There was a time when sports news knew its place: the scores and groin strain updates, before knocking the mud off its boots and shuffling back to its Saturday afternoon ghetto.
The idea that the autobiography of a football manager might dominate the news agenda for two days would have been unthinkable.
While Andy Cairns doesn’t take personal responsibility for the hysteria surrounding Alex Ferguson’s book, he has certainly played a part – as executive editor of Sky Sports News throughout its time as a standalone channel – in propelling sport to the centre of the national conversation. Even if you have never consciously watched Sky Sports News, you will be aware of it, having seen it in bars, with its graphics giving the latest injury news, transfer rumours and league tables, even at night, long after games are over and players asleep.
Are groin strains really that important? Twenty-four hours a day? “It depends on whose groin, and how strained,” says Cairns, who is fiercely protective of the news values of his journalists, rejecting the idea that any of them would report a below-the-belt injury without thoroughly checking it out, as it were, or a transfer story uncorroborated by reliable sources. He can afford himself a glow of pride on his channel’s 15th anniversary, although differ on the reasons for this success. He ascribes it to rigorous journalistic standards and technological innovation; I put it down to Chris Kamara.
It’s not just him, of course, but Kamara, a former player and manager, epitomises the passion the panel of ex-pros bring to Sky Sports News’s flagship show Soccer Saturday. He reports from inside a ground, getting wrapped up in the action we are not permitted to witness. In the studio, the other retirees watch matches on screen, and sort of report back to us on what’s going on.
I say “sort of” because these reports, especially from ex-Liverpool international defender Phil Thompson, are often gabbled, garbled accounts preceded by some kind of ear-piercing noise; what Cairns calls, “the human touch, emotion and passion, the language of the fan”. It’s that human touch that assures him Sky Sports News will survive as TV in the age of instant updates on tablets, smartphones and newspaper websites.
“Because it’s available on so many platforms, we tend to look at reach rather than viewing figures,” he says. “We reach 10 million a week in homes that have Sky.”
He adds: “We’ve been growing our audience year on year for the past seven or eight years. And things like Twitter just add to the interest. We also constantly survey our audience, and find people trust Sky Sports News. We put a lot of effort in to make sure our output is reliable and accurate. Journalism is right at the top of our agenda, with a real focus on training. Even the work experience people have to have 100 words per minute shorthand.”
Shorthand aside, some of us help Sky Sports News towards its impressive figures by staying tuned for those moments when the passion of the pundits spills over into the richly comic. Kamara, for instance, often reaches for a simile and finds himself floundering. He spoke of desperate defenders “fighting like beavers”, while a smooth attacking move “cut through the defence as easy as … er … er … as easy as anything, Jeff”.
The Jeff is Stelling, described by Cairns as “masterful” in poking gentle fun at Kamara “while never undermining the authority of the programme”. On one occasion Stelling handed over to him to report on a sending-off and found him unaware any player had been dismissed. “I don’t really know what’s happening,” Kamara admitted in a style familiar to anyone who enjoyed the character Peter O’Hanraha-hanrahan’s spectacularly uninformative reports on the spoof news show The Day Today.
The format has no right to be a hit. Who in their right mind would want to watch other people watching football? Esquire magazine summed up the views of many: “Imagine a Samuel Beckett play in which a slick circus-master gets four retired clowns to describe a performance to punters stuck outside the Big Top. You will still be nowhere close to the absurdist drama that unfolds for six straight hours each Saturday.”
Retired Sky Sports boss Vic Wakeling invented it in 1992. He says he got the idea from Bloomberg TV: “I figured that if people would watch talking heads while share prices scrolled underneath, and graphics updated the big business stories, why not with football?”
The difference is Bloomberg TV never employed Rodney Marsh, whose questionable joke about the Indian Ocean tsunami led to his dismissal in 2005.
“We now work very closely with the pundits on what they can and can’t say,” says Cairns. “We make sure they’re aware of Ofcom rules, and we give them legal training. Thankfully, we have had very few problems. Our lawyers are delighted. Our insurance is quite low.”
Sky Sports News’s other copper-bottomed hit is Transfer Deadline Day, its round-up of footballers’ last-minute moves, which attracted 4.5 million viewers in August. The undisputed star is excitable Scotsman Jim White, who has made the day his own. He’s in his 50s, and usually presents alongside a much younger woman, exemplifying the kind of presenter casting that led Gabby Logan, who worked at Sky for two years in the 1990s, to criticise its policy towards female presenters: “The girls are basically wearing a leotard while the bloke’s in a suit and tie,” she said.
“We never employ anyone on the basis of looks,” Cairns says. “We get lots of showreels from good-looking people, but they have to be solid journalists who know their sport, and they are thoroughly trained. Gabby left here 15 years ago. These days, 30% of our staff are women. We’re proud of that. Look around the sports desk of the Guardian and you won’t find that sort of proportion. And recruitment is now running at 50-50.”
He adds that he speaks regularly to students on journalism courses, where increasing numbers of women are seeing sports journalism as an opportunity, for which he thinks Sky Sports News deserves credit. And he maintains he can offer these students a career with a future, despite the competition, not just online but from newcomers BT Sport.
“We’ve faced opposition before,” he says. “Eurosport set up a sports news service, there was Setanta, ITV Digital and now BT. It just encourages us to sharpen up our act.” He’s clearly confident that wherever a transfer is mooted or a groin strained, Sky Sports News will remain the messenger of choice.
• Martin Kelner is the author of Sit Down and Cheer: A History of Sport on TV