RBR Interview: David G. Hall, Editor/SPIKES magazine, by Larry Eder

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SPIKES magazine, Autumn 2009 cover, Illustration of Philips Idowu, Berlin gold medalist, triple jump

In my mind, SPIKES is the future of athletics media. Less than two years old, SPIKES magazine is the work of IAAF and the Haymarket Network in the UK. Haymarket is one of most creative custom publishing houses in the UK, with clients such as top performance auto companies, etc. The IAAF hired Haymarket Network to make a unique athletics title, for the non-athletics fan, but for sports fans. They have truly succeeded, winning this year, two of the most prestigious global custom publishing awards, including the award for Best Editor.

Curious, I visited the Haymarket Network at their Teddington Studio offices this past July. I took the train to Teddington from London Centre and visited the Haymarket offices, where I met Nikki Kiernan, the publishing manager and David G. Hall, the editor.

SPIKES is as if ESPN magazine decided to give athletics real coverage. Keep it light, make it fun, make you question what you know about our sport! While most of the coverage is UK/Euro centric, it is this writer's belief that U.S. readers and global readers will go stark raving nuts over the publication. That is why I began speaking with Haymarket about a year ago!

Coaching Athletics Quarterly sent a sample issue out to 5,000 coaches last month. The response has been tremendous, with coaches asking for several hundred copies to give out at clinics. Just today, I had a call from one of the top running footwear executives who said, "SPIKES is a global magazine!" Watch for upcoming announcement in this very column!
10,000 more titles will be sent to high school coaches in December.

David G. Hall is a brilliant editor.He is trying to challenge the traditional norms by which our sport is covered, which is, as we all know, pretty staid. I sent David several questions last week. I desired to give our readers a feel of SPIKES magazine (www.SPIKESmag.com). David's answers are almost as good as the pages of his new publication. Read on!

RBR, 1. How did you get involved in media?

David Hall: I started out on my student paper Concrete at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, UK. From there I did a lot of work experience at various local newspapers before eventually making my first foray into magazines during the boom in men’s titles in the mid to late nineties. My first magazine work experience was at the iconic British men’s magazineLoaded. Once I’d done that, I was hooked on mags for good.

RBR, 2. How did you get involved in athletics?

David Hall: Until the SPIKES project came along, I’d had no professional involvement with the sport at all. Most of my sports writing had been focused on our national obsession – football (soccer). I’d competed in track and field at school as a child, but other than that, I was essentially a newbie when I took up the post of editor on 3 April 2008.

RBR, 3. What is the role of media in coverage of a sport such as athletics?

David Hall: I can’t speak on behalf of everyone in the world of sports journalism, but there is an overwhelming air of negativity related to the reporting of athletics in the mainstream press. At one point it seemed impossible for writers to get their stories into the sports section without it being drug-related. That is starting to change a little now and papers here in the UK have started to warm to the fact that track and field athletes have interesting stories attached to them, which can command column inches in the back pages.

RBR, 4. As a custom publishing house, you are to, use the vernacular, be a cheerleader for your client, yet SPIKES takes real stands and gives nor quarter? How did you get that type of a relationship with the IAAF?

David Hall: The IAAF wanted to change people’s perceptions of athletics. They cited things like the drug issue as being major issues for the sport but were unsure about how to counter them. We proposed that setting up essentially an entire new brand was important to allow any magazine or website to really talk about the issues that were challenging the sport. To their huge credit (and I say that genuinely not merely as a cheerleader) they accepted our proposal and allowed us to go off and create SPIKES. Since launch they have been nothing but supportive with our editorial approach, even when we’ve proposed things that would have made other clients’ hair curl.

RBR, 5. What are the biggest challenges for athletics media?

David Hall: Giving their readers empathy with the athletes who compete in the sport. That’s tough. I imagine many athletics writers are stuck with a very short shortlist of what would make it past their sports editor. In the UK, it would go something like: Bolt, drugs or British. What wiggle room does that leave to read about Dwight Phillips’ incredible story of recovery from two broken legs, for example? The big challenge for athletics media is to move with the times and start talking to sports fans rather than just athletics fans. We need the grandstanding stories that really blow people’s minds. Here at SPIKES, it’s much less about how fast, far or high an athlete goes, but more about what makes them special as people. Empathy is the key to helping athletes make a real connection with readers. Right now, that’s not happening enough.

