It’s been a while, but delighted to get another Sports Marketing Scotland interview published, and it’s a good one. I’ve followed Grant Russell on Twitter for quite some time now and, of course, his work for STV. What’s always clear is his passion for Scottish football and trying to inspire us all to think how we could improve the game in Scotland. We talk along those lines, plus his thoughts on what’s happening now and what’s next for sports journalism.
If you could just take a moment to introduce yourself and your current role?
I’m Grant Russell and I’m the sports news correspondent for STV. What is a sports news correspondent? A very good question. It’s a bit of a moving parts kind of job. On paper, it’s being the person who goes beyond the day-to-day sporting agenda. Matters of football finance, rules, doping. You name it, anything that would not come under your typical run of the mill sports story. That’s my bag. That’s for the STV news at 6, and various broadcast outlets. I also dabble in digital video content for STV, we’ve had a number of projects over the last year or so with a very small team producing some remarkable stuff. I would say it’s a hobby, but I’m paid for it as well, so that’s quite nice!
Previously I was a digital reporter at STV, I started in 2009 when we didn’t have a sport website. Scotsport was not long off the air and worked to make it, in my opinion, one of the leading sport brands in the country.
How did you initially get working into the sports industry?
Well I was a journalism student. My break came in reading travel reports on the radio, and it snowballed from there. I ended up getting a news gig at Wave 102 in Dundee, and then, I think this is a well told story, Livingston Football Club were bought over by Italian owners in 2008. The chap who was writing the programme and running the website left at that point, so I saw an opportunity and volunteered my services. I ended up on one of the most rollercoaster seasons for a 21-year-old, one heck of a learning curve. There was some really good pros, guys that have gone on make careers for themselves, Leigh Griffiths, Murray Davidson, James McPake, Andy Halliday, but we weren’t getting paid on time. Struggles upon struggles upon struggles. That was my ‘in’ into the industry, and STV followed off the back of that.
What would you say you most love, and what most frustrates you, about working in Scottish football media?
What I love the most? It’s never dull. If you’re an ignorant outsider you will think Scottish football is all a one horse race, there’s no redeeming qualities to it, the standard is poor, yada, yada, yada. I refute those points first and foremost. To use the word narrative, there’s just so much of it. Script writers wouldn’t even come close to doing what Scottish football manages to produce. If you look at the last month alone, we’ve had the barney at Easter Road, we’ve had Pedro Caixinha’s tactical analysis of Hamilton and Motherwell, we’ve had Celtic’s rampant success on the pitch. There’s so much crammed in that I honestly can’t sit here and think of everything that’s happened. There’s a lot of good stuff, a lot of positives. What I love about Scottish football media is that everyone loves Scottish football. It doesn’t matter who you support, where you come from, everyone is passionate about it and invested in it. For a country our size, it’s such a vast audience.
What frustrates me the most? We need to move with the times. Scotland is a country with a long and storied history of innovation. What I feel is that we’re at a point right now is there needs to be some sort of evolution to how we approach football. In particular when talking about the media. The press are the press, they do the news fantastically well. Column writers are good, they generate discussion. I’m not saying anything needs to fall by the wayside, but you see on Twitter, everyone is so passionate about it. I just feel we need to kick on and look at what are we not doing, what can we do differently and how can we really push things on to raise the bar of coverage. Raise it to become more technologically innovative, to extol the virtues. It’s wrong to say we haven’t moved on, but I don’t think we’re moving quick enough to get Scottish football to where it should be.
We’ve seen Amazon now make a move into the live streaming of sport, with their recent NFL deal, something you shared on Twitter recently. What’s your thoughts on that?
In a non-Scottish sense, in a worldwide sense, it will be a game-changer. I don’t think it’s going to happen overnight. We’re already seeing the un-bundling of packages permeating the American market. Will it happen so quickly over here? I’m not so sure. What we will see quite quickly is adoption by people. The Twitter numbers for NFL were fine. The monetisation is a completely different matter in that regard. When the major players, Amazon, Netflix, YouTube, start entering the market like this, it has the potential to really shake things up. It’s got the potential to drive up the prices of rights, which is a terrifying prospect for some, maybe not so much in Scotland.
