Duncan Hopwood

Behind the scenes at Sky Sports

December 8, 2016

It’s commonly said that things move fast in the world of business but not, in my experience, when compared with daily newspaper journalism. And the breakneck speed that is required to process news accelerates in the world of 24 hour broadcast news, something that is true for sports news too.

I’m with an audience of PR pros in London at a breakfast event to meet high profile figures from Sky Sports and Sky Sports News. As we discover more about the way this behemoth brand operates, I am increasingly struck by the amazing depth of resources and cross fertilisation that Sky has its disposal, and I cannot help but admire the energy and creativity they put in to leveraging their assets – chief of which by a huge margin are the live sports for which they have broadcasting rights.

How do you as a PR pro get your stories into Sky Sports News. As with all broadcast outlets, it begins with the planning team who are usually looking a week ahead. There are nine in the team but Sky Sports News also has 100 journalists who are expected to do their bit to find news. The Sky Sports news team are looking for stories that are interesting, entertaining and relevant but most of all that will drive audience for the events that Sky televises.

One opportunity for PR is to fill a gap. Sky needs to keep the narrative going when there are no live events, such as in the long NFL off season. They try to serve core fans and entice new ones. This is achieved by adding showbiz to the event – as demonstrated by its darts events – or enticing crowds to fill empty seats at netball games via its Sky Tickets service.

Funny story

When is 24 hour news not 24 hours? Sky Sports’ Through the Night show is live between 6 am and midnight. After that, they loop the hour from 11 am to midnight until they go live again. It used to be common practice on the night shift to nip out to a newsagents around the corner for a coffee or sometimes a crafty beer. As the show’s presenters appear against the backdrop of the newsroom, one of the journalists was televised drinking a beer between 11 am – and then again every hour until 6 a.m.

Filling a daily news channel is hard work. The ticker is live through the night, and the office is staffed from 3 am ready for a 6 am start. Staff sometimes work to deadlines of minutes for breaking news. Then there are Sky’s digital channels which have a combined reach of 43 million, though the head of digital expresses some healthy scepticism about how meaningful those statistics are.

There is more frank discussion to come. Sky’s commercial partnership with sport governing bodies makes reporting some news stories sensitive. Sky Sports News on tv and digital applies different rules to news than its BBC counterpart or Sky’s main news channel. For example, it didn’t run footage of dressing room celebrations by the Brazilian football team killed in a plane crash, as it was deemed too dark. Our viewers haven’t come to us for that kind of thing, they say. That aside, Sky has more rigorous editorial policies than some media, requiring all stories to be double sourced, the same standard that the Washington Post applies. In a digital world where rumours and real news break as often and noisily as waves, they avoid being left behind by the device of an ‘Investigating Desk’ which it uses to tell viewers it’s aware that something’s broken and that its journalists are investigating.

PR pros should think about footage to go with the story they are pitching. This is also increasingly required for digital as well as broadcast news. Avoid over branding. Ofcom and viewers are turned off by it. Vodafone made that mistake, and even though the event was loaded with sport celebrities, Sky wouldn’t air it.

Sky has ten hero events a year, such as the start of the F1 season. For these, they plan much further in advance. Sky Bet and Sky Tickets get involved. Darts is big for Sky’s pubs and clubs team so they get involved in brainstorming. To promote tennis coverage to a non-core audience, they set up a stunt to involving catching a Guinness Record quantity of tennis balls in a bucket on your head featuring tennis star Greg Ruzedski and to win that crossover audience, the presenter of Soccer AM, its laddish Saturday morning football preview show.

Sky’s influence and budgets are apparent in the way it is extending its tentacles through the social networks. It is a launch partners with YouTube Live and has a very successful partnership with Snapchat, for whose users it streams Premier League goals for free.

It is not all plain sailing. Sky Sports faces competition, particularly for millennials, from The SportBible, although Sky’s head of digital points out that channel depends on Facebook algorithms for its existence. Meanwhile, the news team are constantly agonising over how to do live streaming online without cannibalising its own coverage, and the commercial team still struggle to shut down the pirates.