Interview: Tony De Bolfo

Interview: Tony De Bolfo, Managing Editor, The SportsVine
By Greg Tingle 27th March 2003

What is the history of The SportsVine?

The SportsVine is Australia's first weekly online subscription news service reporting the industry and business of sport. It boasts 2000 subscribers/triallists and has developed a loyal core of more than 10,000 readers (est.) across the country since its inaugural edition of June 3, 1999.

I have served The SportsVine since day one under its then editorial manager, Pip Bulbeck. Pip later relinquished duties to Andrew Dent, before I took over as editor on the eve of the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games.

In August 2002, the then publisher TSE Group transferred The SportsVine and its assets to myself. My company, The SportsVine pty ltd now manages the news service.

What’s your sports and media background?

For more than 20 years I have reported sport, having previously worked newspapers including the Herald Sun and The Australian. I was a less than handy schoolboy footballer for Parade College and later, for Old Paradians in the Victorian Amateur Football Association.

How and why did you break into journalism?

I had always strived to work as a journalist, preferably in sport, as it was a means of maintaining some direct involvement given my limited sporting ability. I also appreciated the art of writing and as my exam results testified, I knew early on in the piece that I wasn’t going to be a mathematician.

While journalists today require a certain level of tertiary education as a pathway to the profession, it wasn’t the case back in late 1981. That was when my dear mother, Maureen, referred me to an advertisement in The Age newspaper seeking a copy boy to serve at Melbourne’s Truth newspaper under the editorship of the late Owen Thompson. Having unsuccessfully endeavoured to secure employment at both The Age and the then Sun newspapers at that time, I acted on Mum’s efforts and was fortunately rewarded with the position. Truth boasted a relatively small newspaper office and as such was very much hands on. And, after a six-month tenure as copy boy, I was subsequently promoted to cadet journalist which, in turn led to wonderful experiences reporting news firstly in the courts and, later, sports.

What are the aims and objectives of The SportsVine?

The editorial team's mandate is to provide the latest key business developments in sport within Australia and around the world. As such, The SportsVine has trumpeted a myriad of national and international exclusive reports, not the least of which was UK firm Sportsworld's interest in acquiring control of the NBL (The SportsVine, May 31, 2001) and Netball Australia president Sue Taylor's formal proposal that pregnant women be banned from participating in elite competition (The Sports Vine, June 7, 2001).

The SportsVine has, in sporting parlance, "done the hard yards". Its brand is now widely-known and respected amongst key sports industry sectors, including government sports departments both state and federal, sporting authorities, institutions and non-profit organisations, as well as corporate entities boasting a vested interest in sport through sponsorship.

Who are some of your biggest clients, and what were some of the key elements that saw them come aboard?

The SportsVine’s subscribers include the Australian Sports Commission, Australian Institute of Sport, Australian Grand Prix Corporation, Athletics Australia, Netball Australia, Softball Australia, Melbourne Cricket Club, Carlton Football Club, adidas Salomon, IMG, Fox Sports, Telstra Stadium, Suncorp Stadium, Freehills, Lander & Rogers, HOK + LOBB Sport and networks Nine and Ten.  We too have an extensive range of local and community-based sports organisations that are keen to be kept abreast of the issues facing sports business today.

How has the sports reporting and publishing business changed over years, and who do you see the relationship between online and offline media? 

As sport’s profile has steadily increased, so too has sports coverage, to the point that, to quote HG Nelson, too much sport is barely enough. But in many respects it has reached saturation level, and in many respects I am glad I am no longer reporting on-field happenings for mainstream media given the cut-throat nature of the profession.

For example, when I was employed by The Sun back in 1989, journalists all worked towards a common cause. It mattered not as to whose byline appeared as long as the newspaper got the story. Today journalists compete against eachother within the organisation, and there is no level playing field. Hidden agendas often dictate where, when and how stories appear, and nepotism is rife.

Having covered team sports for two decades, I left mainstream print media somewhat disillusioned as it was my firm belief that the team ethic no longer applied and people put their own selfish interests before those of the team.

What were the challenges when you took on the position of editor, just prior to the 2000 Sydney Olympics?

It’s funny, I took on the editorship of The SportsVine with a great deal of trepidation as it was barely a fortnight before the Games and I honestly felt I’d been thrown in at the deep end. In retrospect the timing couldn’t have been better, as all the big business deals for the Games had already been well and truly locked away, and so I was eased into the editorship of the sports business service.

Unfortunately, elevation to the editorship meant I wasn’t able to attend the Games, but now that The SportsVine has established itself three years on, it’s been well worth the sacrifice.

Why do you think Melbourne generally gets more live crowds than Sydney?

I don’t think it’s a secret that Melbourne crowds are truly passionate about most sports, particularly those involving the best. Melburnians of my generation and those older and younger have been weaned on sport. In my case I’ve been a lifelong supporter of AFL club, Carlton, having been indoctrinated as an eight year-old by my father – who in turn was indoctrinated by his father – an Italian migrant who first settled in Carlton and first saw the Blues play in 1930.

The other factor is location, location, location. After all, the MCG, Rod Laver Arena, Telstra Dome and the Glasshouse are all within walking distance of the Melbourne CBD, and all are truly user-friendly amenities.

How exactly are people becoming aware of your service?

As we are only a small news service with a tight budget we cannot outlay a lot of money on sponsorship or advertising. To that end we’re totally reliant on word of mouth and thankfully enough people are thinking highly enough of The SportsVine to seek us out. That is solely based on what we’ve done in the four years since The SportsVine was established and for that we’re truly grateful.

What is your unique value proposition?

We’d like to think that The SportsVine can provide organisations with relevant business intelligence – that they can in turn act upon to further their own business interests.