RBR, 6. What are the challenges for athletics media in UK, with London 2012?

David Hall: That’s less of a challenge and more like shooting fish in a barrel! Athletics is the blue ribbon event of the Olympics. Sports like cycling, rowing and sailing are always good medal hauls for Team GB, but it’s the athletics that really brings offices to a standstill when it’s on the box. Having said that, the athletics media does need to guard against complacency and make sure that we’re not being upstaged by other Olympic sports. The buzz around 2012 is massive. We can’t wait.

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SPIKES, summer 2009 cover, featuring adidas' iconic athletes

RBR, 7. Is the British sports fan tougher than US sports fan? Is it winning or nothing?

David Hall: Traditionally, Brits love an underdog. A valiant effort is often as applauded as a medal, although the gongs live longer in the memory. I think the US attitude is very focused on winning and winners. It’s interesting to hear the subtle differences in the language that athletes from the two countries use. As far as fans go though, I think both US and UK fans love great sporting competition. If it’s high grade action, we’ll both happily watch.

RBR, 8. How do you believe Lord Coe is doing promoting London 2012? My visits to UK and talking to normal folks on the street tell me that they are worried about the costs more than anything.

David Hall: I think the 2012 team and Lord Coe are doing a good job. Recent press has been about more commercial aspects of the Games and much has been made about it being less than 1000 days until the games. The reason that people talk about costs is that the media is focused on costs. Barely a week goes by without a story on local London TV news about spiralling costs or something else going wrong somewhere. It’s an extension of the negative line that a lot of media outlets take with their reporting. It seems “bad news is good news” in many places. That negativity is certainly starting to dwindle at the moment. Reports of the building programme being ahead of schedule have made many feel more comfortable. A lot of punters were worried about us having another Wembley Stadium on our hands, which was a project that faced numerous challenges and did end up costing a lot of money.

RBR, 9. Who, in your mind are the sports biggest assets?

David Hall: Usain Bolt transcends everything and is a great vehicle for athletics. However, I’m not sure he’s being utilised to his full potential as far as athletics is concerned. He’s almost so big, that no other athletes are getting a look in at the moment. Don’t get me wrong, he is exactly what the sport needs – we just need to make sure we build on that noise and use it as a vehicle to get other stars out there.

Outside of Usain, I’m looking to his 100m buddies Asafa Powell and Tyson Gay to big up that event. Beyond that event the key stars in the UK would be Paula Radcliffe, Chrissy O, Phillips Idowu and, of course, Jessica Ennis. Global assets are Sanya Richards, Yelen Isinbayeva, Blanka Vlasic, Lolo Jones, Haile Gebrselassie and Kenenisa Bekele. Steve Hooker is great too.

RBR, 10. Your cover of Philips Idowu (see top of page) is brilliant, how did it come to be?

David Hall: Ha! That’s great you like it. It was something we had to do because we couldn’t get the source image high res enough. Adidas has done a great shoot with Phillips but they had shot him putting his finger to his lips in a full-length shot, i.e. his head was tiny in the actual image. My art editor, Chris Barker, wove his illustrative skills in Photoshop and boom, there it is. We’re not usually ones for putting illustration on the cover, but in this instance we felt that because of the type of character Phillips is and because of the images the restrictions placed on us, it was a suitable endgame for the cover.

RBR, 11. What can we expect to see next year from SPIKES?

David Hall: More of the same. We aim for a surprise on every page and, so far, we’ve just about managed it. Whether it’s an awesome image or a explosive story, we always aim to make readers stop and go, “Really?!”

For more on SPIKES, check out their site at www.spikesmag.com

If you would like a sample issue of SPIKES, send $5 to SPIKES Sample,
Shooting Star Media, Inc. PO Box 67, Fort Atkinson, WI 53538. We will save 1000 copies for requests.

For more on the sport of athletics, please check out http://www.runningnetwork.com

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