Pay to Play?

FourFourTwo is the gold standard as soccer magazines go. Named after the most used tactical formation, the magazine has more than double the circulation of its closest competitor, World Soccer. And when reading through the September 2008 issue, it seems like FourFourTwo uses its platform to make as many advertising deals as possible.

Advertising’s always been a necessary evil for print – it pays the bills. And with all publications under pressure in the Internet era, companies need new ways to pay said bills. Increasingly, FourFourTwo uses “advertorials,” which have become prevalent in magazines no matter the genre. The September issue, previewing the upcoming season, takes this trend even further.

There’s a two-page spread on an amateur tournament backed by Nivea. Ford Motors sponsors a feature where FourFourTwo explores “design innovations” in the sport, as well as one of Ford’s cars. Naturally, each design innovation was brought to you by a certain company; in addition to Ford, sportswear manufacturers Adidas and Canterbury are highlighted. Steven Gerrard, one of the most popular players in England, extols the benefits of a sport drink for the duration of an interview. Each of these “articles” looks like the rest of the magazine, with only a bit of text to show the piece is an “advertising feature.”

But advertising’s extended its reach past such sections. This year, FourFourTwo is the main sponsor of Swindon Town, a lower-league soccer club. The team’s jerseys carry the magazine’s title, and FourFourTwo has published an article about the club in each issue since the sponsorship was announced. This month, a reporter joins the team and actually receives playing time during its preseason tour. You scratch our back, we’ll scratch yours.

Some sponsors receive more than an article or reciprocal relationship. As it’s the first issue of the season, FourFourTwo released a supplement previewing the leagues. This year’s is brought to you “in association with” Setanta, one of two U.K. stations that televises soccer matches, which we’re reminded of on nearly every one of the supplement’s 83 pages.

Maybe this is the future of print publications. It’s certainly a way to replace revenue; FourFourTwo’s average circulation per issue dropped 3 percent from 2006 to 2007, even as the magazine has increased subscribers from outside the U.K. But it also raises questions about the magazine’s objectivity, and could even disillusion its readers. Lose the readers, and you’ve lost the game.

– Nate Smith

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