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Insight
28 . 06 . 18

The beautiful game looks… beautiful

Words by: Mark Hooper
Forget photocopied, patched-together fanzines, today’s football magazines are taking a leaf out of the fashion playbook – and attracting major sponsors along the way
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At a glance:

  • A new breed of magazine is offering up a new, design-savvy perspective for the football intelligentsia
  • Top-end advertisers are drawn to the cut-through of this disruptive, fan-first approach
  • Joined-up football coverage, with print as the hero, has even attracted the attention of the clubs themselves

Football has always been well served when it comes to print content. Think of those self-published fanzines with small print runs that capture the unique wit and character of the stadium terraces.

But lately, we’ve seen a new genre establish itself, reflecting the big money that now surrounds the beautiful game: the high-end soccer magazine.

Taking its cue from upmarket fashion and lifestyle titles, these publications take a more polished approach to design and photography, coupled with a rich, varied and downright cheeky approach to storytelling.

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One of the notable success stories is Mundial, originally launched as a single-print issue for the 2014 World Cup. Now, four years down the line, Mundial is an established multiplatform offering, working in partnership with the biggest brands in the game – including sportswear giants Nike, Adidas and Puma – on a range of partnerships, incorporating print, digital and event activations.

“This World Cup is the pinnacle of that,” says founder and managing editor Seb White. “We’ve got our own space [Hotel Mundial at The Old Truman Brewery in East London], which we’re sharing with various brands over the four weeks of the tournament.” This includes match screenings, a bar and club, a series of panel discussions and a sizeable retail space selling a collaborative clothing range.

“I’ll be brutally honest, there wasn’t really a plan when we first decided to do a magazine,” says White. “I was a producer, the co-founder was in advertising – everyone had good jobs, it was just an idea for a one-off, self-financed thing.”

But it wasn’t long before brands began to approach them, asking when the next issue was due. “We thought: ‘If people like them are asking, then we should probably look into it!’” What they offer to commercial partners is a deeper, more nuanced relationship than the standard print ad model.

Crucially, the team has always refused to compromise on their principles (“to do an event or partnership or collaboration with someone that isn’t quite ‘us’ is something that our readers would see right through”).

This means that, when brands approach Mundial, they see them as an ‘authentic’ voice on the game and a route to a notoriously hard-to-impress audience. And that authenticity is something that brands want a piece of. “It’s normally people who come to us,” says White. “We don’t tend to pitch to them. So, the magazine is the ultimate calling card.”

“First and foremost, we’re a print magazine,” says White. “We all come from a football fanzine background, so having that physical product on a match day is ingrained in us. Having something on paper means we have an outlet for material that would otherwise get lost.”

It’s something that brands quickly recognised too. For instance, when the team were asked to work with Adidas on the relaunch of the iconic Predator boot, their Instagram account (@mundialmag) was the obvious platform. “We’ve had great success with Instagram Stories, not just for our projects, but also those with brands,” he explains. “And we’ve repurposed content we’ve shot with them for the printed mag, and it works, so it can only help in presenting a joined-up approach.” 

While other magazines such as Pickles and Soccerbible occupy this space between print, digital and social with an equal amount of savvy, we are beginning to see representations of other emerging markets within the football sector.

Season capitalises on the rise in the women’s game with an edgy, female-centred approach; while Shukyu appeals to a Japanese audience, with a knack for picking up on unexpected details of the game with obsessive focus.

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Reflecting the reinvigoration of the MSL in the US over the past decade, Associated was also created from a hunch by two stalwarts of luxury fashion magazines: stylist-turned-editor Allan Kennedy and creative director Steven Baillie, who met while working on hugely influential titles such as Arena Homme Plus in the 90s.

“I began to think of the possibilities of a soccer and style magazine shortly after the 2010 World Cup,” recalls Kennedy. “I saw how the public in NYC, who aren’t what we’d consider traditional football fans, responded to the games and the enthusiasm for it, and it left an indelible print on my mind.”

Convinced that there was a market, he mocked up a dummy issue. “I wanted it to be a blend between i-D and L’Uomo Vogue,” he explains. “The intention was not to compete with the already established football magazines, but to create something that was a bit more romantic and aspirational in its approach.”

With Baillie on board and a roster of established fashion photographers able to create the high-end imagery required, they embraced a business model that identified the ‘soccer dollar’.

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“I think marketeers and advertisers have realised the football market is a focused and passionate group – and probably more style-conscious than any other sport. So there are lots of opportunities there,” says Kennedy.

Interestingly, football fans have tended to follow their own dress codes that then translate into the mainstream, so they are the epitome of the ‘early adopter’ that fashion brands are desperate to tap into. “The 80s ‘Casual’ look has definitely been an inspiration for fashion companies lately – from Gosha to Pringle.”

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This trend is seen in some surprising contexts too. “I styled a Coca-Cola World Cup campaign, using red-and-white clothing, which was very street-style and retro-focused in its reference points,” says Kennedy. “And for a Pepsi Champions League campaign I styled Dele Ali and was surprised they went with the outfit I chose because it was pretty fashion-forward for a commercial campaign.”

For Under Armour, a massive player in the US clothing retail market, the editorial team arranged for an advertorial, featuring US Women’s National Soccer Team player Kelley O’Hara shot by fashion photographer Guy Aroch. “They loved the magazine and were very supportive and open-minded,” says Kennedy.

Given Kennedy’s and Baillie’s backgrounds, it’s perhaps no surprise that Associated has recently launched a capsule clothing collaboration with a denim client in LA, Agolde, available at Harrods, with a second season planned for the autumn.

But while these examples of a mini phenomenon in independent publishing offer intriguing opportunities for brands, Greek club PAOK has gone one better, launching Toumba, its own in-house magazine that – unusually for such titles – matches the quality of the indies.

The man behind it: PAOK’s new media director, Panagiotis Aroniadis.

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Although his main task was growing the digital presence of the club, he admits that magazines were his weakness. “For me, a magazine is romantic,” he says. “The first and basic difference is the smell of the paper. You cannot touch, feel, or smell a digital copy. Even if almost all of us are used to reading on smart devices, holding your own personal hard copy is totally different.”

Rather counter-intuitively, given his role, he proposed the idea of a football magazine to the PAOK board. “Toumba was born to prove that good quality, hard copy magazines can not only survive in a digital era, but thrive.”

While the main inspiration is the club itself and its culture (the title comes from PAOK’s Toumba Stadium), Aroniadis acknowledges the ambition for it to sit alongside “a lot of really great magazines”, including Soccerbible, Rabona, Panenka, Eight by Eight, Howler, Pickles, Mundial and Glory.

And, as a marketing exercise, there is something subtler going on.

For PAOK FC, Toumba is an extra tool to come closer to our fan base and expand it worldwide,” he says. “We wanted to show that in Greece there is a team that can compete with the major league of world football in terms of design and visual communication. It’s a big honor for us, and me personally, that there are people in Europe that know PAOK FC because of Toumba.”

While he admits “it’s a bet to survive in a digital era and attract sponsors and readers from all over the world”, it’s one that seems to have paid off: they not only take third-party advertising but are able to be selective in what they carry. “We want to keep high-quality standards even for our ads,” says Aroniadis. “It’s good for sponsors as well, since they’re sure that their brand is in good hands.”

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Toumba has also received a Silver Award at the European Design Awards 2016 – which sits alongside a new app and an award-winning website redesign, to be followed by a new music platform featuring players’ podcasts, live interviews, game commentary and a lot more…

All of which suggest an interesting new approach for brand marketing: rather than focus your budget on adverts in ‘influencer’ titles… why not create an influential publication of your own?