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From AJR,   May 1998  issue

A Promising Rookie Challenges SI   

ESPN launches a sports magazine.


By Bo Smolka
Bo Smolka, a freelancer from Baltimore, Maryland, points his mouse to Broadcast.com to follow the Bison at his alma mater, Bucknell University.     

ESPN launches a sports magazine.

In its infancy, it was a late-night haven solely for diehard sports junkies. Over the last 15 years, though, ESPN has matured into an Emmy Award-winning sports cable network and a multimedia empire, complete with thriving radio and Internet enterprises.

In March, the kingdom grew and a print adventure began with the launch of ESPN Magazine. By flaunting its zippy self — complete with snappy short takes and strong visuals — the hip biweekly is poised to do battle with its well-established brethren, Sports Illustrated and The Sporting News.

ESPN Magazine's kick- off made the biggest splash among sports start-ups since The National, the short-lived daily that debuted in February 1990. ESPN hopes to have better luck than The National, which folded after just 18 months because of mounting financial losses. But the high hopes and heavy hype are just precursors to the coming war for sports addicts' attention.

Sports Illustrated — or SI, as the faithful call it — hasn't fretted much about its past competition. A strong front-runner, SI's 1997 ad revenues topped $549 million; its circulation tops 3 million (The Sporting News' is 515,000).

If the folks at SI feel threatened by the new kid on the block, they aren't showing it. "There is not a whole lot of talk on the editorial floor about ESPN," says Sports Illustrated spokes-man Art Berke. "Our time is being spent focused on Sports Illustrated and making it the best magazine it can be. We feel they won't be able to match what we offer each week."

Still, with ESPN parent Disney's hefty coffers as backing and strong identification with the cable network, ESPN Magazine has far more resources than most start-ups.

"ESPN will promote the living daylights out of it," says Sporting News Editor John Rawlings. "It is a very recognizable brand name with widespread appeal."

John Skipper, who joined ESPN Magazine as general manager from Disney's publishing division, says it will feature short stories with a young, bold tone to complement a visually appealing layout.

"We will have quick stories," he says, "but by no means does that mean we won't do longer stories or investigative stories. We will. We'll pick our spots."

And to attract its target audience among men between the ages of 18 and 34, expect bits about so-called "extreme sports" — like snowboarding — to share space with the major league, big business standards — like baseball, football and hoops.

"I doubt you'll see much figure skating," says Skipper. "I just don't think a 26-year-old male cares too much about Tara Lipinski."

According to Berke, Sports Illustrated's readership in the 18 to 34 age group has increased by 15 percent in the last decade. But Skipper says there's still room for ESPN. "Sports Illustrated is a great product," he explains, "but it's a magazine that the 18 to 34 age group doesn't feel proprietary about. They know it was not made for them, and it was not written for them.

"My sense was that we could capture the market if we wrote something that felt like it was written for them, something that felt younger, felt hipper, felt more vibrant."

?o ESPN tapped staffers from magazines like Rolling Stone and Vibe, which target a similar audience. Of the 70 editorial staffers, about 60 percent came from magazines and at least half a dozen are SI alumni, including Editor in Chief John Papanek, who spent 19 years at Sports Illustrated and another year at Sports Illustrated for Kids, and Executive Editor Steve Wulf, a former SI reporter and editor who joined ESPN from Time.

"We've kept everyone we wanted to keep," Berke says. And Sports Illustrated has welcomed back Frank Deford, a former senior writer who left to edit The National and most recently was with Newsweek.

ESPN also landed Chi-cago Tribune writer Gene Wojciechowski and Sports Illustrated alumnus Curry Kirkpatrick, among others. But some observers say such writers might be stifled by the shorter stories expected to run in ESPN's pages. "They hired people who are very good at 5,000- and 8,000-word stories," says Rawlings. "Some of them don't get to the first comma in 1,200 words."

Wojciechowski says he's comfortable with his move. "If this were The National, I'm not sure I would have done it," he says. "Nothing against The National, but I feel better that this has Disney and ESPN behind it."

Ähanks to ESPN's nightly "SportsCenter," its 24-hour ESPNews network, and its mega-popular SportsZone Web site (plus its competitors), sports news and results are now available almost instantly.

That, Skipper explains, is why ESPN Magazine opted to publish biweekly. "The weekly magazine model was based on a time when it was your primary source of information," Skipper says. "Now, providing you with a story on Thursday for a game that happened on Saturday is old news. Every other week will be a comfortable publishing cycle. It will allow us to step back and get perspective. We'll concentrate on what is going to happen in the next two weeks, taking into account what just happened."

Rawlings, though, says The Sporting News will offer what ESPN cannot. "Their publishing cycle is such that they can't be the kind of information provider that we are," he says.

As ESPN enters the fray, The Sporting News is making an aggressive push of its own. After extensively surveying sports fans, the 112-year-old magazine recently allotted $30 million for a five-year revamp.

"The biggest surprise we found," Rawlings explains, "is that, despite being a weekly publication, there is a huge appetite for statistics. It just seems to be an integral part of what sports is about. These people are voracious information consumers."

én the new format's first month, Rawlings says, newsstand sales of The Sporting News jumped by 37 percent, from 27,000 to 37,000.

Skipper, though, expects ESPN Magazine to surpass The Sporting News in circulation by early next year. ESPN executives hope to double the launch circulation of 300,000 by next January, with a goal of 1.5 million in three years.