It’s also about choice. If I could turn this round to a Scottish example, my commentary on the Amazon deal on Twitter was very much around this is going to happen, fans around the world want access to any game at any time, we have weird and wonderful obstacles in the UK at the moment that prevents that but what I feel Scottish football needs to do in this regard is not sit still. You’ll get the critics saying if you suddenly make every game in Scotland available at 3 o’clock on a Saturday folk will stop going to games. I say, can we try and find out without making assumptions? Can we have a Facebook Live deal, where we show one game from League 1 or 2 live every week and test it out. Let’s try and get ahead of the game. Like I said, this is a country of innovators. This is complementary to the Sky/BT deals, not to nuke them. We rely on them financially and they’re great, because they give you a certain type of audience and coverage but we’re in an age now where people want to see anything at anytime and I don’t understand why we wouldn’t at least explore the opportunities. Do you want to be there at the start? Or do you want to be pulling on the coattails at the end when we’re just left with crumbs.
On the topic of video content, STV have been at the forefront of some of the content being produced that way over the last year or so. Is that yourselves jumping on that bandwagon, trying to do things a bit differently?
It would be very easy for me to sit here and say that it’s some very clever strategy. Like many things the small team of us do, the primary motivation is we quite fancy doing it. As football fans we feel we can’t get this anywhere else, so why don’t we do it? It doesn’t come from a company or departmental strategy, it comes from people, and that’s what makes STV good at what it does. Employee generated content, I think I’ve just invented that term. It’s very much just from a desire to be innovative and do things other people aren’t doing, and then trying to find the most creative way of doing it. Premiership Previews, which was by far and above one of the most popular video projects I’ve seen in terms of views and engagements at STV, by a long way, was three people and auxiliary cast. We got signed off to go round the country, we didn’t have access to the broadcast technical equipment, so let’s grab our iPhones and cobble together some equipment and see if we can make some beautiful videos out of it. To try and tell a story, and we somehow achieved it for all 12 Premiership clubs.
If I can un-bundle how the process works. Someone will say, for example, “we’ve got Scotland England coming up, why don’t we get footballers to recreate some goals?”. I think that was Laura Brannan’s idea, and one phonecall later, we’re set up the next day with Lee McCulloch and Kris Boyd to do it, which is just fantastic. The clubs I find now, in the main, are more amenable to these things, they see it as a chance to promote themselves.
I was going to ask about that actually, how easy do you find it working with the clubs when you have these kind of ideas?
When we started out, we probably rubbed a lot of folk up the wrong way. I’m going back many years. We were disruptors. The early adopters of Twitter and different types of digital content, setting the standard for what everyone else was doing. I think as everyone else has moved with the times. Once you’re able to demonstrate the types of content to the clubs that you’re able to do, and how beneficial you can make it for them, then they’re all for it. There’s guys that work at clubs that we speak to that are telling us what new equipment they want to buy and what ideas they’ve had. It almost creates a community of like-minded people trying to innovate. Our Kris Doolan video was fantastic. Which Premiership player would spend his time coaching kids on camera how to score goals just after he’s scored his 100th goal for his club. That’s the kind of people we have in Scottish football, in the main. That’s the kind of thing that content producers can do if they put their mind to it.
— STV Sport (@STVSport) April 4, 2017
Do you benchmark yourselves up against anyone?
What’s the diplomatic way of saying this? It’s hard to benchmark because we were always the ones that were out in front. Everyone caught up with us breaking news quickly on social and then driving people to the website. It’s looking around and saying how are folk doing it, and how can we stay ahead. Obviously Sky, BT, the clubs themselves, BBC do little bits of content and that’s great. It’s funny, I don’t look at our content and judge whether it’s better than what our competitors are doing. It sounds strange, but it’s not the mentality we have. We’d judge it on whether we enjoyed it, did the audience enjoy it and then if everyone else is going to follow suit and do content like us, then that’s great.
