The newsroom that won’t stop growing: the impact of The Football Sack

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Our mid-20s is often the age group for insane entrepreneurial ideas, not thinking their influence could have such an impact on a multitude of people along the way.

This is the story of two mates, Christian Layland and Matt Greenlaw, whose passion to illustrate their football opinions to fans would start the juggernaut into the new world of Australian football media.

 

Celebrating its tenth year on Friday 8 May, The Football Sack’s editors and writer numbers have skyrocketed, and everyone wants to play a part in history. For two blokes starting as self-confessed media beginners to turn their ideas into reality is an impressive feat.

There was no real money involved and the team certainly does not obtain a life of luxury because of its successes. Everything done for the page is and was because of the love in what they were doing.

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Before getting ahead of ourselves, how did The Football Sack build their reputation you ask? Simple. A Gold Coast United match.

I. Game day at Skilled Park

“Matt and I were friends for a long time, he was visiting home and we rocked up to his house and said we’re going to watch the Queensland derby.” – Christian Layland

After sitting through a lacklustre Brisbane Roar performance, Christian and Matt analysed the game in the front seat of the car on the way home to Lennox Head.

It was a typical conversation for any fans leaving a football match, but it was the coverage when they got home that caught their attention.

“What we were talking about in the car was exactly what Miron Bleiberg was talking about in his post-match analysis,” Matt said.

Like any free-spirited students they wanted to make a difference with the idea of a website.

After months of to-and-fro, the website was up and running and thus began the first of many entertaining pieces.

 

II. Getting up-and-running

“We brainstormed ideas, my dad laughed at the joke name The Football Sack so we thought that’s what we will go with.” – Matt Greenlaw

Early on The Football Sack was given a lot of respect in the tight knit sports media sphere through the way the publication wrote its match reports and the way it angled its stories.

The fans laughed, shared, and put the website’s content on Twitter.

There was no science behind the decision to go down the humorous path, put simply, Christian and Matt purely enjoyed laughing and having a good time talking about football.

This attitude caught the eye of A-League media personal such as current Head of Marketing and Communications at Western Sydney Wanderers Mark Jensen.

“The Football Sack has always had its tongue firmly planted in its cheek and occasionally rubbed some clubs (and media managers) the wrong way,” he said.

“Audiences want levity, you get it from the Betoota Advocate for news and current events and you get it from groups like The Football Sack, A-League Memes, and Sportley for football.”

The aim of the page was, at least initially, to differ from other media such as Fox Sports and SBS in terms of taking a lighthearted view, without neglecting their professional attitude towards football.

Light-hearted articles were used as a point of difference to lure readers in, but once on the site, they would be hit with serious and hard-hitting articles too.

The first three to four years of The Football Sack was one of rapid change with the team introducing new and original ideas to football media, many of which considered commonplace today.

“Every time a club, federation or media outlet would adapt one of our ideas, we would try another innovation to get ahead of them again,” Christian said.

“In those first years that’s why we rose so quickly because we were just trying to get ahead of the pack.”

III. The W-League

“As a platform it seemed like it wanted to be taken seriously which often conflicted with the type of stories it published.” – Mark Jensen

The W-League and The Football Sack were a match made in heaven. From the beginning it was an opportunity for both parties, with Christian and Matt determined to give the league the publicity it deserved.

“Early on we had lots of hits from W-League articles and stories because no one would write about it,” Christian said.

“Four-Four-Two did a weekly wrap and the ABC were host broadcasters, but there was no coverage in mainstream media and we were really covering the league properly.”

Having initially been rejected for A-League accreditation in 2010, The Football Sack appealed Football Federation Australia’s decision using their in-depth coverage of the W-League as a reason they deserved access to matches and players.

Conceding that the W-League needed more coverage, FFA granted The Football Sack dual A-League/W-League accreditation for the 2010/11 season.

IV. Innovations

“I have built a few things from my own acting website, and other bits and pieces, so I used all that to put into The Football Sack website.” – Matt Greenlaw

Matt quickly became instrumental in bettering other media outlets to build a fan base.

“The difficulty was at that time of the internet, the website was written in HTML code from scratch,” he said.

“We were able to use a nicer looking website which looking back was disgusting and horrible, but at the time was quite innovative.”

The innovations evolved over the years and people hopped on board to create a diverse selection of content.

The English Premier League’s “predictor widget” model became popular for the A-League and gained major traction where fans could plug in their predicted results and see how the ladder would look.

It was through mutual university friends where Matt was able to work out the correct coding to get the widget up and running which enjoyed a sense of individuality until Fox Sports caught onto the idea and created their own, (self-confessed) superior, model.

The Football Sack thrived off people like Scott Condon and his creation of “Condo’s Wrap“.

The weekly article, primed with a fresh deli wrap as its header image, gave insight into the weeks domestic and international football action whilst throwing the odd opinion or swear word in just because they could.

“You have people like Condo and Kyle Chandler who could make you legitimately laugh out loud with what they would write,” Christian said.

Other articles such as “The Crossbar” proved there was a real popularity growing. A sense of half-seriousness, half-funny take on the action resonated with fans as their opinions were actually being published.

