Murad Ahmed. Source: LinkedIN.
Murad Ahmed is the first Sports Editor at Financial Times. Historically sports content had been part of the leisure industry coverage at this newspaper. Two years ago Ahmed proposed his bosses to cut sports out of the leisure department because for him it was clear that the sports coverage was distinct and needed more dedication. His argument was accepted and a new job was created in the newsroom.
Since then he is the lead correspondent covering sport for the Financial Times, writing news and long reads across all sections of the paper. He also steers the work of the FT's sports business reporters as the co-founder and editor of Scoreboard, the FT's new weekly premium newsletter and mini-brand covering the business of sport. He is also the co-chair and co-founder of the FT Business of Football summit, a leading annual conference run by Financial Times.
Prior to becoming Sports Correspondent in 2018, Murad Ahmed had been covering the gambling, hotels, restaurants and tourism industries as Leisure Correspondent for the Financial Times since 2016. He joined the FT in July 2014 after nearly eight years of covering general news, business and technology for The Times of London.
- How important is now the sport coverage within the Financial Times strategy?
- We have recently made some investment in this area. I want to differentiate what we do compared to others in both in the U.K. and across the world. There is a lot of great sports journalism and great sports writing out there. And we have some of that in the FT. We don't have any backpages or a dedicated sport section. But we've got great writers on sport like Simon Kuper, who would be amongst the best in the world at writing.
But what I'm focused on is building a team here for the coverage of the business of sport, which is less well covered and less well in detail by anyone else. And that's an understandable thing, because sports journalists are covering the game, covering the action. We have a phrase internally which we keep using, which is 'We follow the money, not the ball'. And that, I think, gives us an opportunity and an advantage if we use it correctly.
So our recent investment was to create what we're calling a mini-brand, a vertical called Scoreboard, which is designed to house our best sports business content. And we're kicking off with it with a newsletter subscribers, which comes out every Saturday morning. We hired two great reporters, Sam Agini in London and Sara Germano in New York, to work alongside me, as well as we build coverage of the sector. So I guess its importance is shown by our desire at FT to continue to do more and have greater depth on this subject.
The new FT weekly premium newsletter on the business of sport.
- And regarding Scoreboard within the FT strategy to draw more subscriptions, what's the role of the sports content and of this premium newsletter in particular?
- We have a subscription business and it's a relatively high subscription compared to other newspapers and journalistic platforms. But we think it's worth it. And we constantly want to give our readers more valued things that they previously didn't have. And we have seen through the journalism that we've already done previously that our audience does want more dedicated sports business journalism. So this is our latest offering for them. So it's a way of retaining subscribers and also a way of reaching out to a new audience who potentially haven't been FT's subscribers in the past.
We see not only all these different executive around the sports industry who are sitting on the board of a football club or at the league or a sports organization, but also all the consultants, lawyers and accountants and everybody else who is around this ecosystem. You may not have had a place that you regularly went to for news or for dedicated analysis. And that's what we're trying to bring and attract over time to convince them that they should also have an active subscription.
And then we hope over time to build Scoreboard and sports business journalism into other ventures which aid to become part of a wide FT business. I'm the Sports Editor and I haven't got nothing to do with the business at all. So I can't speak specifically for that. But it's definitely part of the plan from my bosses to build this into a wider franchise. So we already have the Business of Football conference, which we've run for two years, and we're one of the co-founders of that. It's an annual gathering of football executives from across the world and particularly from Europe. This is a high-quality gathering and we want to do more events like that and continue to build that one into a bigger, better summit and become a flagship event that everyone in the industry looks forward to. We think we have potential to do more in the future around the corner of the Scoreboard brand.
"Our audience does want more sports business journalism. We created the mini-brand Scoreboard to house our best sports business content. It's a way of retaining subscribers and reaching out to a new audience who potentially haven't been FT's subscribers in the past"
- Apart from that unique business of a sports approach you are developing at F.T., how important is data-driven techniques and dataviz in FT sports coverage? John Burn-Murdoch said here that 'there’s a golden opportunity for sports journalists to add more quantitative analysis to their repertoire to better serve their audience'...
