Phil’s Forty, 33: World of sport

Apparently some people don’t like football, so I can only apologise that it features again in this piece, and that for more than 10 years from 1998 my work involved enhancing its domination of our media, culture and communities.

I’d turned down a move to PA Sport in 1997 because it was mainstream sports journalism behind a desk, with late-night shifts and a commute to Leeds. But a year later the business had progressed and needed someone for a commercial role at a much higher level, dealing with top sports sponsors and governing bodies.

The travel was still a bind but after 18 months we relocated to Howden and built the ultimate sports media centre. When I arrived, PA Sport was the main supplier to all the major press and broadcast media of data and reports from all the sport that mattered.

Its expansion over the next 10 years was all about a shrewd, locally-based management team anticipating the potential of the internet and developing the services which ensured we were ahead of the game. You don’t need to be a fan to have noticed how live sport is now about so much more than watching a match on TV.

I’m watching Hull City online as I write this. If I wanted to I could watch on my phone, find the latest stats to assess the attributes of every player, use that information to select from a range of betting options all at my fingertips. We started it. Sorry, again.

Getting to that point was great fun as we delivered data and editorial packages on behalf of major sponsors including Barclays, Coca-Cola and Nationwide to journalists worldwide who reported on British football. 

We did the same with Lloyds and then RBS for Six Nations rugby and for the likes of  NatWest, Cheltenham & Gloucester, npower and more for cricket, on one occasions receiving a very nice phone call from an appreciative Christopher Martin-Jenkins.

The Artois Championships.
The Artois Championships.

I didn’t do a lot with tennis but I received an invitation every year to the Stella Artois tournament at Queen’s Club. Anyone who knows me will understand why acceptance was always immediate and joyful. As for the tennis, all I remember is it was so warm that you could only tolerate watching the world’s best players – Agassi, Sampras, Nadal, Djokovic, Henman, Murray – for  half an hour or so before having to find a shady spot and a cold pint in the free bar.

The highlight without doubt was recruiting and training maybe 400 former professional footballers with the help of the Professional Footballers’ Association for a project which revolutionised the collected of sports data. We sent an ex-player to every match under the auspices of the Premier League, Football League and Scottish Premier League and used technology to track key data in real time. 

Our big-name recruits included Jimmy Case, Keith Houchen, Mel Sterland, Imre Varadi and a few former greats from Aston Villa – Gary Shaw, Dennis Mortimer, Gordon Cowans and Brendon Ormsby. Alan Turner and Neil Williams used to share Hull City home games.

When the opportunity arose we used to take in the odd games with our contacts in the PFA head office. I went to Luton Town in November 2001 with Colin Hill, formerly of Arsenal and Leicester City among others, to watch a Hull City away win. With former West Ham and Spurs star Paul Allen I watched City take a step towards promotion with a 2–2 draw at Southend in April 2004. We also watched a match at Millwall where, after chatting to some club officials, I was shocked by their accounts of the latest catalogue of violence perpetrated by monsters who didn’t discriminate between club and community.

Our own team of operatives in Howden entered every goal, foul, corner, throw-in and more into a database which became the official record of stats for our national game. It drove the live updates for Sky Sports and the BBC, it supported stats packages which became ever more creative as we came up with new, quirky ideas and angles. It enabled us to identify which player from all four divisions took the most in-swinging corners with his left foot during away games in a particular season. And other stuff that was much more interesting and relevant, because in addition to shaping the evolution of media coverage of football it also kickstarted lucrative new opportunities in sports betting.

We tried it in other sports as well but the demand just wasn’t the same. Racing did well and was extremely difficult. I knew I could do all the work I was asking of former players from cricket and both codes of rugby, but horse racing was impossible. I still have all the admiration in the world for the ex-jockeys who could watch a race live and provide the close-up comments on all the runners before the next field came under starter’s orders.

I tried it once with a video of about 10 horses racing over a routine mile and a half at Brighton. I just about got everything, but not until I’d watched the tape seven times.

The most frustrating experience was dealing with the Gaelic Athletic Association, where the politics put paid to a joint project to collect live data from hurling and Gaelic football. The research was great fun – I must have made a dozen or more visits to Dublin for meetings at the superb Croke Park stadium and to Waterford and Belfast to watch matches and meet journalists and broadcasters. 

But we knew we were struggling when, at a few hours’ notice, I flew from Gatwick to Dublin having been granted a meeting with the GAA’s media man. I was only there for 45 minutes. He never even took his coat off. So we went straight to the top and I endured a rattling train trip of about two hours to meet the GAA President in Kilkenny. A moderniser in a fiercely traditional organisation, he told us he loved our ideas. But he couldn’t over rule his media man.

1966 World Cup Winners Sporting Club, Gala Dinner.
1966 World Cup Winners Sporting Club, Gala Dinner.

Our work with the Professional Footballers’ Association brought seats at some of the game’s biggest occasions – their awards dinner every year at the Grosvenor House Hotel in Park Lane and the launch at the same venue in December 2001 of the 1966 World Cup Winners Sporting Club. From that event I have the autographs of ten of England’s winning team; sadly we’d lost Bobby Moore by then.

With the Professional Cricketers’ Association (PCA) we provided training to help former players develop the PCA’s own media services. Again there was no shortage of social occasions – a champagne lunch in the Long Room at Lord’s to celebrate the opening of the NatWest Media Centre, the International Cricket Council summer party in the pavilion towers, several PCA awards dinners at the Royal Albert Hall.

We were the go-to media organisation in the UK when it came to seeking guidance on shaping services and facilities for the media at big events, from a planning meeting at the Olympic Stadium in Berlin in 2005 in readiness for the World Cup the following year to preparing PA Sport’s bid which secured the data contract for London 2012.

It couldn’t last and it didn’t as the visionary management team left, the ambition evaporated and the time came to do something else. The next stop was public relations and media consultancy, which has brought opportunities to write about news, business, sport, music and so much more.

Phil Ascough

It’s 40 years this year since Phil Ascough, our most prolific freelance contributor, arrived in Hull to begin a new episode in his journalistic career. Having spent two years on the weekly Doncaster Gazette, Phil headed east to the Hull Daily Mail. Apart from three years on the Royal Gazette in Bermuda and a short spell at the Teesside Gazette, he’s been here ever since. He worked for the Yorkshire Post and the BBC before returning to the Mail and becoming business editor. He moved into sports media with the Press Association in Leeds and then Howden, and set up his own PR consultancy in 2010. To mark the anniversary he has set out to write 40 essays looking at his career, our city and its people.