The expansion into the “Twittersphere” gave opportunities for other individuals to flex their social muscles. It seems difficult to believe but The Football Sack was the first organisation to live Tweet A-League matches.

“It’s such a simple thing but no-one else was doing it. Not the clubs, not the A-League, not Fox Sports. We were the first and so we became a go-to point for fans: if you were away from a TV and needed to know the score, you’d look us up on Twitter,” explained Christian.

Their coverage was so unique that they won Best Use Of Social Media two seasons in-a-row and personalities like Craig Foster spoke on The World Game about how The Football Sack’s social media presence was a key part of the typical Australian football fan’s experience.

Both Christian and Matt worked extremely hard to lay a platform for social media use, but it took a couple of helping hands in order to stay up-to-date with relevant online expansions.

Jacob Windon and Ben Smith ended up coming on board as social media managers to create content in order to inform, analyse, and all whilst getting a reaction from followers through amusing content.

V. The Podcast

“Our plan consisted of sitting down for 30 minutes and that was it.” – Christian Layland

With a rise in audio journalism, it was only a matter of time before The Football Sack created their own podcast to ramble on about a variety of topics. In fact, the podcast was born only a few weeks after the website went live.

Not only was the podcast popularity growing, but so was the world game in Australia.

Your next question might be, how much planning went in to such an enormous task, especially considering the multitude of winners medals in the “Best Football Podcast” category awarded at the FFDA fan awards?

Zero.

“For the first three episodes we pressed record, did it live and uploaded it as it was. Looking back it was a hilarious way to do it,” Christian said.

“It struck a chord and people loved it.”

The realisation was that the program could be made more professional but the real turning point was when, before episode four, Christian and co-host Jack Quigley forgot to press record, a journalist’s nightmare.

This fault is now reflected as a blessing in disguise. After a re-recording they managed to cut the show down by 20 minutes which made the show more succinct, without losing any of the funny moments.

The original line-up covered the 2010 and 2014 World Cup with a new crew in 2018.

Christian felt that each four year cycle displayed their maturity in what they were doing.

“2010 we were still finding our feet as we burst onto the scene,” he said.

You could see the reputation of the podcast grow as the calibre of guests expanded in 2014.

Matt Jurman, Dean Heffernan and Ray Gatt were all football personalities and players but the team branched out into the world beyond sport.

Comedian Jimeoin, musician Dean Hanson (Ball Park Music), and Michael Beveridge (Big Brother) all gave the show another dimension and allowed for a continuation of the “left-field” approach to their stories.

“The guests on the World Cup podcast were huge,” Matt said.

“Somehow we had the connections.”

VI. Why interns?

“It got us jobs, now let’s get other people jobs.” – Christian Layland

Once the rest of the industry caught up with the digital innovations, The Football Sack’s focus changed to development of aspiring writers coming through the ranks: perhaps their greatest impact out of everything.

The staff take pride in graduate numbers gaining employment into the workforce.

This dedication has been appreciated by clubs around the nation, especially by Mark Jensen.

“I have had a number of (The Football Sack) alumni come through at Western Sydney and they have always been strong writers, hard workers, and passionate football people – three traits that are really important.”

Comments like these should give a metaphorical pat on the back to the editors of the page.

The answer was a selfless one when Christian was asked why The Football Sack went down the internship path?

“There was a moment where Matt and I both cracked the industry and got the jobs that we wanted to in football,” he said.

“The Football Sack put us into the positions we wanted so we said let’s keep it as a way for other people to follow our path.”

The expansion of the program has brought with it the need for high quality editors to offer new opinions and guide the raw writing styles of students.

“This season Isobel Cootes as editor has built on the legacy of former editors Matt Marsden, Luke Robbs and Jacob Windon to bring a further level of sophistication to the capacity of what’s being offered and I’d love to see that continue,” Matt said.

In a profession which is becoming notoriously hard to find full-time work, Christian and Matt have led the way in providing 72 (and counting) jobs for university students.

VII. The Future

“You look at the people doing internships with clubs, newspapers, and the reality is they can afford it. This is the barrier I want removed.” – Christian Layland

From rags to riches in a recognition sense, The Football Sack still has a lot of goals to set. For Christian however there is a glaring hole in football media that needs to be addressed.

“Unfortunately, to make it as a football journalist you really have to have some financial backing behind you,” he said.

“Many people cannot afford to sacrifice potential working days to participate in an internship. When you need money to put food on the table, you can’t afford to take a day off each week to go to AAMI Park to report on Melbourne City, it’s not possible.

“This means you miss out on crucial experience and leaning opportunities, so when a job in media becomes available – those who were able to afford the internships and placements get in ahead of you.

“There needs to be a way where these placement opportunities are accessible to all members of the community regardless of your personal situation.”

Lookout for The Football Sack Scholarship which is starting to gain traction. Whilst conceding it will be a monumental task to achieve, who would back against them to create something special once again?

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Jordan Warren
Football mad, Bachelor of Journalism student at UOW. Liverpool to win the league. Covering Sydney FC in the A-League and W-League for 2019-20.