- Yes, exactly. So I would say that me personally, in my role, so we've hired two people who are dedicated to sports business. As a FT Sports Editor, I am to concentrate on sports business stories and other kind of big news events. But every once in a while, I will do something that looks much closer to sports writing. Our advantage is to be a bit different. So when I do that sort of things, we like to have a more analytical take on things, we use deep statistical analysis. I work alongside people like John Burn-Murdoch, who is a brilliant data visualization journalist, and also knows how to crunch the numbers in interesting ways. And I'll do quite a lot of longform journalism taking interesting subjects and getting really into depth on them.
You saw the recent story about Liverpool in which we did a kind of a tactical statistical analysis on how they built the club over recent seasons to be coming close to winning the Premier League. But I also go away and do things like a big piece I did about Athletic Bilbao. And that was a few days of reporting in Bilbao, it was more of a kind of historic and cultural look at the club, a longform journalism that takes a lot of time of research and most crucially good storytelling to pull that off. That's another part of the job and another part of our unique approach, because if we try and compete on just doing traditional sports journalism against all the rest of the sports press we would fail. So we're finding ways to differentiate ourselves.
"There isn't really a sports desk at Financial Times and we shouldn't pretend to have anything like that. We are a few people who are building now a broader business sports project and it will take time to become truly known for doing this"
- When was the sports desk created at FT and how many reporters' work do you steer at the moment?
- That's a funny question because there isn't really a sports desk at the FT, not in the traditional sense of the word. When I used to work at The Times of London there were 40 to 50 people who made up the sports department. We don't have anything like that at the FT and we shouldn't pretend to have that.
It's a shoestring operation in that sense: it's just me and a couple of people with support around the FT from people who cover mergers and acquisitions, private equity or global correspondents who every once in a while will help us report out great sports business stories to give a proper sense of how different a news may be for us.
My role as Sports Correspondent was prior to becoming Sports Editor two years ago. Prior to that, the athlete did not have a dedicated sports correspondent at all. My job title at Financial Times was Leisure Correspondent and the Leisure Industries Correspondent historically, over the last 10 to 15 years, has whoever is in that role has covered things like the hotel sector, gambling companies, cruise ships, restaurants, all of these sorts of things, as well as sports. And but whoever had been doing the leisure industry's job had always been a quiet big sports fan and spent a lot of time covering sport. I was the first one to say, look, we should cut the sports role out of the leisure industry's role and have two different jobs. And that was an argument that was accepted because it was clear that the way we had begun to do our sports coverage was distinct and needed more focus and because that was working.
We know internally that me and a few of the colleagues pitched a broader business sports project, and we're building that now. So there isn't really a sports desk, I would say. It's a few people in its early days seeing a plan to do it. And it'll take some time to become really, truly known for doing this. But we're starting to get a good following and we hope to do more.
- Scoreboard and this FT approach to sports coverage sticks out in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. These last months we have seen how lots of newsrooms transitioned sportswriters to new beats when the shutdown started. Now that competitions are returning, should have transitioned some business writers over to sports departments in order to report accurately on transfers, TV rights deals, sponsorships negotiations and other contracts regarding events, clubs and sportspeople?
- What has been interesting during the pandemic when there hasn't been any sport was that the only story there really was the sports business story. And there's nothing quite like a financial crisis for the FT to cover. There was a worry that we had nothing to do because there was no sport, but clearly that wasn't the case. We had lots to cover and it was interesting watching the rest of my colleagues across sports journalism really dive into the financial issues around the sport in a much more considered and in-depth way than had previously seen. I'd be interested to see if that carries on.
Always there's been a group of very serious, brilliant journalists across my trade who are focused on these issues and they're worth following. Tariq Panja at The New York Times or David Conn at The Guardian have been doing great stuff for a very long time. It's worth always investing in people who take any subject and cover it in depth and seriousness, that's for sure. At no point do I think we will we end up covering football transfer stories, because, let's be frank, although half of them are made up and mostly part of the negotiation between clubs are put out there by agents, we understand that the fans love them and want to read loads and loads of them.
On the other hand, I understand that the sports backpages are filled with transfer stories, but the numbers quoted after them are wrong or inaccurate and it leaves that kind of very sloppy practices. I would say that I don't know about the rest of sports journalism, but the FT has a reputation of being a trusted brand, a trusted newspaper with strong ethics and strong fact-checking. And so we are going to focus on the sorts of stories that we can prove and stand by and so we will continue to do the more in-depth, rigorous work. And if we get notice that others start doing more, they'll hopefully mean that we are up our game. But we don't mind if nobody else is doing it, because that gives us an opportunity to dominate the coverage of a particular subject which we think is undercovered.