What I’d actually just like to see is more and more organisations doing this type of content. It’s not a selfish thing. If someone was to suddenly come up with some idea and do some crazy innovation, we might kick ourselves. We’re always aware of what other people are doing, and we’d never want to be left behind. We set the standards, and I enjoy what everyone else does. Weirdly.
Is there anything you wanted to single out as something you’re particularly enjoying right now?
Off the top of my head, the stuff that Kenny Crawford at the BBC has been doing over the last year. Grabbing his iPhone and going out and doing storytelling purely on that. You might remember the video at the Pollok Juniors game where he went down the kiosk queue, “pie, pie, pie, sausage roll”. It was a bit bizarre, but I just thought it was fantastic. Innovative content, transporting people somewhere they wouldn’t normally go, using the most nimble and modern technology to hand. I’m a huge, huge admirer of things like that. Sometimes the content doesn’t look polished, fine. I would rather I enjoyed it for the story, for where it took me, rather than something that was polished that didn’t take me anywhere.
— BBC Sport Scotland (@BBCSportScot) November 21, 2016
Rangers’ digital content is, I’ll put Motherwell near them in the league table, just fantastic. I love their use of camera angles, use of innovation and their use of digital platforms that’s almost unparalleled. The things that Motherwell do behind the scenes with players and coaches, and the nice packages they put together on a skeleton team, huge fan of that. There’s a lot of people out there, like me, like my colleagues, who just want to try stuff. I’d encourage them to get out and do it.
Revamps to the League and Challenge Cups this season, positive or negative for you?
League Cup, I liked it. I went to one group stage game, Arbroath v Dundee United and it went to a penalty shootout. Gayfield was packed. It was a summer evening football where it just worked. The sort of regionalisation of the groups worked, the penalty shootout concept was a bit barmy but it was nice that it was something different. It always harks back to what I’ll say when someone says something is a rubbish idea, just go out and try it. I really admire Iain Blair and the SPFL competitions committee for just coming up with the idea and managing to convince BT it’s worthy of a broadcast deal, and just going out and trying it. I really enjoyed it.
I know the Challenge Cup divides opinions. You are a lower league fan, it’s an opportunity for your team to win a trophy. I can understand the upset the changes have caused, with the Welsh and Northern Irish teams entering, and we’ll clubs from the Republic coming in as well, and the under 20’s from the Premiership. As an experiment, fine. I think it’s too early to call it, but I can see a lot of the upset. I’ve yet to be sold on the foreign teams coming in really adding any excitement, although Livingston went over to Crusaders, twice. Fans enjoyed the trip. It’s a chance for lower league clubs to play in Europe, if you like. In terms of player development for the under 20’s, again, jury’s out.
The SPFL didn’t have a title sponsor for a few years, do you think any long term damage was done to it’s brand identity?
No, I don’t. A lot of people didn’t believe them when they said they were holding out for the best possible deal. I think they were justified. I think damage was done to the image of the brand at the time. There was a lot of criticism, ‘are you not able to sell this product?’ ‘what are you doing?’ But they managed to do it. Ladbrokes are a fantastic sponsorship for them. I think it’s up at the end of this season, and I don’t think they’ll struggle to sell again. What Scottish football needs to do is not think it’s worth some disproportionate amount, but it shouldn’t undersell itself either. I don’t think any new sponsor is going to come to the table and try and undercut the Ladbrokes deal. I think they’re in a fine place.
What I would say is the rebranding of the league hasn’t worked for me.
In what way?
The amount of people I see either abroad, managers/players in this country, media down south, anywhere, who continue to call the top flight the SPL. What you had there was a recognisable, distinguishable brand name, that just rolls off the tongue. Even Pedro Caixinha came here and said the Scottish Premier League. It’s a recognisable brand, so catchy. SPL. So easy. I can’t see how the Scottish Premiership renaming/rebranding exercise can be a positive thing. People three and a half years on are still calling it the SPL. Sometimes you’ve just got to recognise when you’ve got a good thing. Perhaps we should look at going back. Brands matter. If people are still calling it the SPL, just accept it and rename it.
