When Saturday Comes: Part Of Our Football Culture Needs Us
The modern media, it is commonly held, is in a mess. The transition from a paper-based medium to an online presence and the proliferation of opportunity handed down by the internet is a square that hasn’t been circled within the industry, and publications of considerable repute are either struggling or dying because the question of how to fund this brave new world hasn’t been entirely successfully answered.
This, of course, extends to sports media. The circumstances surrounding the essential death of the long-running American website Deadspin has recently attracted considerable interest over the last week or so, whilst this morning saw the publication of a report by Digiday into the difficulties now facing The Players Tribune which detailed a disastrous five years for a website which seemed to have unlocked an entire new genre of sports writing, only to end up producing a volume of content that could almost certainly have been produced by one person, working on their own. This website is now up for sale.
The circumstances surrounding the fall from grace of these two sites are somewhat different. In the case of Deadspin it was the heavy-handed incompetence of the venture capitalists that picked up the name following the collapse of Gawker Media of 2016, while The Players Tribune seems to have been almost entirely financially and strategically incompetent, blowing through $80m over the last five years while its readership slumped to fewer than a million monthly unique users per month (by way of context, at its numerical peak in around 2010 this site was attracting 120,000 per month, and we amount to the sum total of nothing, in the overall scheme of important things, even within the relatively tiny world of football media.)
Despite the differences between these two, however, their stories feed into a deeper question about the media in the twenty-first century. How is it to be funded? We can take it as read that the “traditional” means of doing so are effectively dead, but the models chosen to replace them don’t often seem to be doing that much better themselves. At present, there are a plethora of ways in which media companies have sought funding, but the three most prevalent are going behind a paywall, seeking investment from outside, and Patreon or other crowdfunding routes.
The paywall is potentially the most sustainable option, but this comes with risk. Closing off your content to anybody that won’t pay for it requires there to be enough people who will pay for it to keep it going, whilst stories hidden behind a paywall may find that they get lower traction on social media, where the audience may be more reluctant to share articles that are only going to be viewable by a (potentially tiny) subset of their followers. The Athletic has been the story of the year in this respect, but its subscriptions were offered at a reduced rate upon its launch in the UK, and it’s impossible to say how healthy its financial position is or, presuming it to be in a strong position now, for how long this will remain the case.
The experiences of Deadspin and The Players Tribune demonstrate the obvious pitfalls of attracting outside investment. It’s easy to get blinded by the huge numbers discussed whenever these stories hit the news, but the fact remains that investment is investment, and not a gift. Those putting their money in will be expecting to get it back, and there is plenty of evidence to suggest that sound financial planning isn’t always among the strengths of website editors. Furthermore, the experience of both Deadspin and The Players Tribune shows us that the direct involvement of capital in online media doesn’t necessarily mean that adults have entered the proverbial room.
All of this brings us onto the subject of When Saturday Comes. The “half-decent football magazine” is now into its 34th year and its financial position has long been precarious. This year, however, has already seen the closure of their permanent office in London and of their children’s magazine, Kickaround, and yesterday WSC took something of a leap into the unknown, announcing the opening of a “Supporters Club” on Patreon, offering a new podcast and other merchandise in return for monthly payment. “The simple fact”, notes their Patreon statement, “is that WSC as a print magazine is no longer self-sustaining.”
To a point, I should declare an interest, here. I’ve been a (very) occasional contributor to WSC for some years now, and have been a reader since I was sixteen years old. That’s thirty-one years. Very few other things that were in my life in 1988 are still in my life today, and it’s not unreasonable to say that finding my name in print in WSC ranks amongst the achievements in life of which I am the most proud, a childhood ambition fulfilled that I would never even have considered a possibility as a callow teenager.
WSC occupies a unique space in our football media landscape. Founded from the fanzine movement, its very independence was revolutionary in its own way in 1986. Over that intervening three and a bit decades, it has featured journalists and writers as well-known as David Conn, Harry Pearson and Barney Ronay, whilst its campaigning edge was part of a fundamental change in the very nature of what it meant to be a football supporter in the latter years of the last century. Even in the meme-tastic 21st century, WSC can still press buttons. It’s that time of year when mascots observing minutes’ silences will start doing the rounds. To the best of anyone’s knowledge, that started on the WSC forum in 2013.
And this culture has stayed with us. It’s a lengthy and complex story, but when you read stories about supporters mobilising to save stricken clubs, or protesting against avaricious or just plain incompetent owners, well, WSC was championing this years and years ago, and whilst its campaigning zeal may have dulled slightly in recent years, its influence is everywhere, in the growth of supporters trusts and in fans groups opening food banks. The very nature of the switched on, socially-conscious football supporter has its roots in this magazine, the antithesis of the lazy thuggish stereotype so beloved of the mainstream media at the time of its formation. Its coverage of the Hillsborough disaster and the reaction to it, pushing back against the repulsive media narrative that those who died that day were somehow responsible for their own deaths, for example, was proof positive of the importance of its independence. What we, as a collective of supporters, might owe to it is probably incalculable, but it’s definitely more than nothing.
Furthermore, WSC has always carried about its business with considerable integrity. Everybody knows about their refusal to speak to anybody from Milton Keynes for their pre-season preview. That’s a decade and a half old now. Less well-known – until this week’s announcement – was the fact that not taking advertising from gambling companies has cost them a “five-figure sum” in lost revenues. Anybody involved in the football media will already be aware of the extent to which it can feel as though gambling companies can feel like the only people willing to advertise in sports media, at times. To turn away that sort of money on principle is a bold and important decision.
When Saturday Comes inhabits a different spiral arm of the media galaxy to Deadspin or even The Players Tribune, but their fundamental truth remains the same. Quality media has to be paid for somehow, and in an era when so much is available free of charge, persuading an audience that has become conditioned to expecting it for nothing to part with their pennies is a challenge, to say the least. WSC, however, has advantages over other, bigger outlets. Years of enforced cost-cutting have ensured a leanness of operation that would surely have been beyond The Players Tribune, while its modest ambitions and an already-paying subscriber base means that crowdfunding to remain solvent can be an attainable target. Furthermore, to use the parlance of the modern era, the WSC name has “reach.” It’s both loved and respected, and if that counts for anything, it should only be beneficial to this particular publication. “National treasure” is an overused phrase in this day and age, but if it could ever apply within the context of football’s culture in this country, WSC surely fits that bill.
But ultimately, whether it survives is down to you and I. If enough of us subscribe – whether through Patreon or to the print edition of the magazine – When Saturday Comes will survive. At the time of writing, it’s picked up a little over 50 Patreons in just over 24 hours, and that is an encouraging start, but it needs more, and the only people who can do this are the people who know it, who love it, and who hold it in our affections. A lot is spoken about the changing nature of the media and about what it will all look like once the dust has settled on this lengthy period of transition that it is still going through. There comes a point, however, where talk has to end and hands have to go into pockets. That time, for When Saturday Comes, is now. You can get further information about how to subscribe here.