SportsPro Stories: Blog standard

This first entry in an occasional, original series considers how blogging has unearthed specialists who have become mainstream media voices in their field.

This first entry in an occasional, original series considers how blogging has unearthed specialists who have become mainstream media voices in their field.

By James Emmett

Blogs are nothing new. Anyone with an internet connection and a modicum of technical nous can upload whatever they want, whenever they want, to be viewed by anyone around the world.

But the shifting media landscape, the ability to reach millions of people with nothing more than a touch of a keyboard and the click of a mouse, and the added pressures and smaller budgets that have hit traditional media outlets as they continue the transition from print to digital, have provided an opportunity for a new wave of ‘content producers’ to become established and popular authorities on any given topic.

Nowhere is this truer than in sport. Access is the lifeblood of traditional journalism, and the currency of quotes remains valued. But time for reflection, space to write and an active and loyal community to engage with is increasingly the preserve of the big beasts of the blogosphere.

Three such beasts – The Swiss Ramble, JoeblogsF1, and Arseblog – talked to SportsPro about how they do it, why they do it, and who they do it for.

The Swiss Ramble – aka Kieron O’Connor

Former SportBusiness International editor Richard Gillis, himself a prolific blogger through his ‘Unofficial Partner’ platform, recently named @SwissRamble at number 36 on his ‘#Unofficial50 Best Sport Biz Twitter Follows of 2015’. Gillis, ever the sideways-glancer and only half mocking the similar if far more earnest lists that tend to appear at the close or beginning of every year, provided pithy explanations for each entrant’s inclusion on his list.

The Swiss Ramble’s read: ‘Studies the accounts so we don’t have to. Incredible, forensic riffs on football finance which are then nicked by everyone else. A one off.’

It’s hard to argue with that. With posts running to the 5,000- word mark and beyond, the Swiss Ramble (more or less) pioneered long-form analysis of soccer club accounts for an audience of (more or less) mainstream fans, media and industry insiders.

Posting semi-regularly – around three pieces per month – the Swiss Ramble aims to tell the story of a soccer club, its recent history, current predicament and outlook for the future, via the prism of its finances. Financial analysis it may be – and the graphs, charts and figures that pepper the entries do take some explanation – but the richly sketched context and clear authorial decision to pitch not at the CFO but at the layman make for a blog that anyone can read.

And many people do. The blog has won numerous awards since it was founded in 2009. @SwissRamble has almost 70,000 followers on Twitter, and the man behind it, Kieron O’Connor, says that although he doesn’t delve into the analytics too deeply, the average blog post is read by around 20,000 people.

O’Connor, a Briton, has lived in Switzerland for many years. He has a senior position in the finance industry and controls an internal budget of around €6 billion. He used to work for Reuters, though not on the journalism side.

The blog began a few years ago when O’Connor found himself on a sabbatical. “It’s genuinely purely a hobby for me,” he says, “in the way that some guys play golf, some guys go fishing. There was never any grand plan. I thought it would be good to take a bit of time out, but I sort of got bored. There was nothing really challenging me intellectually. So I thought I’d just start a blog.”

In the early days, O’Connor would write about books, film and soccer, and his posts would be read by around 20 people – all of whom he knew by name. The first blog he wrote on soccer finance garnered 8,000 views in a day and he knew he was on to something.

“I’ve got a routine,” O’Connor explains of the process behind some of the most rigorous blog posts around. “I have a suite of spreadsheets which I update constantly, but the format is there so I can do that fairly quickly, and then I spend probably half a day on research, where I’ll just look at the accounts, look at some of the newspaper articles and just try to get a feel. That half day would include putting together the structural framework, and then half a day writing the thing. If you look at what I do in a multimedia age, it’s all wrong. I write these massively long blogs, demanding a lot of attention from people. I don’t publish every day, I publish once a week at most, and it’s quite a niche subject. It’s almost exactly the wrong thing to do.”