How do you think Scottish football can be made more attractive to encourage increased investment?
We need to talk ourselves up more. We suffer from a real image problem because we don’t believe in ourselves enough. It’s a very Scottish thing. If you want people to believe that something is good, go out and tell them it’s good. You extol all the virtues of your product or whatever it is you’re offering. You don’t sit there and go ‘aye it’s a bit rubbish isn’t it?’ It doesn’t work like that.
People will say that the media are always critical, empty seats look bad, etc. Everything is cause and effect. Clubs in the league start promoting themselves better, in a joined up way, then it can roll on to increase media revenues, increased sponsorship revenues. They would control the narrative a bit more, and what you’d see in the press and media would reflect that a lot more.
From a media and marketing point of view we can make it look a lot better. It goes back to the point of the English Premier League when the Sky money rolled in in 1992, you can’t tell me that it was the same league as it is today. They pumped money into it, but that wasn’t the root cause. What they started to do was to make it look more attractive with more camera angles, for example. Just pushing this message that the English Premier League was the greatest league in the world, when it blooming well wasn’t. You sell something hard enough, people will believe it. People will buy it. That’s what we need to do more of.
Following on from that, are you of the opinion that we need to create a USP to differentiate ourselves from down south?
Yes. It could be a whole number of things. What do we have going for us? We’re a hotbed of conveyor belt talent. We’re a second tier league but we’ll push players on. Football agents are ready to sell that to players as a USP as it is. Why don’t we push that idea? ‘Come and see the stars of tomorrow before they’re stars.’
It’s also one of the best attended leagues per capita in the Europe. Let’s push that. Too often we get bogged down that there’s always empty seats on the TV. Start pushing the message that for a country the size we are, we have so many people coming to games compared to other countries. Scottish football needs a USP and it’s not lacking in potential ones.
English football isn’t just on our TV, it’s on TV everywhere. Leagues still find a way to sell themselves, and make themselves attractive to sponsors and TV, regardless.
Making it’s debut, it’s the new Twitter question suggestion feature! There was a few that came in so I’ll go through a few just now. There was one from David Brockett, who does some awesome work at Clydebank…
Yes! I was looking for a lower league example earlier. That is exactly the one.
It’s lower than lower league! His question is what content do you think is most useful for journalists on matchdays?
It’s a tricky one. What’s useful depends what your job is on a matchday. When I was at Livingston, I made up a pack inspired by an American presspack. A treasure trove of stats and facts, anything to aid journalists in their jobs. I go to games to analyse, for myself, what teams are looking like so I can debate it rather than doing typical match reports. Arm people with the most information. You know what it’s like on Twitter, you make a mistake and you get pounced on for it. Sometimes it can be not having enough information to hand. If you have a knowledge base you can share with a journalist to better promote your club, give it to them. Don’t hide it away or claim exclusivity. Share it.
Oh, and access to replays!
I think you might have spotted Darryl Broadfoot‘s question, and it’s usually one of mine too. Can you choose three things you’d change about Scottish football overnight?
I sat worrying about this one for 2o minutes. Overnight? Crikey. First and foremost, take some power back from the clubs. As a headline, that has the potential to cause anarchy. I mean it in a helpful way. I feel that many clubs try and do so many good things, with marketing, with their customer databases, you name it, media, bla bla. We need to centralise it. There needs to be a way to take back some of the central core processes of any football club and centralise at league level. It’ll allow a core message or philosophy to flow through to clubs. I’ve often had this thought of can we create some sort of centralised intranet, if you like, to help clubs. Show them best practices, show them this, that and the other. I’d also take back control from clubs for a while because I feel that, as a league to push forward more, the executive power needs to lie with the executives. They need to have the total authority to do the TV deals, do the marketing deals. None of this voting as a members association. I understand why it’s like that, but I’d change it overnight. We employ that are experts in this field, we trust them to do the job and we sign up as clubs to that league structure. If I was to create the SPFL tomorrow, that’s how I’d start it out.
