How The Guardian created a new commercial opportunity around progressive sport coverage

The Guardian has an international reputation for hard-hitting, quality news coverage. Its recent strong run of financial results has been built upon its relationship with an audience that has invested in that reputation.

While much of the credit for that has rightly gone to the paper’s headline political and investigative sections, The Guardian has also built a solid reputation as a source of staple content around entertainment, lifestyle and sports coverage. Its investment in building and maintaining communities around those areas has led to enviable levels of engagement with lucrative audiences - and it’s having a beneficial impact on the paper’s advertising performance.

Of course, it goes without saying that advertisers need to think carefully about the value of the product they are buying – especially for brands wanting to be aligned with quality, premium environments. For Jamie Doubleday, the head of commercial sport at Guardian News & Media, the focus from media owners should be on providing the best possible journalism and experience for readers, which then by its very nature provides a suitable and prime context for advertisers’ content. “We’re very conscious of maintaining quality and user experience, so we operate a ‘fewer, better’ approach - not overloading on ads and making each one count,” he says.

Quality over quantity

“One way this translates into the way we work with brands in sport is that they get to have exclusivity around particular events. It’s very effective; brands get maximum awareness and our readers can clearly see the brand sponsorship and connection to the event. Our readers are generally very supportive of sponsorship as long as it’s crystal clear and they can see the added value. All content funding is labeled clearly inline with our guidelines.”

As a result of that quality-over-quantity approach, The Guardian is the largest quality sports publisher in the UK, according to ComScore and PAMCo scores, and has been voted Sports Newspaper and Publisher at the Sports Journalist Awards for six years in a row, as well as Best Sports News Site at The Drum Online Media Awards 2019.

More importantly, it has a particularly loyal audience. Over 65% of sports fans visit the site more than five times a week, which Doubleday ascribes as much to the breadth of content types available as to the amount of sports covered. In addition to its liveblogs, which have been much emulated over the past few years, the sports section offers its audience access to podcasts, videos and in-depth articles. Doubleday says: “Our range of coverage means we attract people looking for the breaking news as well as more thoughtful and in-depth pieces - so people come to us for the full picture of what’s happening in sport, and what’s driving it.”

Engagement of that sort is catnip to brands and advertisers, particularly those looking for a safe context in which their commercial material can appear. Having been burned by issues around unsafe environments, The Guardian’s sports section is a safe harbour in which to reach that engaged audience at scale. Additionally, due to The Guardian’s presence in territories outside the UK it is able to offer local twists on global events, making its coverage relevant to international audiences at a time when personalisation of marketing message is high on brands’ agendas.

Beyond the blunt assumption

As with other broad topics like sport, there is a tendency to assume that the archetypical ‘sports’ fan is responsible for that high engagement. One of the great strengths of digital measurement is that it allows publishers like The Guardian to demonstrate that the audience for their sports content is remarkably broad. Doubleday is keen to point out that The Guardian’s sports coverage appeals to a growing proportion of female sports fans, which is in line with the paper’s progressive reputation.

He adds: “Women’s sport has been a key focus area from an editorial perspective across the last few years, and we have developed some really groundbreaking work - from the Top Female Footballers interactives, to our coverage of women’s sport including football, rugby union and cricket. We’ve also been very much on the front foot covering the issues of women in sport - from Caster Semenya to Venus Williams. We also have a brilliant football columnist in Eni Aluko.

“There may have been some voices outside that have questioned if there is an audience for so much focus on women’s sport, and maybe an early challenge was gauging the level of interest, but I can tell you there is a very significant audience.”

Crucially, breaking that framework of what a typical ‘sports fan’ looks like has had a beneficial impact on the Guardian’s ability to monetise its sports content. Doubleday reports that there has been a significant increase in interest from commercial partners around the events that connect audiences with events like the Women’s World Cup, which he describes as events which capitalise on a tangible connection between sport and its benefits to people in real life.

In addition to helping to grow interest in those upcoming events, The Guardian’s sport section also benefits from huge tentpole tournaments, around which commercial partners see an opportunity to reach a fanatically engaged, pre-primed audience:

“The beauty of the sporting calendar is there is always the next ‘big’ event just around the corner. With partners secured for The Cricket World Cup and The Women’s World Cup our commercial focus turns to Japan for the 2019 Rugby World Cup where we are predicting to reach over 7m unique users in the UK across the tournament.”

The Guardian is no stranger to innovating around its sports coverage, from its early use of the liveblogging format to the launch of longform audio content like the Football Weekly podcast. Its continued success in commercial sport, however, is based on the oldest trick in the book - creating a space in which highly engaged audiences and the brands that want to reach them don’t just coexist but interact with one another.