How Mundial’s niche publishing strategy is winning over subscribers and building community

This is a good time to be a niche publisher. The days of splashy, big-budget launches fueled by venture capital are behind us. Instead, the steady, organic growth is the new favorite, leaving behind the flashy spectacles. After all, nobody wants to be the next Vice.

That’s why Mundial’s journey is so intriguing. 

To keep it brief, the football publisher weathered the pandemic, albeit with some battle scars. The quarterly magazine, which is the heart of the business, took a printing hiatus. As the owners explored different ways to make a comeback, FootballCo stepped in. The media holding company acquired Mundial at the beginning of 2022, and since then, the magazine has been printed six times as a quarterly feature.

“Now, we’re able to act as a pure publisher of a brand,” said Owen Blackhurst, Mundial’s co-founder.

This is something that couldn’t have been said before the acquisition. Back then, Mundial’s publisher aspirations were at times hindered by its commercial priorities. Occasionally, they even took a backseat, as Blackhurst noted. But those days are behind them. With the support of its new owners, Mundial was able to focus on reporting on the culture around football with authority, taking incremental steps rather than attempting to do it all at once.

So far, this strategy seems to be yielding results.

“By the end of the year, we will have tens of thousands of paying subscribers, which we’re proud of,” said senior vp of content and creative James Lamon.

That’s as much as he would reveal about the media company’s subscription scale. However, the nugget he did share underscores a fundamental truth at the core of today’s popular and innovative publishing brands: They prioritize direct connections over page views and are increasingly community-driven through newsletters and direct traffic.

Speaking of newsletters, Mundial has recently introduced a weekly, longer-form newsletter for its existing paying subscribers or anyone who is willing to pay £1.99. In return, they will get a mix of nostalgia (think deep dives into football cult heroes) and hot takes on current events, like this summer’s women’s European football championship tournament. This paid-for newsletter will run alongside the free, albeit shorter, weekly version, giving die-hard fans more of what they crave. 

“The solution to Mundial was never going to have 10 million followers on instagram — we already have a brand [in FootballCo] that does that and more,” said Lamon. “That’s not what Mundial is about. It’s a secret handshake for football insiders.”

What Lamon’s getting at is this: Mundial isn’t just another media brand with a huge Instagram following. It’s a brand with deep, real connections with actual people. And Mundial is using those connections to inspire readers to take action and connect with others. Its burgeoning presence on Discord is a case in point.

Last month, Mundial quietly launched on the social media app by only inviting 100 subscribers to join its space there. The idea was to test the waters — to see if this space could be like a club for football fans. A place where they could all chat about their love for football culture and its fan base. After two weeks, it was crystal clear that the idea had some serious potential. So, the Mundial executives flung the doors wide open, inviting all subscribers to hop on board. The Discord channel ballooned to tens of thousands of passionate football aficionados. 

“There was a lovely time between 2009 and 2010 when every Friday night Twitter was like the best pub in the world where you could find the people you want to talk to and have a great conversation with them,” said Blackhurst. “That’s long gone, but if we can recreate a certain element of that for people who are into non-league football replica shirts and talking about overhead kicks from the 90s then that would be a fun space for us all.”

Sure, there are plenty of places, from forums to WhatsApp groups, where football fans can go for some good ol’ banter. But Mundial gives people an added incentive to join their space: rewards. People who come to the Discord channel will earn points for posting and commenting there. What’s more, they’ll also receive points for spending time with Mundial beyond the Discord channel including listening to the weekly podcast and referring new members. Points collected throughout these experiences can be redeemed at Mundial’s store as well as other partner stores and retailers. 

“It was important for us to make sure our readers felt like they were getting something out of these efforts because they’re playing for the privilege of being there,” said Lamon. “They’re doing so because of the value we’ve created with an amazing brand and an amazing product, but at the same time we wanted to find a way we could return some of that value to them.”

Subscriptions and community building are the cornerstones of any forward-thinking publisher these days, but they can’t do all the heavy lifting on their own, especially if the publisher wants to expand and grow. Mundial does, and so it’s working on creating a more rounded business model. 

This includes advertising, which along with subscriptions, are the largest sources of revenue for Mundial. Plus, the publisher has its eye on events, something it’s dabbled in here and there over the years and is eager to explore further.

In fact, next year will mark the return of the Hotel Mundial event, coinciding with the men’s European championship football tournament. It will be the first time the event has run since 2018 when it was set up in London as a space for people to catch games, snag some merchandise and maybe even attend a panel discussion, all backed by sponsors and commercial advertisers. Expect a similar setup next year, though Mundial bosses are still ironing out the logistics, including the location. 

Lastly, there’s documentaries. Mundial is eager to produce films that cover the full spectrum of football fandom. Blackhurst said he sees that marketers are now more open to creating this type of content, thanks to the success of shows like “The Last Dance” and “Drive to Survive” on Netflix. He said he wants Mundial to be one of the places they turn to when they do. It’s what the team at Premier League club Wolverhampton Wolves did when they wanted to create a documentary about the club’s important, but untold, role in helping to make the sport as popular as it is in the U.S.

As is often the case in media, the key to making money lies in diversification. Running Mundial as a magazine came with various challenges, including mundane issues like postage costs. The expense of shipping the magazine worldwide acted as a barrier for potential subscribers. It also limited the business’s growth potential. Transitioning online, not just in terms of content but also the business model, changed the game. Offering a subscription package without the physical magazine allowed for a larger audience, opening up new avenues to generate revenue.

“It’s no surprise that newer media organizations like Mundial have found so much success in content focused away from the field,” said Daniel Kirschner, CEO of short-form video specialist agency Greenfly. It feeds on fandom tied to viewing the main event and in turn feeds that fandom, a feedback loop he said makes the connection between fan and athlete and performance ever stronger. He concluded, “As rights deals have gotten more expensive, this kind of storytelling has the huge advantage of not requiring a broadcast rights package but still enabling fans to extend their love of the game into the offseason, between games and beyond.”

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