Second thing, we touched on it earlier. As a pilot project, so no one panic, I would abolish the 3pm blackout on a Saturday and I would make every game available through some over the top offering, Facebook Live or Twitter, or YouTube is probably the best platform for this kind of thing. There’s a great technological solution that’s being used in the German semi-pro leagues just now. It’s essential a 180 camera that follows the ball around the pitch. It’s installation costs, and you’re able to watch any game, anywhere in the world. I want to see a pilot project where Scottish football is made available to more audiences, open it up to more revenue streams. Every game available online. Even if we blackout certain games. Let’s see what the consequences are. Do people stop going to games? Do clubs lose revenue? Can we replace that revenue with other forms of revenue? What are the medium and long term positive and negative impacts of doing it?
To follow on from that, it looks like a criticism that people aren’t trying it, but if you look at what the Scottish FA have done at the youth levels. I think that’s fantastic, and not just because I was involved in them. They’re suddenly putting football out there to an audience, and the numbers on it were in the tens of thousands. That shows you what you can do.
Third thing is maybe a controversial one. I would stop saying ticket prices are too expensive. Now, for what you get right now, they are. What clubs need to start doing is providing value for money for their ticket. This doesn’t apply to everyone, some people are quite happy to turn up, pay £18-25 and just watch the match and go home. We need to start looking at models of what else can I get for my cash. Motherwell do some great things just now with kids where they have the signing zone before the game and they do loads of different bits and bobs. Rangers are looking at fanzones. You really have to be able to justify asking people to pay that money. We can be comfortable with what ticket prices are. Clubs just need to find ways to innovate, engage with their customer bases a lot better and make that ticket worth more. Whether it’s getting something for free from the kiosk, or you just give me more of an experience.
— Motherwell FC (@MotherwellFC) April 5, 2017
What I’d also throw into that is the amount of clubs that don’t monetise stay-away fans, or ex-pat fans. I am a stay-away fan, so take this from my personal thoughts here. If my football club turned round to me tomorrow and said you aren’t going to buy a season ticket for whatever reason, but give us £5 a month and it’ll go towards this or that. You’ll also get access to a newsletter every week and we’ll make you feel valued. Make them feel part of why they started following the club in the first place that they can’t get because they’re no longer in the local community. Give them a sense of that belonging once again. Start monetising them, because there’s so much potential out there and club TV monetisation only goes so far. It’s very easy to become a follow the goals on Twitter kind of guy. That’s not why you fall in love with your team. You feel part of something. It’s not always about results. The senses of community and what it feels, how it enriches your life. If you’re disconnected from that, you lose something. I don’t doubt that my love and sense of belonging could be rekindled, if someone tried. Talking third person almost, I’m not going to try. I’ve got so much going on in my life that my attentions are here or there. Come and find me. Tug at my heart strings and maybe I’ll start to get invested again, even if it’s just money or a little bit of time. There must be thousands of us out there.
This one is from Focus on Celtic, what’s your thoughts on fan media?
More power to them. I think they’re absolutely fantastic. The more people that are talking about the game, trying different ways of analysing and reporting on the game is brilliant. They could be a threat to the mainstream because, you see it more and more as a trend, people are more and more inclined to read fan media and take their opinions from it. It’s a sweeping generalisation that I don’t necessarily want to make, but it could perhaps be a little bit dangerous from time to time. There’s so many positives to it, they can challenge authority, they can shed new light, they can do types of content that the mainstream don’t. I think it’s Battle Fever On that cover Rangers youth football extensively, I think that’s fantastic.