“If you look at what I do in a multimedia age, it’s all wrong. I write these massively long blogs, demanding a lot of attention from people.”

To date, O’Connor has given his take on the financial state of play at 63 clubs across Europe – many of them more than once. He speaks Italian, French and German and enjoys the challenge of picking through the European books a little more than his bread and butter in the top two tiers of English soccer. One breakthrough post came in 2012 when he wrote about AC Milan. The Italian giants, then recent runners-up in Serie A and champions the year before, were, O’Connor surmised, about to be banjaxed by the new financial fair play rules. He predicted that Milan would suffer a dramatic drop-off and that they would be forced to sell big-name players such as Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Thiago Silva. A month later, that’s exactly what they did.

O’Connor, who likes to indulge his penchant for late 70s and early 80s popular music through coded and not-so-coded references throughout his posts, called the Milan piece ‘Warning Signs’ after an old Talking Heads number, and it more or less cemented his status as one of the keenest analysts of the business of soccer anywhere in the world.

A piece on Manchester City, written at roughly the same time, remains the Swiss Ramble’s most popular single piece of content, drawing about 50,000 individual views in its first few days. “When financial fair play first came out nobody really understood it,” says O’Connor. “I delved quite deeply into it, and I think I was probably the first person to write an article that explained that this was obviously going to cause City issues, but this is how I think they will address them. I basically wrote a ten-point plan, and pretty well every one of those has come true.”

O’Connor has no intention of commercialising his blog. In pure financial terms, he simply doesn’t need to, but he’s also keen to maintain his independence. He has, however, been tempted in the past to offer consultancy services to clubs.

“I get contacted by chief executives, finance directors, sometimes to correct a point, sometimes to ask where I got the information, sometimes just to shoot the breeze, sometimes to give me information,” he says. “I wrote about one Premier League club and how I didn’t think a particular sponsorship deal was all that and they said, ‘Well, we think the same, and watch this space because in the next three months you’ll see a deal that will be two to three times the size.’”

Journalists contact him regularly, too – almost always via Twitter, and almost always privately – looking for a steer on a club’s finances. “I really need to look at the base accounts because quite often the devil’s in the detail and people will not necessarily give you the same information in the press release. There was a great example a few years back when Tottenham did a press release that said ‘record revenue, operating profits up’ and I thought, ‘yeah, but they’ve made a loss’. But what you get in a press release is pretty much what you’ll get in the newspapers because they won’t go to the accounts themselves.” They will, it seems, go to the Swiss Ramble in their increasing numbers.

And as soccer finance seeps unceasingly into the mainstream, the Swiss Ramble can at least partly be held responsible for the evolution of half-time chit-chat from the realms of ‘look at how shit our right back is’ to ‘look at how shit our net spend is’.

JoeblogsF1 – aka Joe Saward

The subheading on the JoeblogsF1 WordPress site reads, ‘The real stories from inside the F1 paddock’, and that, in a nutshell, is exactly what it is. These are the stories behind the stories in Formula One.

Posts, which often include pictures or embedded video, tend to come in at around the 800-word mark and appear more or less daily. Sometimes, particularly in the off-season or the mid-season break, there will be nothing posted. More often, there will be two or three stories a day.

A snapshot from 15th December – silly season in Formula One terms – demonstrates the prolific and broad output of the blog. First, posted in the morning, an excerpt from a piece written for the British Medical Journal in which consultant surgeon Jonathan Glass riffs on the tendency of manifold professions – including medicine – to believe they have something to learn from the painstaking processes inherent in Formula One. The amusing piece imagines Lewis Hamilton as an NHS clinician, spraying champagne over the anaesthetist after a successful procedure, then heading off for a few days’ rest. The next piece, posted not long afterwards, is a reflection on the motor industry parts-manufacturing process which segues into a theory on a potential trend for engine manufacturers in Formula One, while the final post of the day is an explanation of a recent news story – Jaguar returning to motorsport with an entry in Formula E, powered by technical partner Williams Advanced Engineering.