How has your online presence helped you?

Whereas The SportsVine was and still is a weekly news service, the new website also allows us to get the message out there to a broader audience more quickly.

What’s the most interesting story you have ever reported on?

I would have to say it was breaking the news of former world featherweight champion John Famechon’s horrific road accident in Sydney. “Fammo”, who was always punctual, failed to front at the Preston Town Hall to present the John Famechon Medal to the best amateur boxer this particular evening, and the alarm bells rang. After making a few inquiries I discovered that “Fammo” was fighting for his life in a Sydney hospital, and no-one knew who he was. This was because that “Fammo” was out jogging in his tracksuit when a car hit him, and at that critical moment carried no identification.

The story was a world exclusive, but the then editor of the newspaper for which I reported wasn’t a sports enthusiast and news of “Fammo’s” accident was buried on page two.

What responsibilities do you think professional athletes have to the community and as role models?

I do think we demand an awful lot of our athletes, particularly those in non-team sports, but society now demands certain standards both on and off the field to which all athletes must abide.

Do you think there is too much pressure on Australian athletes in regard to what they do off the field?


How do you think the credibility of sport has suffered in the past few years, and what do you think the solution is?

I recall the Australian Sports Commission’s CEO Mark Peters, in an interview published in The SportsVine last December, stating that one of the gravest issues facing sport was the issue of credibility, given the incidence of abuse of umpires and officials, drugs, flagrant club breaches of salary caps, etc. To their credit, national sporting organisations are leading the way by putting structures in place to safeguard sport’s future against such practices.

What journalists do you respect the most?

I envy the great feature writers, most notably Geoff Wells, Les Carlyon and Garry Linnell.

Have you ever received a death threat?

Yes, although I would like to think it was an idle threat. Without going into too much detail, I had it on good authority some years ago that an athlete implicated in a drugs-in-sport scandal actually had the drug illegally injected by his mother, a registered nurse. When the athlete later discovered I’d contacted his mother with the allegation, he threatened to kill me. I’m still not sure if he was joking.

What’s the wisest piece of advice you have ever been given?

I have to commend the then news editor of Truth, Geoff “Hawkeye” Hawthorne, for a sound piece of advice he gave me more than 20 years ago. It came after I covered a court case involving a baby and while I cannot recall the specific details of the case, I do remember the word “bassinette” being mentioned in evidence.

To cut a long story short, on returning to the office and sitting down to write the story I remember striking a snag with the word and asking Geoff how to spell bassinette?

“C-O-T,” came the reply. “Keep it simple.”

I’ve never forgotten that – particularly now, where online news definitely demands a greater economy of words.

What words of advice would you give an athlete looking to secure sponsorship?

The athlete should get out there and seek a person-to-person meeting with the prospective sponsor (as the diver, Dean Pullar, has done to great effect). Further, if the athlete participated in Sydney 2000 he or she ought to target an Olympic sponsor, reminding that if he or she was thought of highly enough to be sponsored during the Games then he or she should be financially supported out of competition when it’s needed most.

While on the subject, I have to commend Adam Gilchrist for his subtle useage of orange keeper’s gloves, orange batting gloves and orange sunglasses during the recent World Cup of cricket in South Africa. Gilchrist boasts an extremely lucrative arrangement with Orange and while the World Cup was stringently policed against ambush marketing, the governing authority could hardly ban a colour – even though the colour in this particular instance represented the brand that sponsors Gilchrist.

What’s the best and worst example of sportsmanship you have seen or covered?

The Landy-Clarke incident at Olympic Park, where John Landy stopped to help Ron Clarke to his feet in a mid-race stumble, remains the best example of sportsmanship 50 years after it took place. It’s more difficult to pinpoint the worst example, although the underarm incident at the MCG earns a dishonourable mention. 

How do you manage the balance between sports reporting and having a social life, or do you find there is a certain crossover?

As The SportsVine is distributed of a Thursday morning, Thursdays and Fridays tend to be the less frenetic days of the week – which is perfect leading into the weekend. In recent years I have taken advantage of these two days to complete my writings of books recently-released by Harper CollinsPublishers. The first book, Silvagni, covers the career of the recently-retired Carlton full-back, Stephen Silvagni. The second, In Search of Kings, deals with what became of 105 passengers who, together with my grandfather and his two brothers, disembarked the passenger ship Re d’Italia (King of Italy) in Melbourne from Italy on Thursday, November 24, 1927. This book was launched on November 24 2002 – 75 years to the day that the ship arrived – with more than 220 people, many of them descendants of the passengers themselves, in attendance.

Now that the books have been published, I can devote more time to helping my wife Kate raise our two children Carlo (now 21 months) and Sofia (four weeks old) and working from home certainly helps in this respect.

Who is the most controversial figure in Australian sport, and why?

It’s got to be Shane Warne. Great cricketer. Not so great diplomat.

Do you think women should be barred from any sport?


Should surfing be included as a sport in the modern Olympic Games, and why?

No. In my opinion, the Olympics ought to involve those sports that would otherwise not receive coverage, although I suspect the television networks would beg to differ.

What are the greatest sports moments of all time?

For mine, the greatest sporting performances are those against all odds. Carlton’s one-point victory over Essendon in the ’99 Preliminary Final was one of them and I was at the MCG for that one. Another was the Ali-Foreman fight in Zaire in 1974, which was screened live on television in the days prior to pay-for-view. I must have been in year eight at the time when the then science teacher, Ian Bibby called for silence and said; “Boys, there will be no lessons today. We’re all going to watch the heavyweight championship of the world”. God Bless him.

What are your future goals?

To continue to strike the right balance between work and family, because family is the most important thing.


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