I’m a big football analytics geek, and the stuff that is popping up on Twitter right now. SPFLRadar, Backpass Rule, I feel like I’m leaving someone out and I apologise. This stuff, I think, is just brilliant. We tried, and dipped our toes in the water, but if you’re in the mainstream and something isn’t mainstream isn’t hard to justify it even if you’re passionate about doing it. I’d love if, in two years time, it was the norm and everyone was doing it in Scottish football media, but that’s probably unrealistic. We need these disruptive influences that can devote a bit of time to it, and they’re not mainstream. They try and raise the bar of conversation, of analysis. I just think it’s brilliant.
In terms of the club blogs and Twitter accounts, so much good content too. Celtic, this season to an extent, have included fan media more and more in their media activity. They’ve encouraged it, opened doors and let them in to some press conferences, given them exclusive access to interviews. They’ve really started to treat them as equals and I think that’s brilliant. It’s a really smart step and I’d like to see more clubs adopt it.
Laura Brannan is asking how will digital output look in Scottish football this time next year?
If things keep a pace, and there aren’t obstacles put up to stop innovation, where do I think we’ll be in a year’s time? I really feel as though there’s some sort of evolution coming. I’m biting my tongue on the world revolution. You can see it in the content that’s being done by STV, others, clubs, fan media. A tipping point is coming I think, I hope. What does it look like in a year’s time? I think more and more of the mainstream and non-mainstream will be looking to use the emerging technologies that are there. The ability to shoot video on your phone now, to do Facebook Live, Periscopes from games – touchy subject – all these kind of things, if they continue at pace we’ll have refined how to use these platforms. We’ll have found niches in what types of content people are after. Audiences are getting younger, what are Scottish football media trying to do to keep them interested in what we’re doing in the long term.
I suspect over the next 12 months if things carry on, I just feel that there might be an explosion coming. I think there’s going to be a little change in thinking. You do what you do, that’s fine, you’ll survive. But over here, we’re going to do something completely different that’ll fly in the face of it, and we’re also going to find an audience. The chasm will grow between the two camps we’re seeing already, but not in a negative way. Everyone will continue to innovate and try loads of new things. Technology will evolve and Scottish football will be all the better for it.
What would you say is the next big thing when it comes to sports journalism?
If you’d asked me 12 months ago about the next big thing, I would have got it wrong probably. It takes me back to mobile. We’ve seen the emergence of Facebook Live for content, the disruptive element of people Periscoping from games. If someone, somewhere can think, I can do an offering that encompasses a Scottish football media channel online, with analysis, with filming from games that is quite low-fi then they’d be on to a huge winner. I’d be surprised if it really caught on over the next 12 months, but the potential is there for it.
What do I also hope will be the next big thing? I hope we will see some form of grown up, televisual sports programming. In terms of analysis, conversation, debate, narrative. To say that’d be the next big thing when everyone else has been doing it since the year dot sounds wild. I would hope that’d be the next big thing in Scotland, whoever does it.
What’s one piece of advice you’d give to anyone trying to break into the Scottish sports media?
I’ve explained my path already. Read the travel on the radio, did the news, got a chance at a football club, I actually joined STV uploading Coronation Street to the STV Player. Right place, right time. What I would say is there’s no defined path. Sure go to university or college if you can. Do a degree in journalism, or any other subject. Do a masters in journalism. Get the skills. If you really want to crack this game, be in people’s faces. Just do something. Just write something. Have a blog. Film yourself. I wish I could remember this kids name. There’s a young guy, and I don’t even know if he’s a teenager yet, who’s going to Hearts games and is filming stuff on YouTube just now. He did a thing with the Hearts main stand demolition. He’s just producing content, he’s doing something that’s making me go, that’s amazing.
Get yourself in people’s faces. Start producing content, whether it’s written, audio, visual. Build up a portfolio of work. You don’t even need to be published these days by a newspaper or get a package on the TV. You can do it yourself and that’s the beauty of it. There’s so many more opportunities now. Do something your passionate about, make the most of what you’ve got to hand, technological-wise and just go out and do it. What happens after that is anyone’s guess, but it’ll put you in a good position.