Running alongside the pieces are small banner ads for Formula One photographic agencies, a couple of books the author has written, and a link to a regular Formula One podcast he appears on.

JoeblogsF1 is the work of Joe Saward, a Formula One journalist who hasn’t missed a Grand Prix since 1988. A former international editor and Grand Prix editor at Autosport, it was while working for the respected motorsport magazine that Saward began to write a personal column called ‘Globetrotter’. The column has gone through several iterations since its foundation in the 1980s but the blog, which began around five years ago, is essentially the latest version of it.

Although Saward, who is based in France when he’s not on the road, estimates that the blog takes up roughly 20 per cent of his day, and he allows, regulates and replies to comments himself – often in some detail – he makes his living as a paid journalist elsewhere. He uses the blog to advertise his more commercial services from time to time – notably GP+, the e-magazine he produces with fellow veterans of the Formula One press rooms Peter Nygaard and David Tremayne, and his ‘Audience with Joe’ fan events.

“Fundamentally, it’s an advertising medium. I’m advertising my knowledge, connections, ability to write – hopefully!”

For Saward, the blog is simply a way to refresh and update his journalistic credentials on a daily basis, build credibility with readers and the traditional outlets around the world that employ him as freelance writer.

“There’s a lot of people out there who pretend to be in Formula One, and aren’t,” he says. “By showing pictures and telling stories of life in the paddock, you personalise it, you make the travel feel real to the readers. But underlying that, you make a very clear point that you are there and part of the game. That was the starting point. Fundamentally, it’s an advertising medium. I’m advertising my knowledge, connections, ability to write – hopefully! And engaging with the fans, which is something Formula One does very badly.”

Saward has 26,400 followers on Twitter and 30,000 signed up to take an RSS feed from his site. Looking deeper into the analytics, he estimates that he probably gets around 50,000 individuals looking at his blog per day. “Weekly magazines in motor racing aren’t selling more than about 10,000 copies, so even if I’m doing 35,000 a day every day, I’m doing pretty well,” he says.

Though he can’t say for sure whether Bernie Ecclestone, Formula One’s notorious chief executive, reads the blog, he knows that pretty well every team principal has read JoeblogsF1 at some point. “They all do to some extent,” he says. “I think what tends to happen is that people around them would print out something that they wouldn’t necessarily like. Most of the teams read it. A lot of the team principals are actually capable of reading things online. One or two others, not necessarily! Clearly, I have a pretty good penetration into the higher echelons.” That penetration leads to consultancy work for Saward on one-off projects from time to time.

Just as in the world of soccer media, where transfer speculation is by far the biggest driver of traffic to websites, the off-season provides the best opportunity to score big with reader numbers. Images or information about new-model cars, especially when exclusive, tend to score well for JoeblogsF1.

“I had a pretty big score the other day with a photograph of Niki Lauda and Toto Wolff holding hands,” Saward explains. “There were lots of stories about how they were at war with each other and, basically, I knew this wasn’t true, so I said to them, ‘Why don’t you just say it’s not true?’ And they said, ‘Well, nobody’s going to believe us if we say it isn’t true.’

“So I said, ‘How about walking down the paddock holding hands?’ And they both thought it was a great idea. I helped them solve the problem unintentionally. It was a great photograph and it scored very highly.”

Arseblog – aka Andrew Mangan

Arseblog is one of the most popular fan sites for Premier League soccer side Arsenal on the internet, if not the most popular. The core output is a daily blog of around 1,000 words, reflecting on Arsenal games, news and views. Over the years, the blog has been supplemented with a separate news outlet, which includes a handful of small stories per day, a suite of weekly columnists, a twice-weekly podcast, a live blog of each match, as well as a statistical ‘by the numbers’ review of each match, and a player ratings platform.

