The year was 2000. What do we remember about it?
Bill Clinton was the president of the United States of America, Playstation 2 was introduced, and Britney Spears was on top of the singles list.
Some things feel like yesterday — others like an eternity ago. Today it is hard to imagine what the media landscape and media habits looked like just after the turn of the millennium. When the Internet was something fairly new, social media did not even exist, and smartphones could only be seen in sci-fi films.
There was no place to watch television — except on the TV in the living room.
All Swedes interested in sports surely have some sweet memories of the Olympic games in Sydney, where Sweden won four gold medals. These Swedish successes were reported in the first sports daily, Sportbladet.
Already in the 1990s, there were plans for extended sports coverage at Aftonbladet. But the sports editor at the time, Lasse Östling, still remembers the frustration he felt as he was walking to work to fill a few sports pages:
“I remember with horror when I went to the editorial office one evening after Sweden had beaten England at Råsunda Football Stadium in an important qualification fixture. Fredrik Ljungberg had just had his breakthrough. This was a historic Swedish victory, and I had only six pages in total to work with, and all the other stuff was supposed to fit in there as well: horse trotting, ice hockey training matches, and much more, whatever it was. I remember asking the editorial management how I was supposed to produce decent coverage of a victory that was the talk of the nation.”
After some years, in the early 1990s, with poor attendance at sports events, Swedish audience numbers had begun to increase again. The appearance of commercial sports TV channels sparked a new interest. This was the time when the idea of starting a new daily Swedish sports newpaper was born.
“There was a happy, party-like mood on the Swedish stands,” Östling said. “The old men in the top management began to understand that we should have a product that was matching those interests and not just something that was dismissed to some silly pages far back in the evening paper.”
In 1996, Aftonbladet overtook its fiercest rival, Expressen, in circulation figures. At its widest, the gap was almost 100,000 copies a day. But in the late 1990s, Expressen started closing in and editorial management felt something had to be done. Staff decided to put increased effort into covering sports.
Fearing competitors might get wind of the new plan, everything was done in secret. Aftonbladet started hiring new, young sports journalists. To avoid any unneccesary attention, they were not assigned to the sports desk — Sportbladet did not yet exist — but to other desks at the newspaper. Some of the sports columnists-to-be were put to work for a month with the Sunday edition, and not even those who worked at the sports desk at the time knew they were going to move to Sportbladet.
Another move, made just a couple of months before launch, was to start printing on pink paper, which resembled the respected Italian sports newspaper La Gazzetta dello Sport. The pink colour was a signal saying the newspaper was going to take readers interested in sports seriously. Instead of a couple of sport pages a day, there would now be at least 16 pages every day in a separate supplement.
On May 8, 2000, Sportbladet launched, but the reception was cool among people in the trade. Many asked themselves how Aftonbladet would fill 16 sports pages (and eventually 32 pages) every day of the year.
But soon thereafter, it turned out the large space opened up an opportunity for another type of sports journalism and a different kind of journalist. Overnight, there was suddenly enough room to tell stories rather than just report results and events on the pitch. Now coverage was about Moscow’s football culture or what football in Bucharest meant for the Roma population of Romania.
“Sportbladet proved some things that few people had dared hope or think,” said Sportbladet columnist Simon Bank, who has been with the newspaper since 1999. “First, that Sweden was large enough to have a daily sports paper. Second, that Sweden, on top of that, had enough curiosity to appreciate journalism and reporting — that is not only about the closest, most audience-catching topics — and be read and admired for it.”
Because of this, a new audience was coming to the sports pages but a new brand of journalists was also drawn in. “Erik Niva and Johanna Frändén had perhaps been possible 30 years ago, but they would not have been writing in the same style about the same topics. Now they are among the best writers there are in Sweden, regardless of category,” Bank said.
Eighteen years after launch, the pink sports pages are still there as are the basic values of quality, curiosity, and courage. But more and more energy is used to lure digital traffic, and there are plenty of challenges.
“It has been a fantastic journey, and it’s still going on,” said Sportbladet’s current editor, Pontus Carlgren. “We develop and change all the time. Today we are not only producing a daily paper. We are working with social media, videos, podcasts, and IT development that can be absolutely decisive. The tone of presentation that was typical for Sportbladet still exists but can now also be heard clearly in all our social media.
“In our new organisation, we have three staff members working with social media. All three of them have a background as subeditors at the paper, and that is not a coincidence.”
Several people at Sportbladet have won prizes for their journalism. Much of the playfulness and pioneering spirit that distinguished Sportbladet 18 years ago still lives on, both in the editorial room and in the marketing department.
In the spring of 2018, 4,373 footballs were dumped all over Sergels Torg in the center of Stockholm as a reminder of the long, warm — and pink — World Cup summer that lay ahead.