million monthly users and 302m page impressions views a month. Turnover for the division came in at £13.6 million, compared with £13.9 million the previous year. Operating expenses were £10.5 million, with gross operating profit before exceptional items and common costs of £1.3m.
The moral of the story is a simple one, regardless of the dynamics of the betting industry it is not easy to monetise sports/betting content online. Most of those companies that have tried have failed miserably - despite many of them managing to achieve huge scale. (Does anybody remember the somehwat bombastic sports advisor).
In terms of The Sportsman, there were a number of early warning signals that had suggested that it may have problems bucking the trend.
Firstly, the name "The Sportsman" was not synonymous with betting. Secondly, and related, with only one month to go until the launch of the online addition, the company was having to buy its way to the top of the google search rankings for the term "The Sportsman" - suggesting brand name clutter.
Thirdly, in that the offline paper had just launched, the company was making the jump online with much less critical mass behind it than its leading rival the Racing Post had, when it launched its online edition. There was every danger that the launch of an online addition will merely serve to cannibalise their exisiting customer base.
Fourthly, it seemed that the paper, like so many before it, had not properly thought through the economics of the online betting advertising market. Sticking up the prices from ten bookmakers, is not going to bring you a surge in revenue, especially when the most informed punters know that the best-prices will always be found on the betting exchanges.
On July 11, the London Times reported that the Sportsman, which had recorded a daily sale of only 12,762 in May was trying to raise between 3 and 4 million, to ensure that it stayed in business.
The paper had allegedly burned through the bulk of its 11.5 million start-up financing, as sales in its first four months had been well below expectations. On October 6 said Times reported; "THE SPORTSMAN, Britain?s first new paid-for national daily newspaper in two decades, ceased trading last night, after exhausting £12 million in just over six months."
In October 2007, it was announced that the Racing Post, which had been sold to Dublin based private equity concern FL Partners for £170 million, was planning to invest £10 million to further develop its online presence. It was said at the time that the money would be spent on providing new premium areas of audio and video content alongside a relaunched online betting shop.
As of August 2012 it is not yet known, what the outcome of the venture has been. What we do know is that sales of the newspaper are down 28% between August 2007 and June 2012, and that against this backdrop the company has pushed hard to gain online subscribers, both through television advertising and through the launch of a Racing Post app.
The Racing Post claims that with regard to online traffic it averages "over 1 million unique users per month". It remains to be seen to what extent this traffic is being successfully monetised.