How Irish digital media companies are betting on sport

SportsJoe.ie, Balls.ie and The42 are racing to win audience and advertiser support

 

Promising “a new take on sports coverage”, Maximum Media’s new offshoot SportsJoe.ie launches today with a little help from the social media hashtag #sportneversleeps.

But the company behind lifestyle sites Joe.ie and Her.ie isn’t the only digital media venture in the game of capturing the attention of audiences and advertisers.

Journal Media has announced a good chunk of the 35 new jobs it plans to add are to staff up its sports site, TheScore.ie and it is soon to be rebranded as The42.

Meanwhile, Balls Media, the company behind Balls.ie, says it is on the cusp of promotion to a higher league.

As a news and entertainment genre, sport is perennially popular. But why is this hat-trick of smartphone-era media companies all targeting the same goal now?

For Maximum Media, it was an analysis of the traffic patterns on Joe.ie that made establishing SportsJoe.ie the natural next step: the great thing about sports fans is that they keep coming back for more. So while the sports coverage on the parent site tends to come in the form of viral entertainment, SportsJoe.ie will offer more “in-depth analysis”, says managing director Katie Molony.

The site will be edited by former Telegraph sport content editor Evan Fanning and it will employ eight people, including two paid interns.

Joe.ie (its tagline is “it’s man’s stuff”) and Her.ie both attract two million monthly unique visitors and Molony has a similar target in mind for SportsJoe.ie. “That would be what we want to reach, and quite quickly,” she says.

Maximum Media and Journal Media were both incorporated in 2010, which is around the time that Brian Reynolds, Donny Mahoney and Ger Gilroy set up Balls.ie as a “part-time experiment”. The three met while working for Newstalk, where Gilroy as well as being founding presenter of the Off the Ball radio show is the sports editor.

“We were, and are, all keen sports fans,” says Reynolds, who returned from Canada last year to take up the role of chief executive and beef-up Balls.ie as a business. Their site, which employs seven people, has grown to 1.1 million monthly unique visitors, and Reynolds, a former producer on The Right Hook on Newstalk says “old colleagues no longer ask what it is I do”.

It has “soft-launched” in the UK with Balls.co.uk, but this is still toe-in-water territory. “You would be a fool to think you can launch into the UK without a whole heap of cash.”

He is confident the site will soon secure investment from an external partner. “We’ll talk to anyone,” he says.

Reynolds describes the site as a mix of “original content that we spend quite a lot of time on” and “the goals stuff”, with the latter concentrating mainly on the big three audience drivers of football, rugby and GAA.

“We’re not going to give you deep analysis. We’re going to give you the three talking points, or the weird and wonderful thing that happened in the crowd, or the GAA player who has gone out of his way to help a children’s charity.”

Balls.ie has outsourced its advertising sales operation to IRS Plus, becoming the radio sales house’s first digital partner, and Reynolds expects ad revenues to grow 75 per cent in the next six months.

“We want to work with a lot of top brands that see the link with the 18-34-year-old male who would be our core audience.”

But there is competition for that prize. “It is not even other sport sites that are our competition. It is social media and everybody else out there trying to get people’s attention,” says Molony, who joined Maximum Media earlier this year from The Irish Times. Nevertheless, launching SportsJoe.ie is a move that makes sense for the Niall McGarry-founded company.

“If you have Heineken advertising all over Joe.ie, Carlsberg isn’t going to touch you. But if you have a second platform, you have another offering,” says Molony.

A new “brand activation unit” has been set up to increase Maximum’s sponsored content revenues.

At Balls.ie, Reynolds observes that in the social media era, readers do not stay loyal to just one or two titles. “There’s room for plenty of different stops on an online journey throughout the day,” he says.

Digital media companies should club together to advance the business case for online advertising, he believes. “We don’t have to downplay each other in the media. I think we’re all good products.”

Journal Media, part of the Fallon brothers’ Distilled Media group, is the start-up that has best exploited the shift in news consumption to digital platforms in recent years. It already employs 45 people, while its three existing verticals, TheJournal.ie, TheDailyEdge.ie and TheScore.ie, have four million monthly unique users between them.

Chief executive Brian Fallon wants to double the total daily readership of 370,000 and has decided that investing in both sports and business coverage is the best route forward.

Journal Media may be the Real Madrid of Irish digital media companies, but isn’t Fallon worried that the sports field is looking a little crowded? “Not yet,” he says.

Media businesses relying on advertising for revenue will inevitably require a certain scale, and so “opportunities to serve readers outside Ireland” are a key part of his plan. This is why TheScore.ie had to be ditched as a brand.

“It’s a pretty generic name. In pretty much every English-speaking country, there is a ‘Score’,” says Fallon. It has already begun what will be a gradual process of rebranding it to what he calls “the more distinctive” The42, which is named after the GAA rule that prohibited the playing of non-Gaelic games in Croke Park.

Journal Media sports editor Adrian Russell says the name is “a hat-tip to this new generation of Irish sports fan, who are digitally savvy, engaged, passionate and want to be at the heart of the social conversation”.

Are there enough of those to go around? The game has only just kicked off.