A whole new world for digital sports and the regional press

Carrington, the training centre and beating heart of Manchester United, is a surreal and extraordinary place. Set back from public roads and neighboured only by a private chemical works, the rolling, perfectly manicured pitches and glass-clad buildings are an independent republic of their own in south-west Manchester. When you pass the gates, you could be anywhere in the world.

For clubs like United, remaining anchored to your home town and local supporters is an increasingly complex task. It is often sports teams with which we most readily associate places, but with the financial necessity of international growth, global audiences and diverse commercial opportunities across continents, do clubs themselves still associate themselves in the same way?

Some are undoubtedly better than others. Everton, for example, couple outstanding work in their own community with an increasingly outward-looking approach to new fan bases or, calling a spade a spade, new markets.

Loyal and local supporters demand that their teams are competitive and as such, clubs respond with commercial solutions that offer the greatest possible potential for success, wherever those opportunities lie.

But it is those same fans and the values they possess that make clubs distinct. Every team is selling a story, a reason for being in the lives of potential new fans from Liverpool to LA to Lagos.

The Premier League is so eminently saleable across the globe because of the history (and histrionics) of our clubs, our fans and our connection to our towns and cities. Only a fool would forego these principles in the pursuit of never-ending growth — you’ll soon get found out or replaced by an institution that means something to its fans.

For many critical of the evolving modern game, it is positioned as a binary choice. But reaching out to new fans is only a problem when you abandon the old in doing so. Clubs are better off trying to walk the tightrope than standing still on it.

It is a shifting and expanding landscape reflective of digital sports media, particularly for the regional press.

Like many of the Premier League clubs we cover as an industry, through digital we now have an unprecedented opportunity for our journalism to reach more people than ever before, while at the same time being more vital than ever for our communities.

Acknowledging the need for both is a journalistic and commercial necessity. To not only sustain but also thrive, we must reach out and acquire new audiences for top-level growth while, at the same time, also ensuring our most engaged readers, watchers and listeners, typically loyal and local, are getting an experience that will keep them coming back to us and not our rivals.

Advertisers want as many eyes on their message as possible, but it is far less powerful if only seen once and never again.

Volume of audience is important, but building a community of people who care about what we do is too. In digital sport we work in the business of loyalty, our readers are fans like us, but they also have national publishers, broadcasters, bloggers and independent digital operations to consume content from.

At a Regional level, we have the valuable niche of knowing and striving to reflect the same values and conversations that football clubs themselves are using to sell their own brands, but also the journalistic infrastructure to break stories, challenge the clubs and speak up for fans as a collective.

My colleagues from the Manchester Evening News for example are currently reaching huge numbers of football fans across multiple platforms, with their coverage of Manchester United’s first pre-season friendly against LA Galaxy in the early hours of Sunday morning engaging hundreds of thousands of fans, in Manchester and across the world. According to Newswhip, the MEN are currently the 6th most engaging sport publisher in the world on social media. The regional press is more relevant than ever in the day to day lives of our readers.

With reporters out in California coupled with a team back at base in the UK, they can reflect every possible angle of the United behemoth, regardless of the time zone.

As so often, it is about presence. When the Manchester Arena was attacked two months ago, the world turned towards the same newsroom and my colleagues at the Evening News to tell the story of a city shocked, devastated and united throughout. A newsroom of Mancunians, both born and adopted, speaking for the people they share a city with.

In sport we are fortunate to rarely face such challenges, but across the regional press we will thrive by following the MEN’s remarkable example. We exist to tell the stories of the people, clubs and fans in our towns and cities, for whoever, wherever, wants to listen.

Our clubs and their fans could be anywhere in the world, but we will be right there with them.

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