Turning 30 is seen as a milestone – an end to the frivolities of youth and the start of the formalities of adulthood. Hitting the big three-oh is a sign you should stop regularly drinking eight cans of Tyskie and trying to jump over moving cars. That you should put down the bong and quit Snapchatting photos of your own nasty shits.
The Sunday Sport turned 30 yesterday.
What do you think it would say to all that? "BELLENDS!" it would scream, probably, if it were a human with a working mouth, before spilling WKD Blue all over a flashing birthday badge. Because while the paper might now be three decades old, it's still as snotty, potty-mouthed and sensationally grotty as it's ever been.
Over the phone, David Sullivan – the paper's founder – says the idea for The Sunday Sport came to him when he was a "naive 36-year-old" looking to launch a low-budget title that would trump Murdoch's tabloids, taking The Sun's focus on sex and feeding it a box of Viagra.
On the 14th of September, 1986, from an office in Manchester, that's exactly what he did, launching a paper that teams softcore nudity with a load of absolutely ridiculous stories. The content is plainly satirical and absurdist – "World War II Bomber Found on the Moon" is one iconic headline – but, like The Onion, the paper regularly manages to fool people into sharing its stories in the belief they're absolutely real.
The paper has been through its ups and downs over the years – being sold and bought back again – and may not sell like it did in its heyday, but it still distributes around 100,000 issues overall every week to a loyal base of customers.
Thirty years is a pretty impressive run for a publication as outlandish as the Sport. But perhaps it's that exact outlandishness that's given it such staying power. Before the internet as we know it even existed, the Sport was doing a form of IRL clickbait, hooking corner-shop customers with ludicrous headlines and capital-letter world exclusives. The most successful and memorable of their issues are ones that tap into Britain's love of sleaze and scandal. For example, 2014's "Ten Years Ago the Lotto Made Me a Millionaire, Now I Suck Off Dogs for Quavers" is still doing the rounds online, presumably because of the cocktail of vice, cash and absurdism. And because a lot of people think it's real.
It's always been the paper's intention to cleverly use "words and phrases together with shock tactics to get ourselves noticed". Although as current editor Nick Appleyard told me, their only successful clickbait is offline. "The internet has affected sales," he said. "If people want to read news and look at pictures of gorgeous women they can do that [online]. But we're using Twitter and Facebook to let people know we're still out there."
As well as leading the clickbait charge, the paper pre-dated and outlasted the lads' mags boom of the 1990s. Appleyard thinks the reason the Sport has outlived shuttered titles like FHM and Loaded is because those magazines "went down the 'pictures of women with a handful of features' route. We hopefully get the balance right." Still, founder David Sullivan admits that the sex stuff is a big part of the paper's appeal: "Most people bought the Sport for the boobs... we thought-up the wacky headlines to justify the content."
It's this portion of the paper that has inspired plenty of criticism, with commentators pointing out that the Sport is as bad as The Sun's Page 3 when it comes to objectifying women. Appleyard's view is that other publications publish photos of topless celebrities and reality stars "without question" – which doesn't necessarily make it OK. But then third-wave feminists might argue that you can do whatever you want with your body; that being paid to pose nude is your choice entirely.
Of course, many others would disagree.
Whatever your opinion on the matter, it's hard to argue that the paper hasn't been progressive when it comes to sexuality. In 1991, when other tabloids were calling AIDS the "gay plague" and shaming people for coming out, the Sport published a note before launching a new feature in the paper: "Your broadminded Sport believes in sexual equality. That is why we launched a gay section in our lonely hearts column. For whether you are black or white, heterosexual or homosexual, all need friends. And thanks to your Sport, thousands of gay guys and lesbians are no longer lonesome."
That's not to say the paper should be put on any sort of moral pedestal. It does still regularly publish stories about "sex dwarves" (as Appleyard said, completely deadpan, "If people have a sex dwarf story they'll always come to us"). There have been sex dwarf stories revolving around Boris Johnson, Jeremy Corbyn and – hot off the press in last week's issue – Keith Vaz. This, Appleyard told me, is because the paper likes "to take the piss out of people in powerful positions".
So what does the future hold for The Sunday Sport? Over the phone, Neil Wallis – media commentator and former executive editor of the News of the World – said that it's "done very well to get this far", but that he doesn't think it'll "go onto a ripe old age".
Sullivan was more optimistic, suggesting that its unique place on the newsstand should give it some longevity. "We need more humour, because it makes everything acceptable," he said, adding that he wants the paper to embody the spirit of "the old seaside postcards".
To me, that's exactly what it represents: all tacky, low-budget charm, like a 'Spoons or a Wimpy. And like those two great chains, whether you like it or not, you can't deny that The Sunday Sport is a proper British institution.
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