Such is Arseblog’s reach and influence that a pub conversation between Arsenal fans – certainly in this Arsenal supporter’s experience – will rarely pass without a mention or citation of an opinion from the blog.

Arseblog is Irishman Andrew Mangan. Now based in Dublin, Mangan started Arseblog when he was living in Barcelona in the early 2000s. He and a friend had a startup company selling off-the-shelf websites to small businesses.

“The technical side of things, the hosting side of things, I was alright at,” he says, “but I couldn’t design or anything like that. So my idea was to set up a website that I could constantly update to teach myself new things, how do I add this, change the colour of that, simple stuff. I thought this could be my template, learn on the job.”

His first blog was a spoof fan site for then-Arsenal player Robert Pires. “It was called the Church of Bob, but it had a very limited sphere of interest for anyone! So I thought I’d expand it and with Arsenal there’s always matches, there are injuries, transfers, gossip, rumours. So I just said, ‘Fuck it: I’ll start Arseblog.’ And that was basically it.”

There are, of course, many soccer blogs, and plenty that concentrate on Arsenal, but since an explosion in production in the mid-2000s, many have fallen by the wayside. Key to Arseblog’s enduring success has been the regularity with which Mangan posts. Uploaded 365 days a year, without fail, almost always before 9am, Arseblog is there come rain, shine, holiday or hangover.

“Ultimately what we’re doing is providing people with content, and good content, seven days a week. We don’t do bullshit content.”

The quality of the content is also important. Mangan has a background in journalism and his posts, while obviously and necessarily prejudiced, are almost always considered and balanced. Bizarrely, the most popular piece of content that Arseblog has ever produced was a small story on the club’s former midfielder Abou Diaby switching squad number. But as a general rule, there is more traffic when the team has lost or – once again – allowed a transfer window to pass without making a signing.

Mangan says he never posts in the heat of the moment after defeat. He sleeps on it, and almost always wakes up with the first line of the blog in his head, then goes from there. He allows comments, but moderates them himself and is keen on sensible discussion, rather than reactionary, polarising nonsense that’s often the fare on fan sites. When there’s little going on in the Arsenal world, he also does a neat and idiosyncratic line in whimsy which proves almost as popular as his stuff on the team.

Arseblog has 246,000 followers on Twitter; Arseblog News 75,000. While it’s difficult to be precise given the multiple platforms, including a nifty app, that Mangan runs, he estimates that the number of people consuming Arseblog content is in the hundreds of thousands per week. With such a large audience, the analytics give a genuine reflection of where the club’s support sits around the world.

“It’s about 45 per cent UK; 25 per cent US,” says Mangan. “Rest of world comes in after that. The Americans have really embraced football, and really embraced Arsenal over the last few years. We went over there and did a book launch last year when Arsenal played in New York. We sold more books in New York than we did in London.”

Caramel-voiced Mangan combines his work on Arseblog with a freelance role providing voice-over on all manner of projects, and a new regular podcast in which he interviews interesting figures from around the world of culture, entertainment and the arts. He also writes the occasional piece on Arsenal for traditional media outlets. But Arseblog has become a business for him. He doesn’t like advertising on the site, but he does insert commercial messages into the podcasts, and recently started selling tickets to live recordings of podcasts, in which traditional media journalists regularly appear, in London.

“Ultimately what we’re doing is providing people with content, and good content, seven days a week,” Mangan explains. “We don’t do bullshit content. We don’t do, ‘Oh look, Mike Dean is celebrating a Tottenham goal.’ We don’t do lists unless we’re taking the piss out of lists.

“On Arseblog News, we could do twice as much content every day. We could do transfer rumour columns, but bollocks to that. We could do a lot more but it comes down to, what do you want people to think of when they see Arseblog? I want it to be quality; I want it to be trustworthy; I want it to be stuff that people will take seriously, rather than them thinking we’re just bullshitting for page views.” 

This article was originally published in the February 2016 edition of SportsPro magazine.

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