Inside The Guardian's drive to be a global digital destination for sports

The Guardian wants to push its sports coverage to the next level.

The publisher has been seeing a steady rise in overall traffic and sees sports as a major contributor, adding as many as 5.3 million monthly unique visitors to its overall audience, according to comScore. That’s roughly one in seven U.K. users who consumer sports content.

The BBC’s sports coverage and Sky Sports command 10.7 million monthlies apiece, while overseas reigns supreme with 74 million monthly visitors, and Bleacher Report attracts 37 million, according to comScore.

But the Guardian’s traffic is growing, thanks to its unique spin on live blogging and its heavy focus on women’s soccer. And a belief that the future of live sports coverage lies in data and, naturally, virtual reality.

Nailing multilingual live blogging
The Guardian believes its live blogging sets it apart from its many rivals. It publishes 80 live blogs a month, with the biggest hitter yet being the live blog of the Floyd Mayweather vs Manny Pacquiao boxing match. This blog, accompanied by a film of the fight’s recreation using Legos, notched up 2.5 million pageviews in May.

The Guardian’s sports editor Ian Prior believes there is huge potential still in live blogging. “Not many publishers are getting it right. Some are really dull. Getting the tone right is critical in live blogging, and we bring a certain style and personality to ours,” he added.

Putting a “Guardian twist” on its live blogging overseas requires shaking off Britishisms (including tone) in order to appeal to audiences in the U.S., Australia and India. “It has to be as accessible to people in Dundee as it is to people in Delhi, which is a difficult balance.”

It aims to apply a level of “universality” to the language it uses, without sacrificing the Guardian style, according to Prior. “We always have to be careful with U.S. and British English, where there is a lot of idiom. You can alienate users very quickly by slipping into jargon and technicalities that are common in sport. But you must also never patronize.”

Guardian U.S. approach
Stateside, the publisher has beefed up its team with some strong U.S. journalists. But despite its big ambitions, Guardian Sports is realistic when it comes to U.S. penetration and seeks more to distinguish itself from giants ESPN and Bleacher Report rather than tackle them head on. “We’re not going to take knives to a gun fight and do anything like try to muscle ESPN off baseball for example,” said Prior.

Instead, it has adopted more of a targeted approach. It covers American sports and major fixtures like the Super Bowl but has found real traction with soccer, an area the Guardian wants to own globally, according to Prior. Women’s soccer, for example, is on the rise in the U.S. and is therefore a target area. Its live blog for the women’s World Cup final (which the U.S. won) was its second-highest-performing, generating 1.3 million pageviews in July, according to the publisher.

Reach versus loyalty
The billion-dollar question in digital is how to balance reach versus loyalty, and the Guardian is no exception. Converting drive-by readers into loyal return visitors remains an ongoing challenge, according to Prior. Because of the volume of search referral traffic the Guardian gets, it must treat every article like a homepage. The Mayweather-Pacquaio fight, for example, saw 60 percent of its traffic come from people searching for the fight online rather than coming direct to the Guardian.

It must also consider the fact that not everyone has the most up-to-date smartphones, making it difficult at times to tailor the content. “We have to think harder about load times on mobile than ever before because no one will wait around for five minutes staring at a blank screen. That’s something we’re constantly looking at,” said Prior.

The platforms approach
Live sports events are ideal social media fodder, and the Guardian still sees Facebook as a vital traffic driver here. But Twitter is performing far less well. In fact, its Twitter share rates are “surprisingly low” compared to Facebook, he added. Snapchat is of more interest to Prior. ESPN and Sky Sports News have already launched on Snapchat Discover, though Prior isn’t fazed by not being a first mover. “Publishers are being brave and experimental on Snapchat. We’re not doing much there yet, but later entry would be beneficial there as everyone is still trying to figure out how it works.”

2016 Olympics and the next wave of innovation
As the sun sets on 2015’s big sports highlights, all eyes are now fixed on the 2016 Olympics. The global tournament will follow hot on the heels of soccer’s European championships, making next year “as big as it gets” for Guardian Sports. Prior said the Olympics provides the ideal global stage for innovation, and the Guardian will be putting its weight behind using sports data to inform, shape and enhance its coverage.

Tournaments like Wimbledon already have sophisticated real-time data strategies, driven by longstanding partner IBM. Everything from athletes’ vitals and playing techniques, to court statistics are tracked, analyzed and redistributed in real time. The Guardian wants a piece of that action. “Without giving too much away, we’ll be looking hard at how we visualize that data in real time across devices,” added Prior.

Then there’s VR. Publishers across the board have been experimenting with virtual reality, including the New York Times and The Economist for hard news. Using VR and 3D environments to convey the sights, sounds and feelings of the news is also an exciting future prospect for Guardian Sports, said Prior, particularly now the price of the technology has radically dropped. “VR could have major ramifications for live sport experiences and really drive the next iteration of journalism. We’ll be talking a lot more about it.”