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ESPN — The Magazine

ESPN took TV sports to all new heights. Now it hopes to do the same as it enters the playing field long dominated by Sports Illustrated.

By Bill Beuttler (American Way, June 15, 1998)

Why another sports magazine? John Papanek has heard the question before, of course. Vice-president and editor in chief of the new ESPN The Magazine, Papanek rises from the meeting table in his corner office to fetch the hand-held computer gizmo on which he stores the pertinent figures.

“There are 33 million men, 18 to 35, in this country,” he says, returning to his seat. “Twenty-four million of them identify themselves as sports fans. Fourteen and a half million of them don’t read another sports magazine.” Papanek glances up from the tiny computer screen. “That’s why. There’s a huge population of sports fans, and it’s growing all the time. So the question of, ‘Why another sports magazine?,’ I think, is about the dumbest question that a human being could possibly ask. Sports is something there is an insatiable appetite and passion for, and the market for it is getting bigger all the time.”

No doubt about it. “America,” as President Clinton himself put it this past April in an ESPN-televised discussion on the role of race in sports, “rightly or wrongly, is a sports-crazy country.” This fact is especially on the minds of magazine publishers, to judge by the flurry of recent sports start-ups.

Condé Nast Sports for Women made its $40 million debut in October. (Just four months later, the company bought out rival Women’s Sports + Fitness, which it renamed Condé Nast Women’s Sports & Fitness.) Sports Illustrated offered two test issues of its Women/Sport spinoff in 1997, and is now considering making it a monthly magazine sometime in 1999. And Street & Smith’s SportsBusiness Journal was introduced by American City Business Journals in late April. Meanwhile, venerable Sports Afield has begun adding features on subjects such as mountain biking to its established mix of hunting and fishing articles, and National Geographic is plotting an adventure-travel magazine to compete with other outdoor titles such as Outside and Men’s Journal.

But all that action is just on the fringes. The real money is in men’s spectator sports, where the 3.15 million-circulation Sports Illustrated has long dominated print coverage, and where the enormous audiences generated by ESPN’s various cable-television channels and its radio and Internet offshoots (ESPN, ESPN2, ESPNEWS, ESPN Classic Sports Network, ESPN SportsZone, ESPN Radio) have established the 18-year-old network as an even more recognized brand name than Sports Illustrated itself. The spectator-sports world is so big and profitable, in fact, that perennial print also-rans such as Sport, Inside Sports, and The Sporting News have been able to maintain circulations of 750,000, 725,000, and 650,000, respectively.

That is the milieu into which Papanek’s magazine was launched this past March with a circulation of 350,000. The company plans for that number to jump to 500,000 in September, 700,000 in January 1999, and 1 million by 2000. ESPN’s principal corporate parent, The Walt Disney Company (Disney owns 80 percent of ESPN; the Hearst Corporation owns the other 20 percent), is banking on those numbers.

ESPN The Magazine is not the first big-money, high-profile challenge to Sports Illustrated’s hegemony in the world of print sports coverage. In 1979, Newsweek debuted the original version of Inside Sports under the editorship of John Walsh — the same John Walsh who, as ESPN’s executive editor, has since made SportsCenter a phenomenal cable-TV success and is now helping oversee ESPN The Magazine. In 1989, writer Frank Deford left Sports Illustrated to start the sports daily The National. Both publications were critical successes but commercial failures: Newsweek sold off Inside Sports to Active Markets in 1981, and The National was shut down by its Mexican parent, Televisa, in 1991.

But ESPN The Magazine has some important arrows in its quiver that its predecessors lacked, foremost among them ESPN’s name-brand recognition for quality sports coverage, its ability to advertise heavily on the Disney-controlled ABC and ESPN networks, and Disney’s apparent willingness to absorb heavy losses while the magazine goes about establishing itself (the company is reportedly prepared to sink as much as $50 million to $100 million into getting ESPN The Magazine launched and profitable.)

ESPN wants to separate its magazine from Sports Illustrated by aiming for a younger audience. The median age for Sports Illustrated readers is 36; ESPN is targeting “young, active men” between the ages of 18 and 34. It is doing so with an oversize format borrowed from Rolling Stone and Spin, splashy graphics and photography, shorter articles, and the upbeat but attitude-laced enthusiasm that already thrives on the network.

“One of the reasons that I came over is that I felt that Sports Illustrated was ignoring a generation of sports fans,” says Steve Wulf, a veteran of both Sports Illustrated and Time magazines, and now executive editor at ESPN The Magazine. “They were going directly from SI for Kids to Golf Plus.” Papanek puts the same notion thus: “Nothing’s wrong with Sports Illustrated whatsoever. What’s wrong with your father’s Oldsmobile or the clothes in your father’s closet? Nothing’s wrong with them at all ... . [But] why shouldn’t you have something that speaks your language, conveys your attitude, reflects your sensibilities and your style? Why should there be only one way to present something to the world?”

Skeptics note than many of ESPN The Magazine’s key writers and editors, including Papanek and Wulf, are themselves in their forties. So how do they know that what they’re serving their twentysomething readership isn’t merely what old guys think young guys want? And who says that young men perceive sports all that differently from the way others do anyway? “I think that the major sports — which is what, after all, both Sports Illustrated and ESPN magazine are covering — have a high degree of commonality of interest, irrespective of age,” says Frank Deford, who was ready to renew a writing contract with Newsweek when both ESPN and Sports Illustrated same calling; he signed with SI. “Sports is one of the more common experiences in our lives — the grandfather can go to the baseball game with the grandson, or the granddaughter, and enjoy it very much the same.”

The new magazine’s emphasis on shorter articles also draws mixed opinions. “One of the things I came to realize at Time magazine,” says Wulf, “was that you could write a little gem, a short, one-page story, that was every bit as complex and satisfying as a longer piece.”

But others believe that long stories, when they’re well-crafted and deep, should be an essential element of a magazine. “The argument is that people don’t want to read now,” says Deford. “They say that, but when they do read something at length and with depth, they remember it. Those are what make the magazine special.”

Maybe so, but Papanek still intends to keep the writing in his magazine concise. “I don’t think you’re going to see 10,000-word pieces in ESPN The Magazine,” he says. “I only have half as many issues in a year as Sports Illustrated has — they have many more pages to fill.”

Half as many issues because ESPN is being published only every other week. That schedule is partly based on the magazine’s assumption that it doesn’t need to provide game coverage because its readers will get game results from television and other sources. So whereas Sports Illustrated has had to worry in recent decades about maintaining its relevance in a sports world covered increasingly on television, ESPN The Magazine is content to exist more as a supplement to the tube.

And because of this, the magazine’s editors are able to gear each issue toward what’s coming up instead of what’s already happened. Papanek sees this as an important plus. “I really believe that one of the fundamental characteristics about sports fans is that as soon as the game’s over, they’re thinking about the next game.”

But enough theory. What counts is how ESPN The Magazine comes across in practice. The magazine’s baseball-preview issue — because a baseball preview is an important piece of housekeeping that any sports magazine needs to do annually — is a good place to look. ESPN The Magazine’s predictions and roster updates were smart, lively, and colorful. More impressive still was a package of short, thematically linked features on the growing influence of Latin America on Major League Baseball.

But the baseball-preview stuff didn’t overwhelm the issue (the magazine’s second). In fact, Michael Jordan was featured on the cover, with a story that looked forward to the NBA playoffs while exploiting Jordan’s four-year refusal to speak to Sports Illustrated in response to its disparaging “Bag it, Michael!” cover story on his short-lived baseball career (a stance Jordan appears to have softened, having cooperated for an SI cover story in May called “Behind the Scenes with Michael Jordan and the Bulls”). The photography throughout the preview issue was eye-catching, and the writing was lively and concise, just as advertised.

Top editors at SI wouldn’t comment on what they think of ESPN The Magazine’s first several efforts, but Papanek is happy to toot his magazine’s horn. He’s plenty proud of the baseball-preview issue, for instance. “There are 10 or 11 stories in issue two that are just about as good as stories get,” he says.

But more than the stories and the writers and the photography, the overriding factor determining whether ESPN The Magazine succeeds or not will likely be whether Disney and ESPN are willing to dedicate the time and money that are required to successfully start a sports publication. The National and the original Inside Sports both died quick deaths when their owners became impatient over heavy losses. And Sports Illustrated itself lost upward of $30 million over 10 years in the Fifties and early Sixties before it finally turned profitable.

John Papanek, for one, is convinced that his corporate backers will stay the course. “ESPN is doing four networks, and many millions of more homes overseas,” he says. “You look at the expansion of the ESPN brand into theme parks and restaurants, and you look at the investment by The Disney Company ... . There’s no doubt whatsoever that when Disney commits to an endeavor like a magazine, they’re going to stand behind it. There’s no reason for them not to.”

Bill Beuttler has written about sports for Men’s Journal and Sports Illustrated.

© Bill Beuttler